A short excerpt from Baked In by Alex Bogusky and John Winsor:
“Marketing people like to say that product is more than a physical object. As in a cup of coffee is more than a cup of coffee. A pair of sunglasses is more than a pair of sunglasses. A car is more than a car. There’s a story that the car represents. A promise. And that’s what we’re really selling. That’s what the brand is made of.
“Sometimes this story is true, and sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not. Sometimes a car really is just a car. So the process of marketing is to uncover, coax out, and tell a story that is buried inside the product. Most of the time a story can be found, but too often the story is only tenuously connected to the product, and in some cases the story is just wishful thinking on the part of all the marketers around the table. Perhaps the product was created without a clear narrative and audience in mind or is just another me-too product with nothing new to offer. What happens next is too often the sad state of affairs that passes for marketing. A battery of focus groups, ethnographies, brain scans, and more are arranged to go forth and uncover what the consumer wishes the product really was. Then the marketing budget is spent telling lies about the product.”
It’s a question many marketers face: what do you do when your product isn’t perfect? Even worse, what do you do when your product has characteristics that make people turn up their noses? Or opt for a competitor?
Answer: Use a story that turns the negative into a positive.
I’ve written before about Buckley’s Cough Syrup. It has a nasty taste that consumers don’t like. Once you’ve tried it, it’s hard to want to use it again. And that drives down repeat purchases. So Buckley’s story is that something that tastes this bad, must work. Read more here. It’s a great story and it works.
This past week I saw another example from copywriter Bob Bly‘s newsletter (click here to subscribe). It perfectly illustrates the idea of taking a negative “feature” and turning it to a positive:
Legendary adman James Webb Young, who started selling fruit by mail around the same time that Harry & David did, tells the story of an apple-growing season where he was nearly ruined.
Violent hail storms bombarded his apple trees with ice pellets, causing bruising and pock marks.
He feared massive complaints and returns if he shipped the bruised fruit to his mail order apple buyers. But if he didn’t ship the damaged apples, he would have to refund all the orders, and his mail order business would be ruined.
The apples were damaged only cosmetically. The hail had pockmarked the skin, but this did not affect the flavor or freshness.
Young went ahead and filled his orders with the pockmarked apples, and in each box shipped, enclosed a preprinted card that read as follows (I am paraphrasing):
“Note the pockmarks on some of these apples. This is proof that they are grown at a high mountain altitude, where the same extreme cold that causes sudden hailstorms also firms the flesh and increases the natural sugars, making the apples even sweeter.”
According to Young, not a single order was returned. In fact, when orders came in for next year, many order forms had handwritten notes that said, “Pockmarked apples if available; otherwise, the regular kind.”
Young’s story proves what experienced marketers know: Often, by being truthful about your weaknesses and flaws, you can gain substantial credibility with your buyer, increasing loyalty, sales, and customer satisfaction.
Do you have a product weakness that can be turned into a positive with the right story?
This small company is doing a lot of things right.
The cycling world is notoriously competitive. The market leader, Trek, sucks up a lot of media attention (thanks in no small part to Lance Armstrong). And there are literally dozens of competitors fighting for the rest of the market: BMC, Felt, Colnago, Schwinn, Cannondale, Ibis, Klein, Lemond, Time, Merckx, Cervelo, Orbea, Pinarello, Scott, Seven, Litespeed, Specialized, Bianchi—the list goes on.
So how does a new start up compete against all these established brands?
Here are a few of the things Madsen is doing right:
Start with a remarkable product.
Rather than creating yet another look-alike road or mountain bike, company founder Jared Madsen focuses on an entirely different category—the cargo bike or bucket bike.
It looks totally different. Almost unexpected.
There’s a good chance you’ve never seen anything like it.
You want to say to the person next to you, “Check that out.”
It’s not just the look. Jared has introduced a lot of unique features you won’t find on other bikes—a massive bucket for hauling groceries or kids, an attached, automatic lock so you never worry about security, and originally designed components like the long stem that helps the bike ride more comfortably.
In part, because of its unique design, Madsen cycles has been featured in several publications, most recently Outside Magazine.
It’s a truly remarkable bike.
Find a new, unique market.
Madsen Cycles doesn’t make bikes for hard-core racers or mountain bikers. Instead, this is a commuter bike. It’s the perfect bike for a mom running errands around the neighborhood or a dad wanting to take the kids out for a spin.
That doesn’t mean that hard-core bikers don’t want one. They do, as a second bike to tool around town on.
Madsen Cycles makes bikes, but they don’t worry too much about Trek and other big manufacturers (yet) because they don’t make those bikes.
Madsen Cycles has a great story.
Jared, a bike lover and engineer, had the idea that his bike could be doing more. After seeing European bikes with a large bucket on the front, he bolted a wheel-barrow bucket to the front of his bike and started riding around the neighborhood. But he didn’t like the awkward center of gravity, so he moved the bucket to the back and started building prototypes. It didn’t take long before other people wanted one and soon he was making them for everyone. Read more here.
Madsen uses a very consistent look and feel.
Check out Madsen’s website. If you knew nothing else about the company, you would likely assume that this is a much bigger business that it actually is.
They’ve invested in a professional design for their logo and website and use a professional photographer to take pictures of their products. They’ve also invested a lot of time and effort into creating an attractive booth for use at tradeshows and expos. They could have skimped on these things and gotten by, but the attention to detail shows through in the quality of their communications.
The result is a brand identity that is consistent and likeable.
They use social media to get the word out.
Madsen can’t afford a full-page placement in Bicycling Magazine, and it’s doubtful that their customers read Bicycling anyway.
Instead, they rely on word of mouth from their customers. And they seed those conversations with updates and videos on their blog, at YouTube, on Facebook and Twitter.
Their videos smartly feature Jared talking about what makes a Madsen different and point out many of the unique features you get with a Madsen Cycle that other bikes don’t offer. They are simple and effective. Here’s an example (more here).
Madsen has also sponsored several events to show-off their products and introduce their bikes to new audiences.
The Madsen Cycle Link Contest
To encourage their customers and fans to spread the word about Madsen, they run a contest every year. When fans post a new link from their websites or blogs back to Madsen, they are entered to win a new bike (they’re not exactly cheap, so this is a great prize). Not only does this spread the word, but it provides link-backs to their website which helps with their organic search rank. The company even provides several banner ads of different sizes to make it as easy as possible for customers to spread the word. Like this one:
Some day Madsen Cycles may be a big company with all the advantages of big budgets, lots of employees, and operational efficiencies. But for now, they’re a small company doing a lot of things right.
What can you take from their experience?
Full disclosure: Though I haven’t done any work for Madsen Cycles, I consider Jared a friend and have had the pleasure of riding along side him (or more truthfully, way behind him) on several morning rides. And I want a Madsen.
When it comes to telling a brand story consistently over time (and by time we mean decades), very few brands do it as well as Nike. Their most recent ad, “Say Boom” is just another chapter in a compelling brand story about the joy of sports and game changing moments. Check it out: