Classic Marketing Mistakes

Classic Marketing Mistakes

People in commerce sometimes goof, no matter whether they are in suits or in the fashionable garments of their time.

Everyone knows that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492 after convincing the venture capitalists of that day (local royalty) that he would find a western trade route to the orient without going over the edge of the world. He didn’t fall off the planet. Neither did he find the trade route. But Columbus got away with it anyway, unlike our other cases.

Thirty-five years later, a former slave named Esteban beat the odds in Florida in 1528. He was one of 4 survivors of a 400-man Spanish exploration party searching for gold. They didn’t have Disneyland then, and Florida wasn’t much fun in those days. As always, better lucky than good, so the Spaniards persuaded Esteban the survivor to keep exploring in Mexico and Texas, where he sought gold in the lost cities of Cibola. Esteban found himself near Zuni territory, and he sent a nice gourd with a red feather stuck in it as a greeting, not knowing that red was the sign of war to the Zunis. Esteban would have died in that century anyway, but not nearly as soon.

Today there are occasional strategic errors by business-suited types worth mentioning. Coors beer marketed their beer with the slogan, “Turn It Loose”. When they ran the ad in print in Spanish, the sense was a bit different. It was interpreted as “Suffer from Diarrhea.”

Our favorite came from Gerber baby food. The cute little baby on the label is known around the world. However, their baby food didn’t sell so well when they tried to introduce it in Africa. When a significant portion of a population does not read well, the pictures on the label often show what’s inside the can or jar. For the local consumers, the jars gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “baby food”.

If there is anything to be learned from this, it is that you can get paid really well or avoid losses by understanding more about the people with whom you are trying to do business. We had a case several months ago in which our client was approved for a $5 million credit line at an attractive price. The client then decided to cut back their request sharply, after being approved for the original request. Fortunately, we were able to preserve the deal, but at a slightly higher price. Imagine the funder’s reaction when faced with a client who felt that they should pay the same rate after they shrunk the funding request by 80%. The client’s misjudgment of the lender torpedoed a financing offer that would have tripled the client’s capabilities.

The end result: the client outsmarted himself and wound up without the finance capability for substantial growth. He also poisoned the well with our finance partner and shot himself in the foot, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. ( We were just trying to see how many metaphors we could cram into a single sentence.)

The moral to the story? Be sensitive to nuances, subtle and otherwise, in your dealings. The better you understand the other side, the better off you’ll be.