Both McHugh and Doe were advocating for the exact same cause, but McHugh’s marketing technique made her much more effective at reaching her audience. From this and countless other examples, both in activism and business, we can regretfully conclude the following:
Bitter Truth #1
The success of your venture depends much less on the quality of whatever it is you are selling than on the quality of the marketing and sales you use to sell it.
I refer to this as a Bitter Truth—the first of three Bitter Truths discussed in The Lifelong Activist—because, in my experience, no one likes to hear this.
• My programming students would prefer to hear that it’s the quality of their code that will determine their success.
• My cooking students would prefer to hear that it’s the quality of their cuisine that will determine their success.
• My art students would prefer to hear that it’s the quality of their painting, writing, sculpture or music that will determine their success.
• And my activism students would prefer to hear that it’s the quality of their cause that will determine their success.
But it’s true. As Al Ries and Jack Trout point out in The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (see Bibliography):
Many people think marketing is a battle of products. In the long run, they figure, the best product will win.
Marketing people are preoccupied with doing research and “getting the facts.” They analyze the situation to make sure that truth is on their side. Then they sail confidently into the marketing arena, secure in the knowledge that they have the best product and that ultimately the best product will win.
It’s an illusion. There is no objective reality. There are no facts. 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. . . .
Most marketing mistakes stem from the assumption that you’re fighting a product battle rooted in reality. All the laws in this book are derived from exactly the opposite point of view. . . .
Marketing is not a battle of products. It’s a battle of perceptions.
Note that word, “perceptions.” Along with its verb form, “perceive,” you will see it used frequently throughout this section of The Lifelong Activist. Ries and Trout are absolutely right: in marketing, there is no objective reality—it is all about perception.
The Evidence is Overwhelming
We all wish the world worked differently, and that it were the quality of whatever it is you are selling that determined your success. Unfortunately, however, the evidence in support of Bitter Truth #1 is overwhelming. Just look around you, and you will see that the world is filled with shoddy, useless or even destructive products that are far from being “quality,” but that millions of people have been marketed and sold into believing they need.
For some more evidence in support of Bitter Truth #1, answer these questions:
• Is McDonald’s the best restaurant in the world?
• Does Microsoft produce the best software?
• Is John Grisham the best writer?
The answer in all three cases is, of course, “No,” but that doesn’t stop McDonald’s, Microsoft and John Grisham from being perennial best sellers, largely on the basis of their marketing and sales efforts.
Let’s also be clear, however, that “quality” means different things to different people. McDonald’s may not win any haute cuisine awards, but the company isn’t going after the gourmet market. Rather, it’s going after the cheap food/comfort food/consistency of menu/convenience of service/child-friendly markets, and if one or more of these criteria are important to you, then McDonald’s does indeed offer a quality product. You can make a similar argument for Microsoft software, John Grisham’s novels, or any other popular consumer product. The very fact that the product is popular proves that a lot of people see it as “quality” in at least one crucial attribute.
Needless to say, Bitter Truth #1 also applies to the political and social arenas. It explains why some people become president, and some do not. It also explains why you sometimes have trouble selling your “common-sense” or “obvious” viewpoint to audiences. While your cause may indeed be “gourmet,” your audience may well be craving “comfort food.” Whether they truly want that comfort food (or “comfort politics”), or have simply been convinced they want it by the opposition’s zillion-dollar marketing-and-sales campaign, is irrelevant to our discussion. Marketing is about perception, not truth.
In business and in activism, expecting the customer to automatically share your standard of quality is a classic screw-up, and usually fatal to the endeavor at hand. Your job is not to dictate to the customer what he or she ought to think or like, but to adhere to the three-step marketing process described earlier: locate your likeliest customers—meaning, the ones most predisposed to like your viewpoint; repackage your viewpoint to appeal to them further; and connect the customers with your viewpoint.