Dear CMO:

I remember reading a wonderful vignette about Japanese spice manufacturer Ajinomoto some time back that described how the marketing team increased volume in a flat market. We can all relate to this type of Monday morning meeting, where everyone is trying to be creative but practical in thinking up ways to get their market to use more stuff. In this case, the solution relied on a lightning fast, simple solution that didn’t require end user education, channel engagement, or even giving the sales team a new pitch. If only life were this easy all the time.

We all want people to do what we want them to do. As marketers, that’s what we’re paid to do. There are ethical ways to do this and there are the other ways. Let’s talk about both for a moment.

Think about gasoline for a moment. Marketing high octane is a pretty tough sell because a) we just don’t believe that there are any benefits in the expensive stuff, b) gas is bloody expensive enough as it is, and c) no one’s ever made a compelling case why I should spend another $0.20 a gallon to buy it. So if the problem is getting customers to buy more of your higher octane (and higher margin) gasoline, what could you do? Easy! Change the location of the buttons so that customers see the lowest price but press the middle button. By mistake. See? They’ll never notice! It’s brilliant. Let’s get lunch.

The example in the photo isn’t the worst I’ve seen. A gas station down the coast from me is much worse — they go the extra mile by reversing the order of the buttons, putting highest on the left and lowest on the right, while keeping the labels above them the other way. After all, why settle for the mid-grade when you can completely bamboozle your customers.
We had this problem in spades selling blank video tape back in the day. We ended up elevating our entire line-up to a higher quality product and selling it for a premium price, using a healthy dose of value added promotion and selling the entire story aggressively into our channel — and getting double the market share volume, as well.
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Key Takeaways:
> Fooling your customers isn’t the way to win their hearts and minds. Giving them a reason to buy more of your stuff — quality, convenience, or opportunities for use — is.
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This is a key difference between compliance and influence. In one case, you force your customer either through ignorance or subterfuge to do your bidding; in the other, you let them come to your way of thinking.
Ajinomoto? They increased the size of the hole in the spice bottle. You shook it and about 15% more came out. Ethical? I’d have to squint and say probably yes — after all, they didn’t go so far as to remove the top, and if you really didn’t like the result it would have been by only 15% or so (and only once). Who knows? Maybe people liked it.
PS: I can’t recall the source of the Ajinomoto story — it could have been one of Kenichi Ohmae’s excellent books like Mind of the Strategist. But it’s a great story, so it’s worth sharing, regardless of its origins.