Marketing Is Not a Battle of Products, It’s a Battle of Perceptions

Therefore, the best won’t always win

Joshua VanDeBrake
Oct 25, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Most marketers are completely wrong. We, as marketers, tend to think that marketing is a battle of products. That it’s all about creating the “best” product. We figure that, in the long run, the best will come out ahead and dominate the market. And that would be a logical conclusion.

But it would be wrong.

You see, we’re often so preoccupied with researching, getting the facts right, and analyzing how we are better than our competitors that we completely miss the point of appealing to our customers’ psychology.

As Al Ries and Jack Trout state in their book:

“There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.”

In essence, marketing is pure psychology. Two people could look at the exact same scene and, framed by their worldviews, perceive it in opposite manners. That’s why there’s an ongoing debate on which smartphone truly is the best (I’ll answer that in a moment).

Al and Jack refer to this phenomenon as “The Law of Perception.”

The purpose of this article is to break down this concept of perception, so we can walk away understanding exactly how we can use it to our advantage.

Now, back to the phone debate…


Let Me Ask You a Question: Which Is Better?

The Apple iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy? Some of you are shaking your heads thinking, “the Google Pixel is obviously superior to either of those.” And you’d be correct.

You’d be correct that, given your life experiences and perception of reality at this point in time, the Google Pixel is the best phone in your mind. Will that remain the case a year, a month, or even a day from now? Who knows. What matters is that it’s your perception.

“Better” is entirely subjective. The “best” of anything comes down to perception. There may be a best product for you, but there is no objective better or best.

So, this is great, in theory, but how does it actually affect sales? Let’s take a look.


Toyota Outsells Honda 2-to-1 in Their Home Country

Both Honda and Toyota call Japan home. Yet, in Japan Toyota outsells Honda more than 2-to-1. Why is that?

Is it because Toyota’s cars are better or higher quality? Is it because they’re marketed based on the merits of horsepower, fuel economy, or reliability? Not exactly.

If your friend in the U.S. buys a Honda, you may ask, “Oh, did you get a Civic, an Accord, or something bigger, like a Pilot…?” Meanwhile, the mention of a Honda in Japan would more likely be met with, “That motorcycle is going to cut your commute in half!” Because Honda was a motorcycle company in Japan before they started producing cars, a perception that remains to this day.

And would you rather buy a car from a car company or a motorcycle company? Even if the cars’ technical merits are identical, the majority of people would buy from the car company, which is why Toyota outsells Honda 2-to-1. It’s not about which is better, it’s all about perception.


The 80's Audi Snafu

In 1985, Audi sold just over 74,000 cars in the U.S., but by 1991, that number had fallen to only 12,000 per year. That’s a more than 80% drop in sales in only six years. Why?

Because the perception of the public changed. You see, in November 1986, a “60 Minutes” segment called “Out of Control” reported on “unintended acceleration” in Audi vehicles. Following the report, not a single automobile expert who tested the car was able to duplicate the reported issue. But the damage was already done.

In the years following, this “problem” dominated the public view of Audi vehicles. Sales plummetted. Resale values followed. And Audi didn’t begin trending positive again until 1994 — nearly a full decade after the60 Minutes” segment.

Today, more than 30 years after that report aired on CBS, Audi sells just over 200,000 cars per year in the U.S. So yes, they’ve recovered in a pure units-sold measure, but I can’t help but wonder how their sales would be today, if they hadn’t endured the catastrophic setback caused by that fateful segment.


The “If You Build It, They Will Come” Fallacy

In short: No… No, they won’t.

As we’ve established, simply building a product of superior quality doesn’t guarantee its success. Comparing features and specs is cool and all, but that’s not going to win.

Sure, throwing the facts at your prospects might sway their opinion a little bit, but it’s not going to be the thing that truly sells your product and drives adoption. Because the best doesn’t always win.

At the end of the day, perception is what wins. Whichever product is perceived as the best is the one that wins. And on the flip side, as we’ve seen with Audi, a negative perception can make sales drop through the floor.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Now, with our understanding of what actually makes a company and its products successful, we’re left with just one question. The specifics of the answer will vary, by industry, company, product, and team working behind the scenes.

But still, the question remains: How? How to get our prospects and customers to perceive us as the best solution?

The answer?

To be perceived as the “best,” you need to clearly and concisely articulate the benefit you offer to your customer. The company that most clearly communicates their value to the customer is the one that’ll win the business. When prospects hear a message they resonate with, they gravitate toward that company.

That’s why it’s so important to appeal to your customers’ and prospects’ psychology, to make sure you understand them and can clearly present a message that resonates. Because that will allow them to perceive your company and your product as the best solution to their problem.

“Marketing is not a battle of products. It’s a battle of perceptions.” — Al Ries & Jack Trout

Perception is the real battlefront on which our wars of marketing are waged.

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market…

Thanks to Niklas Göke

Joshua VanDeBrake

Written by

Marketing manager by day. Wizard the rest of the time. Ambivert. Millennial. joshvandebrake.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

Joshua VanDeBrake

Written by

Marketing manager by day. Wizard the rest of the time. Ambivert. Millennial. joshvandebrake.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

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