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A Marketing Lesson from Dilbert?

May 12th, 2006 by Bob Bly

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, says: “For companies to survive, they will have to become experts at confusing the public into thinking their generic products are better than their competitors’ generic products.”

In this statement, Adams implies that (1) the goal of advertising is obfuscation rather than education and (2) your product is really no better than your competitors’ products.

Do you think he’s right? Or does your marketing operate on a higher level?


This entry was posted on Friday, May 12th, 2006 at 6:55 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

54 responses about “A Marketing Lesson from Dilbert?”

  1. Suzanne Falter-Barns said:

    Hi Bob! Maybe it’s just me but I really do believe that marketing is here to help us connect with the people we’re meant to serve. So it’s actually serving a high purpose… at least for those who are serving folks as they’re meant to. That single thought has broken me out of the ‘Can make cold calls’, ‘can’t market’, ‘can’t promote’ vortex we all get stuck in from time to time. Hey .. there are people out there who need this work! Gotta find them … now!

    Fun meeting you at ASJA. Suzanne Falter-Barns.

  2. Don Marti said:

    In the long run, Adams is wrong. His approach implies that companies would be better off spending less on engineering (since the resulting products are going to be “generic” anyway) and more on marketing.

    If this worked, everyone would have a Sony, HP, or Dell computer, and each of those companies’ Engineering department would be one guy checking that whatever generic parts Purchasing orders actually fit together.

    But in the real world, a lot of people buy Apple, Alienware, Pogolinux, or “two guys with a screwdriver” brand, because what’s inside matters more to them than the marketing does.

    In the real world, marketing is under tremendous pressure. On one side, reputation systems under control of customers are taking on the role of informing people about making product decisions. On the other side, engineers are becoming more engaged with the actual marketplace (look at the Boeing blog and the open source software scene for some fairly far-along examples.) That leaves less and less for Marketing to do.

    So smart companies are lightweighting the Marketing department — you’ll still have the ruthlessly efficient parts, but much of the requirements gathering and product education is getting handled in faster, more efficient ways.

    Predictions for the future: Marketing will look more like today’s Direct Response (with research, measureable stats, and campaigns that pay their own way) than like today’s focus groups and woo-woo.

  3. Swans Paul said:

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. He gets it wrong. Or Does he?

    “For companies to survive, they will have to become experts at confusing the public into thinking their generic products are better than their competitors’ generic products.”

    First of all, a confused mind says no. If a telemarketer calls me, and tells me a story that I don’t get about a product that I don’t understand, I’ll say no to his proposition. Better than no, I’ll tell him: “Sir, I am busy. I have no time to listen to your sales pitch=lies”. And if he insists, I’ll hang up. NO SALES.

    So if the purpose of marketing is to “confuse the public into thinking that A’s generic product is better than B’s generic product”, most American companies are about to go bankrupt.

    For the confused buyer (you the reader of this post, regardless of your level of education) , will say no. And if the consumer says no to your message, he will say no to your product. And you won’t sell a thing. The American people, take it from a foreigner, have a lot of good sense.

    Second, if you go around claiming you’re better, your listeners will start wondering.

    1: they’ll wonder if you’re not bragging. If they have the slightest doubt that you’re actually bragging, whatever you say will be discredited. All your claims of superiority will go in the trash can. (lying and bragging form a deadly marketing mix for any company)

    2:On the other side of “being better” claims, there is proof. If you can say why you’re better and you can back it up by actual research or by letting the customer see for himself, then perhaps readers or viewers or listeners will put up with your big claims for a short while…until they know if you’re lying or telling the truth.

    Now the question is: Are marketing people total liars?

    If they are, then according to the law of Karma, what goes around comes around. So some day, their lies will catch up with them in two ways. One: the buying public will STOP believing what marketing people say. Two: as the buying public STOPS believing this type of “weasel marketing” will die. And the very liars will be out of job.

    One last thing: David Ogilvy said:

    “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

    Lying or deforming the truth has never been the best policy in marketing. And it will never be. If American companies indulge in this sort of “weasel marketing” then, when Chinese companies tell the truth about their products and services, American dollars will go to these honest Chinese companies.

    My conclusion is simple: Scott Adams needs to read the following books: Ogilvy On Advertising, by David Ogivly
    How To Write Advertising That Sells, by Clyde Bedell (he has an exellent section on the duty of the marketing person toward the public)
    My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising, by Claude Hopkins.

    One last thing: why did the author( Scott Adams) choose to publish his book with this specific company? Is it because the sales rep lied to him? Or is it because that the company offered him something better.

    Yes, on the surface most products/services are generic. But then comes the specifis. Company A uses cheap labor; company B uses employees with PH D’s in the field.

