• May 1, 2016
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Marketing Is Magic!

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For a long time now, I've wanted to write here about the dark side of marketing, but never followed through. Unless I have; I've had this page for nearly 10 years, and I honestly can't remember everything I've done with it. If the editors had a similarly lax memory, I could repackage old articles and get paid twice for no extra work. Interestingly enough, that sort of repackaging is the dark side I've wanted to write about, so here goes.

It's been a while since I've referenced Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strip in my column, but one strip in particular, from October 7, 1994, springs to mind. (It's archived free online if you want to see it.) The basic idea is the Pointy-Haired Boss thinks that all that marketers do is segmentation and focus groups. Those two behaviors combine to create one of the business tropes I hate most: selling the same product at different prices to different groups and hoping nobody notices. When Homer Simpson tours the Duff Beer factory and vats of Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry are being filled from the same pipe, it is this concept in action.

Repackaging doesn't happen as much as it used to, mainly because consumers have caught on. Slapping a pink For Her! label on something doesn't make it any more useful for women. In some cases, to be fair, it is a different product. Color isn’t the only thing separating men's and women’s razors; there's a difference in the angle of the head based on what parts are likely to be shaved. The products aren't exactly the same, though one can do the job of the other. Shave creams and gels, largely identical in composition and function, tend to have distinct scents so that we smell like the gender stereotype we prefer. Most of the other additives are meaningless but can jack up the price—usually of the women's products.

But what about when, like Duff, it really is the same product? An example hits close to home. When I was a child, I got a lot of migraines, which are to regular headaches what Ebola is to a nosebleed. Fortunately, I outgrew the migraines, and now for my regular headaches nothing works better than Excedrin. Some years ago, Excedrin started selling pills targeted for particular ailments, including migraines. "Too late for me," I thought, "but at least people have this now." Then I looked at a box. Exact same formulation as regular Excedrin. Same active ingredients in the same amounts, and the same inert ingredients. The only differences were the color of the pill bottle—and when you have a migraine, using your eyes isn't recommended—and the higher price.

Fortunately, it's harder to pull off this kind of trickery in the CRM world. At various times, every major cloud vendor has been accused of repackaging its enterprise product, minus a few frills, as a midmarket or SMB suite. Sometimes it's the other way around, with smaller-biz solutions given a fresh coat of paint and declared enterprise-ready. Many such accusations come from competing vendors and should be taken with at least a grain of salt, but now and then it turns out to be true.

Why is any of this a problem, if the product can perform as advertised? I think it's a remnant of the patent-medicine era, when so-called snake oil salesmen peddled various cure-alls that were typically just water or alcohol laced with laudanum, cocaine, or something truly bizarre (or nothing at all). We don't trust anything that claims to do too many things well (Shimmer—it's a dessert topping AND a floor wax!)—and have grown to look at overspecialization as a positive trait. When we can't (or choose not to) make something new to address a niche, it's easier to "create" a new product that is identical to the old than it is to change the branding and include new capabilities.

I don't know what the solution is, or if we even need one. But I'll have R&D work on something, just in case. Until then, keep reading those pill bottle labels.


Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, now available in maximum strength, non-drowsy, and unscented. Extra charges may apply. Peruse our product line at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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