Don't fall for the two costliest myths in advertising

Two sentences have probably cost business owners wanting to sell their products or services more than any other ever written. Which is surprising, because neither came from an advertising or marketing expert.

One was from a movie, the other from a famous American author – but both lead to lost money, wasted time, frustration and dashed hopes.

The Field of Dreams fallacy

It’s been a long time since 1989, when “Field of Dreams” first hit movie theaters, but one line from it has lingered on, in slightly distorted form, to many would-be marketers’ cost and regret:

If you build it, they will come.


They won’t.

Of course, if you happen to own one of the lunch trucks that park midday Monday through Friday on Main Street in the middle of the VCU campus, customers will come. Same for a brick-and-mortar retail business in one of the few parts of Richmond that has high pedestrian traffic. But for everybody else, location location location alone won’t cut it.

This is why, when fledgling businesses pour their hearts and souls and who knows how many bucks into building websites, they’re dismayed to see that hits and sales by the millions don’t automatically come pouring in.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with building websites. What is wrong is expecting yours to be in and of itself a sales magnet among the billions of others out there.

So when you plan your website budget – or your budget for a physical location – add a healthy line item for sponsored links, optimization, even online and traditional media to let people know you exist. An important part of “building it” is building awareness that you exist and a persuasive sales rationale for why they should come.

The better mousetrap fallacy

In the late Nineteenth Century, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote

If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though a man build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

That sounds better in theory than it works in practice.

From Betamax video cassettes to the I-895 toll road from the Petersburg area to Richmond International, the annals of American marketing are littered with the wreckage of failed products that someone thought were better.

Including mousetraps. Though the U.S. Patent Office has some 4,400 mousetrap patents on file, the spring-loaded model first introduced in 1908 remains the market favorite.

So before you start marketing a “better” product, there are some things you should think about:

  • Have you made people aware it even exists? Consumers don’t  beat paths to unknown destinations, especially if they don’t know whether the path’s worth beating.
  • Are you solving a nonexistent problem? If people don’t have mice problems, they don’t need mousetraps, better or otherwise.
  • Do people know they have a problem your better product can solve? If they have mice but don’t know it,  they won’t be in the market for mousetraps. While it’s true that advertising can create needs – probably the most famous being the made-up word “halitosis” to create a need for mouthwash – it’s also true that doing so takes lots of time and money. More time and money than a local Richmond marketer can afford to invest.
  • Do consumers have the same definition of “better” as you do? For my money, the Mac Operating System beats Windows hands-down, yet Apple has enjoyed at most a 12% share of the computer market. This is because for most consumers, Windows’ availability on many different brands of hardware outweighed the Mac OS’s simpler and more stable operation.
  • Is the path too hard to beat? A body of data going back more than a century to the early days of direct response marketing (that’s still true today) shows that the harder you make it for consumers sold on your product to actually buy it – the more and longer steps they have to go through – the more sales attrition you’ll suffer. So make the path a smoothly paved highway, with no traffic lights. If you can’t get wide distribution in stores, then sell by toll-free number or online purchase. If your better product requires some setup or installation, make sure you have a clear, simple, foolproof owners’ manual – or, since most people don’t read them anyhow, offer free professional installation.
  • Is the path worth beating? The more people value your better product, the more effort they’ll be willing to invest in buying it. So make sure that instead of just describing your better product’s self-evident (to you, at least) superiorities, create sales materials the persuade prospects of its value to them. And that value may have nothing to do with your better product’s functional features. You need to make the case for its value in the consumer’s real-life context – and that context may include seemingly extraneous criteria like whether it comes in designer colors, whether it fits standard shelf sizes, whether it’s compatible with other things it’s supposed to work with, etc.

You invest a ton of effort in researching and developing new products. Doesn’t it make sense to invest a little in researching your target audience to learn their wants, needs and perceptions?

It can make the difference between your better product ending up on Emerson’s beaten path or Robert Frost’s road less traveled.