To sell a product, tell a story!

I’ve been called many things in my life, but Gourmet simply isn’t an attribute that anyone would ever pin on me.

Why? Well, that’s simple: Of the foods I like, I like them all nearly equally. For some reason that a gourmet would never understand, there’s very little difference between a (really well made) PB&J at home and a really unique and terrific experience at one of San Francisco’s fabulous restaraunts.

My wife Elizabeth and son John are much the same, though Elizabeth has far more health cred than I do, and John, who enjoys and prefers spectacularly unhealthy food as much as I do, is fortunately largely fed a controlled diet by Elizabeth.

A few months ago, Elizabeth announced that she had some healthy frozen food in the freezer and she’d like my help ‘cooking’ it. This was weird because we rarely cook. Elizabeth and John eat healthy fresh meals while I largely eat something closer to the aforementioned PB&J.

The result of this bit of kitchen effort was a resounding success — so much so that I’ve mentioned it to several people. “It’s *easy*”, I’ve said, “there are 3 steps, Elizabeth says it’s healthy, and it really tastes great!”

We’ve had these for dinner occasionally ever since, and they’ve continued to result in nice tasty meals, prepared quickly and easily, and continue to impress my radically inferior command of the kitchen with their 3 step simplicity.

Tonight, it turns out, was frozen meal night once again. Elizabeth had already started preparing the meal, so I glanced over the instructions to see where I could help out.

Well, imagine my surprise when it dawned on my that’d I’d been getting duped the entire time!

Check out these instructions:

"A photo of the packaging"

Question: How many steps are there in step 1? :-)

I’m going to make a wild guess: The vast majority of the audience that will read this are technical people. Being a technical person myself and spending as much time with technical people as I have in my life, I’m confident that many readers will expect me to begin a rant on how wrong, unfair, and deceitful this is.

Why? Because, again in my experience, most young technical people have a distaste for marketing and sales activities. They believe that they should make their decisions internally, without any outside interference, particularly obviously biased sources of information such as marketing materials and sales pitches. I’ve felt this way most of my life.

But, this silly little frozen meal has allowed me to see this from a different angle! If the packaging had enumerated the 12 (or so) steps required to actually prepare the meal, I don’t think Elizabeth would have picked them up to begin with.

If I’m wrong about that, I assure you that I would not have been as eager to help out. And I absolutely GUARANTEE YOU that I wouldn’t have told a bunch of people how easy it was to make.

So, while some readers may consider this wrong or deceitful, let me explain why I think it’s actually pretty cool: The packaging isn’t dishonest, as it does clearly state all the individual steps. But it also groups those many simple instructions into 3 larger steps, with step 1 clearly being the most difficult, and progressing onto a simpler step 2, and finishing with a really simple final step 3. I think that this progression gives the consumer a real sense of comfort. It makes the steps fly right by, since it’s obvious that once you’ve finished step 1, you’ve already completed most of the work.

But that’s the technical description of the sleight of hand that those nasty marketing folks used to deceive me, right?

Not for me. Instead, I see it as effective communication of the real message they were trying to get across: THIS IS EASY! Of course, everything is supposed to be easy these days — it seems that Apple computer is turning itself into one of the most powerful companies on the planet by making things easy!

But, making these meals really *is* easy, and communicated this way is, IMHO, far more effective than simply screaming “THIS IS EASY!” on the packaging.

I suppose my point is, itself, fairly simple: When it’s time to market and sell your product, it’s really important to find the best way to communicate about the product. Listing a long and detailed bunch of features really doesn’t cut it anymore; I’d like to think the days of feature checklists are behind us.

Instead of that, tell a story, and tell nearly the same story each and every time, but throw a bit of Darwinism into the mix, testing slightly different variations each time. Do this face to face with customers, and learn how to best communicate how your product will benefit them. When you get it right, you’ll see it in their faces.

Sometimes this survival of the fittest will make the difference, but sometimes it’s even simpler than that. A bad name can really take the wind out of your sales. A stellar example of this is an early product offering we had, semi-dedicated environments. We knew that customers wanted their own databases, and better isolation from other customers, so we created a product to fit their needs. Oddly, it was extremely difficult to sell, until we finally figured out what was wrong.

Would you guess our pricing was too high? From the input we received, and the intelligence we could gather on our competitors, that didn’t seem to be the problem at all. The fix, it turned out, was to rename the product. Instead of the glass-is-half-empty “semi-dedicated environment” we began calling them the glass-is-half-full “fractional clusters.” An identical technical product, with a better name, sold better.

“A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet?” Absolutely, categorically, spectacularly not true. :-)

Why? I believe it’s because it told a better story — the customer could see themselves moving from slices, to a fractional cluster, then on to a dedicated cluster. They could, that is, AFTER we changed the name.

So, experiment a little. Don’t get too attached to early decisions, particularly so when your guts tell you something is amiss. Mostly importantly, stay focused on communicating a story that can be digested and understood by your customers.

If you’ve read it this far, I thank you for your attention, and request your indulgence in commenting. Did telling this as a story help to sell you on the ideas described? :-)


P.S. Enjoy!

P.P.S. For those of you who want more details on these meals, Associated Content has a video review, which backs up my statement that these means are really good, and fairly healthy as well.

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