    Company A offers no money back guarantee or fails to state it. Company B not only offers a money-back guarantee, but also offer a life-time no-questions asked money back guarantee.

    But then we, weird human beings, don’t buy a product for the sake of the product. We buy for the gratifications we’ll get from that product. What’s the difference between a Rolls Royce and a Toyota.? Both will drive you from point 1 to point 2. So why do certain people buy Rolls Royce while others buy Toyotas.

    We, weird human beings, refuse to be portrayed as idiots. So we want facts to back up our emotional decisions. Rolls Royce is faster ( I guess), more prestigious (only super-rich people drive them). And behind the wheels of a Rolls Royce, the miles on the high way take seconds. And so on. If these claims are true, and a certain class of people want these performances, tell them about these performances.

    Scott Adams needs to read the books above urgently before he revises his current book or publishes a second book. Until he does that he’ll ALWAYS get his comments wrong on the position of marketing in the American economy.

  4. Janet Beatrice said:

    As a copywriter, I am adamant about *not* using this approach. Even if it brings in more sales, I don’t think it’s worth it. But in the long run, it’s a self-defeating approach.

    I work with much smaller clients, but even if you’re creating a marketing message for Sony, you should be clearly conveying the benefits of the product you are marketing. Sony has a good reputation. If someone buys a product from Sony due to a muddled, manipulative marketing message, he/she will 1) be disappointed and 2) lose faith in Sony.

    In the long run, this approach gradually damages a company’s reputation.

    More importantly, it’s demoralizing to create false, manipulative marketing messages, and it’s not fair to consumers.

    If you need to muddle your message to market your product, it’s time to improve the product and hold off on the marketing.

    Janet Beatrice
    Scribe for Hire

  5. Dave Dolak said:

    Any brand that tries to build “differentiation” based on lies and obfuscation will not be successful in the long-term. Consumers have become so sophisticated when it comes to understanding advertising tricks and marketing tactics that such tactics are not likely to work in the short-term either.

    Differentiation must be based on *real* differences in the benefits delivered by product or service offerings.

    This is where the future of marketing and branding is.

    No longer can marketing be something that is “done” to a product or service after is has been developed. Marketing and branding must now be integrally involved in the development process to ensure that unique benefits are being created into the brand and consistently delivered to the customer.

    Dave Dolak
    Author, “How to Build and Maintain A Powerhouse Brand”

  6. Julius said:

    Scott Adams could not be more correct. I haven’t come a across a more instructive and profound quote in about…oh 48 hours or so. I do a lot of reading, and come across a lot of instructive and profound quotes so really the 48 hours is quite a long time. Okay maybe it still isn’t but the point is I like the quote. Here’s why:

    1. The above quote starts off with, “For companies to survive….”

    Yeah companies that are striving to survive likely have generic products and as a result are forced to aggrandise and market that which isn’t really there. In the words of those above, they have to obfuscate the market.

    Folks, this man has just given us all a guide of exactly what not to do in business. I’m sure he says a lot of brilliantly stupid things that we can look to and apply as anti-information.

    I’d love to learn more and then just do the opposite. It’s funny… this guy is trying to be irreverent and sardonically comical, but it’s his stupidity that makes me laugh.

    Case in point: Don’t take business advice from a jack-ass cartoonist.


  7. Julius said:

    PS: If it isn’t already blazingly obvious, my real point above was real companies don’t survive they thrive.

  8. Chui said:

    How does BMW, Mercedez Benz or Jaguar convince people that spending 10x the going rate of a car is going to be worthwhile? The destination doesn’t get any better simply by driving a better car. Heck, the road doesn’t get any better either. Yet, people who buy an expensive marque do genuinely benefit from it, because they tend to buy it over and over again. People have consistently voted for tax cuts so that afford nicer cars rather than give up tax cuts so that money can be better spent on roads.

    Our animal brain is amazing simple and non rational. Properly conditioned, it can enjoy sounds coming out from rubbing horse hair against cat guts. We can convince people to eat snails, if the waiters are dressed better than the patrons. I’ve been charged $20 for a plate of 6 grubs. In a fancy setting, the price of grubs seemed entirely appropriate.

    On the topic of genericness: nobody really benefits from a gizmo with 99 features 53% more than a gizmo with 64. In the end we tend rely on generic features only.

    The role of any profit-making entity is to convince people that they are able to experience happiness/utility by parting with cold hard cash. Being able to afford a gizmo with 99 features can yield a subtle pleasure solong as others are denied of it. Similarly, being able to afford the outrageous fortune to marry a trophy wife … that’s priceless.

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    A lot of recent research published by Dr Robert Cialdini shows the importance of the marketing of the thing over the thing itself. I think there is a lot of merit in Scott Adams’ statement.

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