Ask About the Failures

Marketing consultants love to tell you their success stories. Listen to them long enough and you’ll believe they never make mistakes.

Ask them about their failures.

Oh, we all have them. They’re universally embarrassing. The good consultants have fallen on their collective butts often. The great consultants have spectacular failures hidden deep in their client files.

Ask them about their failures. Nobody really learns anything by succeeding. Its failure that makes the cost of experience so great. It’s failure that makes experience so valuable.

In the spirit of disclosure, I shall now share one of mine.

It was 1971. I was a college freshman who worked for a man named Howard in his electronics shop after class.

FM radio had replaced AM as the band most people listened to.

Stereo had replaced “Hi Fi” as the operative word for quality sound. Quad had been available for about three years, but no one was sure whether SQ was really better than QS. Descrete quadraphonic sound? We only dreamed about it.

Howard had started his own television and CB radio repair business half a dozen years earlier. Over the years he added a second technician, then a third. He started selling a few television sets. Picked up the Sylvania line. The Sylvania wholesaler sent him a dozen television sets and half a dozen stereo systems.

My job? Keep the place clean. Make deliveries. Run to the parts house. Take care of customers when there was no one else to deal with them.

One day a man in a suit swaggered into the shop. This was an oddity in itself, since no one wore suits into our place. We didn’t even wear suits into our place.

But the other oddity was his lack of necktie. After all, if a man was going to dress for business, wouldn’t he wear a tie with his suit? Instead of a tie, this guy left the top three buttons on his shirt unfastened.

As I said, he swaggered in with the attitude that he was indeed Sum Buddy.

Young fella,” he said, “where’s the boss?”

Howard came out of the shop at just that time to ask Mr. Buddy if he needed help.

Mr. Buddy explained his incredible offer: 8-track cartridges, in their own theft-proof space-age plastic bubble display case. Pick a hundred from the wide selection he had in his car. Buy ‘em outright for only two bucks each. Sell ‘em for six bucks each. Make a fortune.

Howard didn’t appear particularly interested. “Ehhh,” he said. “What do I know about music?”

Sum Buddy turned to me. “Hey, young fella. You know popular music?”

Sure,” I told ‘em. I then watched as I became one of the selling points as Mr. Buddy continued his pitch.

You’ve got a man here who knows music. I’ve got the product. Pick out a hundred titles, and I’ll sell you the display at half price. You’ve got the stereo record players with 8-track decks. How can you be a real stereo store if people can’t buy music here, too?”

Twenty minutes of serious negotiation later and I, the “man here who knows music” was selecting 30 titles, which we put in the free theft-proof space-age plastic bubble display case. Howard counted out $50 from the till. Mr. Buddy was off to offer his tapes to another entrepreneur down another road.

I had chosen Elton John, ABBA, America, Blue Oyster Cult, the Georgie Baker Selection, Black Sabbath, and several that are simply too painful to remember.

Howard looked at me, the “man here who knows music,” and asked “How are we going to sell these?”

Well,” I said, thoughtfully, “I think we should advertise in the college newspaper.”

I put together an ad, negotiated with the student paper’s student sales staff, and scheduled it to run in their second December issue – the one closest to Christmas. An 8-track of a great album would make a great last-minute Christmas gift was my reasoning. The paper was published every other week. There would be an issue on roughly December 7th, and another roughly the 21st. Our ad came out in the December 21st issue.

We waited for the last-minute gift rush.

We waited.

We waited more.

Howard was fairly patient, until January rolled around and he noted that we hadn’t sold a single tape. At that point he wondered aloud if a campus beer party might have fried too many of my limited brain cells.

Howard suggested that I personally find 30 friends who would give him $1.67 each for these tapes so he could at least break even on this venture.

I discovered that I didn’t have thirty friends.

I did have six friends who collectively purchased seven tapes. The other 23 tapes hung around that store until summer when Howard sold ‘em for $0.50 each that during a sidewalk sale. We kept the theft-proof space-age plastic bubble display case in the storeroom for a while, but it was hard to stack things on it because of that big plastic bubble. We finally tossed it out.

My first experience as a marketing authority was a total failure. But, as I said, we don’t learn much from our successes. It’s failure that makes experience so valuable.

This particular episode of Chuck history has delivered four valuable lessons.

Point Number One: a single ad in isolation isn’t going to accomplish much of anything. Ads work best when their message gets repeated, again and again, until people know that message by heart.

Lesson Number One: Never bet the farm on a single ad.

Point Number Two: some markets are seasonal. Some are ridiculously seasonal. In the case of a college student body, they tend to start leaving for home about eight days before Christmas, which would be the 17th. By the 21st (when our ad was published) the campus was empty.

Lesson Number Two: Learn the seasonality of your market.

Point Number Three: not all of the students left town for Christmas break. 30% of them lived in town. They bought gifts between the 21st and the 24th. Many of them bought music as gifts. None of them bought that music at a television repair shop.

And why would they?

It takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to establish any image in the minds of your prospective customers. If you should be successful at planting an image, any image, advertising a different image is worse than starting over. You have to try to first kill the old image before you can establish a new one.

Lesson Number Three: don’t change your name unless you also change your products. Don’t radically change your products without changing your name. Don’t do either unless you’re forced to by rapidly declining sales.

Point Number Four: my tastes in music are not, nor will they ever be, anything close to “normal.” Yours aren’t either. In fact, any personal opinion you have, when applied to the preferences of your market, is worthless. Don’t ever make a decision because your tastes, those of your friends, or your wife’s tastes are consulted. (And NEVER listen to anyone who says “I’m in the demo. My opinion is the only one that counts.”

Lesson Number Four: Survey your market. Stop guessing. Learn what they want to buy.

One incident. Four valuable lessons.

Everyone benefits from this story except Howard.

Your marketing consultant didn’t become an authority by always being right. The good consultants have fallen on their collective butts often. The great consultants have spectacular failures hidden deep in their client files.

Ask them about their failures.

And learn from them.


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