Probing the Limits: Sell the Sizzle or Sell the Steak?

January 1, 2005
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Before spending money on images, spend money on a better quality product.

One of the maxims in product marketing is, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." This means to focus on selling the emotional product attributes, such as the feeling ordinarily associated with the sound and smell of a steak cooking on the grill, instead of the actual steak itself. While it is understandable how this concept can be applied, American companies have gone overboard by spending millions of dollars advertising the "sizzle" of many products at the expense of improving product quality.

The television program, "Frontline," recently aired the episode, "The Persuaders: Shaping a New Brand." The program focused on a new Delta Air Lines spin-off called Song-a low-priced, "style-rich" airline. Song Airlines concedes that Jet Blue is a lower cost carrier, but intends to win over customers by developing an emotional brand image of the airline that exudes style and leverages new employees that are "happy without being overzealous." That's a difficult phrase to explain, but its objective is to appeal to an emotional level, not a logical level.

Part of the marketing campaign for Song entails purely emotional commercials that show happy people running across a field with no mention of the airline's features or benefits.

The "Frontline" program interviews several marketing gurus that explain their unique methods for getting in the brain so that consumers will buy their products. One guru explained that he studied cults and deploys their techniques in his advertisements as his method of getting cult-like loyalty to his brands. Another guru explained that from his studies with autistic children, he gained the ability to connect with people at an emotional level to unlock "the code" deep inside the brain that is required to get someone to buy his product. It all seems like marketing quackery.

That's not to say that there is no such thing as brand loyalty. Some people are very brand loyal and that's an attribute marketing executives strive to achieve. Companies like Harley-Davidson and Apple are examples of brands that have tremendous customer loyalty. However, marketing plans that try to achieve a high degree of loyalty without focusing on the quality of the product are completely missing the point.

Every product that has great brand loyalty is also a high-quality product. During the days when AMF owned Harley-Davidson, and brand new motorcycles were leaking oil on the showroom floor and vibrating themselves to pieces, the number of Harley enthusiasts was few. Harley-Davidson is now an often-studied company that underwent major corporate and product quality improvements. These changes lead to tremendous gains in sales and customer loyalty. Now, even my retired father-in-law owns a new Harley and is an avid enthusiast. Harley-Davidson has always had a great brand name and image, but they almost died as a company until they focused on the product itself.

All this applies to quality professionals because they tend to focus on actual product improvement and less on product imaging. Corporations are missing the boat when budgeting money to increase sales. There is tremendous opportunity to increase sales by investing money in product and process improvements, and less on product imaging. If Song airlines spent their advertising budget on aircraft design, market research, streamlining processes and improving efficiencies, they would be much better off than their current financial woes. Give me the cheapest ticket, which is required by our corporate travel policy, early morning and late afternoon flight times that leave on time, and ample space to use my laptop and I'm your customer-style or no style. It's a tremendous waste to spend millions of dollars on advertisements that show happy people running across a field when that money could have been spent creating a simply superior product that sells itself.

Had Song Airlines given me the millions of dollars they spent on advertising to set them apart from the competition, I don't know whether they would be profitable in this very competitive market, but like many other quality professionals, I could have delivered them a much more competitive product with that wasted advertising money. Instead, Song Airlines, like many other corporations, chose to run contentless, illogical, outrageously expensive, stylish commercials to create an emotional brand image that attempts to drive me to cult-like devotion to their product. Good luck with that strategy. A better product would have been preferable.

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