There is a view in the business world that “a great salesperson can sell ice to an Eskimo.” I used to think this was absurd, until I found myself sipping water from a bottle of Fiji. With a little research, I realized that this $15 billion industry known as “bottled water” didn’t even exist 20 years ago. 20 years ago, everyone was content with water that flowed from their faucets and drinking fountains, but all of the sudden we have a preference for water that travels more than 5,000 miles to reach our hands and we’re willing to pay hundreds of times more than a glass of water from a reverse osmosis filtered faucet (equally good in quality).
Wow! I’m an Eskimo buying ice.
The business wisdom that “a great salesperson can sell ice to an Eskimo” speaks the truth. Here is a product that requires zero R & D. Any one of us could make equally good bottled water in our own homes as the multi-billion dollar counterparts and yet a company out in Fiji or France or half-way across the country is successfully selling this product to us. How can that be?
An even worse example of this type of successful salesmanship is of the millions and millions of people (myself included) who have bought PCs that were preloaded with Microsoft Windows when they already had a license of Windows they intended to use. In fact, most software developers I know wipe out the operating system that ships with their machine and install their own licensed copy. I have personally paid for at least 15 or 20 copies of Windows XP Home Editions that were pre-installed on Dell machines, even though I have never ever used Windows XP Home Edition on any machine.
This is like selling ice to Eskimos for the purpose of throwing it in the ocean. Except, I guess, that I had a choice when I paid for that bottle of Fiji water, and I didn’t have the choice of buying a computer with no OS from Dell.
Of course, these extreme examples of gaming the consumer are rare, hard to plan for and eventually, they die out. With environmental issues becoming more important to Americans every day, buying water from half-way around the world is becoming less and less appealing. Eventually, it will end.
And while Microsoft is working hard to create the image of “innovator” and a “fair competitor,” more than 20 years of forceful salesmanship has finally caught up with them. The technology veterans of our industry are more skeptical and negative towards Microsoft’s efforts now than they have ever been. It will take a while before the tech industry forgives Microsoft.
Companies That Earn Respect
Over and over I’m finding that the companies I respect the most and and get excited about are those that build products that market themselves. Just about everyone who has played the Nintendo Wii in the past year has become a spokesperson for the company. Google’s marketing budget in its first 5 years was virtually non-existent. YouTube became a household name before it even knew how to spell marketing. Before anybody had ever seen a Toyota Prius ad, there was a waiting list to buy the car. For 7 years in a row, owners were marketing the car as if they were getting a kickback from Toyota.
So, is it possible to sell ice to Eskimos? As absurd as that sounds, yes it’s possible. But given the choice, why would you choose to swim upstream and work really hard at “selling”? Yes, it’s even possible that with the right strategy, timing and square packaging, you might even be able to do extremely well with a product that needs a lot of marketing. But you might find that putting that energy and effort into building a product that can sell itself will be a better investment and create more loyal customers.
Create a company and a product that earns people’s respect and you will find your marketing is already at least half done.
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