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Show your warts: An honest way to make a buck

by on
in Business Management

Legendary adman James Webb Young, who started selling fruit by mail around the same time that Harry & David did, tells the story of an apple-growing season where he was nearly ruined.

Violent hail storms bombarded his apple trees with ice pellets, causing bruising and pock marks.

He feared massive complaints and returned if he shipped the bruised fruit to his mail order apple buyers. But if he didn’t ship the damaged apples, he would have to refund all the orders, and his mail order business would be ruined.

The apples were damaged only cosmetically. The hail had pockmarked the skin, but this did not affect the flavor or freshness.

Young went ahead and filled his orders with the pockmarked apples, and in each box shipped, enclosed a pre-printed card that read as follows (I am paraphrasing):

“Note the pockmarks on some of these apples. This is proof that they are grown at a high mountain altitude, where the same extreme cold that causes sudden hailstorms also firms the flesh and increases the natural sugars, making the apples even sweeter.”

According to Young, not a single order was returned. In fact, when orders came in for next year, many order forms had handwritten notes that said, “Pockmarked apples if available; otherwise, the regular kind.”

Young’s story proves what experienced marketers know: Often, by being truthful about your weaknesses and flaws, you can gain substantial credibility with your buyer, increasing loyalty, sales, and customer satisfaction.

Years ago, an industrial pump manufacturer, Blackmer, used the “show your warts” strategy with great success.     As a chemical engineer, I can tell you that not all pumps perform equally in all applications. Instead of hiding this fact, Blackmer made it a primary advertising claim.

Their trade ads showed a Yellow Pages ripped out of an industrial buying guide, full of listings for pump manufacturers, including Blackmer; the Blackmer name was circled in pen.

The headline of the ad read, “There are only certain times you should call Blackmer for a pump. Know when?”     Body copy explained (again, I am paraphrasing), “In many applications, Blackmer performs no better or worse than any pumps, and so we are not a particularly advantageous choice.”

But, the ad went on, for certain applications (viscous fluids, fluids containing abrasives, and a few other situations) Blackmer was proven to outperform all other pumps, and were the logical brand of choice. Blackmer closed the ad by offering a free technical manual proving the claim.

My old friend, Jim Alexander, of Alexander Marketing in Grand Rapid, Michigan, created this campaign and tells me it worked extremely well.

Another example: James DiGeorgia of 21st Century Publishing was initial concerned that putting disclaimers and fine print required by regulatory bodies would depress response to his e-mail marketing campaigns promoting his stock market and options trading newsletters.

Instead of hiding the disclaimers in fine print, however, he put them in the same size type as the rest of the e-mail promotion. He found, to his surprise, that being up front about the warnings and cautions actually increased response! The conclusion: Instead of hiding a weakness, be forthright about it.

How to use this technique: Pick one weakness of your product or company. Talk about it frankly in your marketing. Show why either (a) the weakness is not really important or (b) how you have designed your product or service to either overcome, solve, or compensate for the weakness.

For example (and this isn’t real, but just makes the point), if your competitor in the window-cleaning business has tall window cleaners who are all ex-NBA players and can reach higher windows, you can say that your window cleaners are of average height and can’t reach as high up.

But, to make up for that, each brings a pneumatic lift to the job, which can raise them dozens of feet higher than your competitor’s best basketball player can jump. That’s an absurd example, but you get the idea.

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