Probing the Limits: Marketing Can Overshadow Quality

October 1, 2006
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How we feel when we buy the product plays an important but difficult to quantify role in the overall product quality.

For years I've struggled to understand why upper management in many companies doesn't have a true quality focus as a fundamental strategic element in their business plan. As a career manufacturing manager, I always struggled to maintain and improve product quality, but it seemed upper management rarely shared my passion. Now that I've started my own business and I see all the issues in a company, I'm gaining some insight into this issue. While manufacturers care about actual product quality, upper management often is more concerned with perceived product quality.

To achieve my goal of producing a product that actually is high quality, we did a tremendous amount of expensive research and sourced higher-quality, higher-cost materials so that kids would have a high-quality experience with our product.

Because the label on the box played no role in the value of the art project, we used a black-and-white box sticker with a simple graphic. In my July 2006 column, I mentioned with pride that we were focusing on putting all the product costs into the product and not on valueless flash such as expensive color boxes. A reader sent me an e-mail pointing out that the generic labeling of my product was likely to have the same level of success that generic-labeled food had two decades ago. Generic-labeled foods are a distant memory now because they weren't successful.

Generic-labeled products bring up some fascinating quality issues. Fancy, four-color, professionally designed labels and boxes are expensive, but they have no effect on the actual quality of the product inside. Isn't it rational to conclude that a lower-cost, plain-labeled product is actually higher value and thus higher quality? That's what I thought, but most consumers clearly feel otherwise.

Based on customer feedback, we moved to a professionally designed color label for our product. I feel good that my customers now have what they really want-a colorful box with a cool graphic and perceived high quality. At the same time, I'm bummed out because I've had to cut some of the materials from the art projects that had an impact on the actual product quality.

This concerns me because I now understand that the presentation of the product as high quality can be more important in buying decisions than the actual quality of the product that manufacturing professionals work so hard to achieve. This means that all my competitors have to do is invest more in flashy marketing and claim high quality, and they get to skip all the expensive research and money that we spent to offer a product of real quality.

This issue of flashy marketing of quality has an important emotional component, though. While stewing over the fact that I had to add an expensive color label to our product, I took my first trip to Costco. I didn't like the experience even though the quality and the value of the products were high. I found the store so stark and aesthetically nonpleasing that I strongly disliked being there. Hmmm... maybe packaging aesthetics does have some role in the overall product quality-particularly with art products.

I've come to some preliminary conclusions about this issue of marketing quality. First, I think that spectacular short-term results are achievable by using marketing to claim high quality on poor-quality products. I think that upper management at companies with a short-term focus is naturally-and maybe rationally-drawn to this approach. Second, how we feel when we buy the product also plays an important but difficult to quantify role in the overall product quality.

On our product, we found a way to add a color sticker for a relatively low cost. It's not as flashy as my competitor's box, but it still gets a good emotional response from our customers. Unlike many companies, it was never our goal when starting this business to make a bunch of money in the shortest amount of time. I think if we stay true to the concepts in the quality profession's body of knowledge, and we ride out the initial rough start-up, customers will eventually appreciate the real value and spread the word to create a brand with a great reputation and long-term success. After all, feeling good about what we are doing and long-term success is why we started down this difficult and exhausting path in the first place.

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