How to Sell Anything / by Steven B. Wheeler

How do people actively sell stuff? We all like to think ourselves as capable of making decisions for ourselves, excersizing free will, and more or less being pretty savvy (if not openly cynical) to the tricks marketers use to try an get people to buy our products. 

So how, in this day and age, do brands get us out of this intractable view and get us to buy not just any ol' stuff, but their stuff? 

Since joining Betabrand, I've been getting more and more interested in the power of marketing in its ability to sell products. From books, movies, podcasts, and blogs about branding and marketing, I've been giving myself a crash-course on the subject, and in the process, found three great examples of clever marketing. 

Sell Me This Pen

The "Sell Me This Pen" scene from last year's The Wolf of Wall Street 

Jordan: Brad? Come on. Sell me this pen. Go on, here. (Jordan pulls a pen out of his pocket & hands it to Brad)

Brad: (Takes the pen) Ok, sell you this fuckin’ pen?

Jordan: (Looks around, proudly addresses the group) That’s my boy, right there. Fuckin’ sell anything.

Brad: Do me a favor. Write your name down on that napkin there. 

Jordan: I would, uh, but I don’t have a pen.

Brad: Exactly. Supply and demand, motherfucker. (Drops pen on the table in front of Jordan)

—The “Sell Me This Pen” scene from The Wolf Of Wall Street, 2013

Notice how Brad doesn't really act like someone who needs to sell a pen? He's not boring anyone with how amazing and well designed a pen it is, it's just the most logical solution to the problem that Leo is being told he's in. Brad knows Leo isn't going to buy anything unless he sees himself as a customer first. Until then, he'd behave like we all do when we're being offered something we don't want or need—we ignore it and keep moving. 

Most people, when confronted with the task of selling a [noun], will focus on the features of the [noun] they're trying to sell, calling out features like the quality of the materials used to construct the [noun], the ability of the [noun] to pay for itself in the first use while simultaneously suggesting the the [noun] is going to last forever (note: it won't), how the [noun] is in the permanent collection at the MoMA, or the value of the [noun]'s outrageously low, low price. But if the audience we're pitching to doesn't see themselves as being in the market for whatever [noun] you're selling, you're already at a disadvantage. 

Summary: Create a customer by getting them to 1. see themselves as being in need of something, and then 2. offer them the solution in the form of [noun]. 

Selling Balloon Animals to a Group of Guys at a Bar

Three senior leaders at a creative branding and marketing agency are taking a road trip from the Bay Area to Tahoe for a yearly retreat. The Brand Manager, a Creative Director, and a VP of Marketing all ride up together after leaving work a few hours early on Thursday in an attempt to beat traffic. 

After being on the road for a few hours, the Group of Creative Professionals pulls off the highway and into a strip mall outside of Stockton. Out of all the chain restaurants present, the group settles on having dinner at an Applebee’s.

Inside the restaurant, there’s a kid’s pirate-themed birthday party in full swing, with children and parents that took over a corner of the establishment, all being loud and wearing ridiculous hats and whacking at each other with balloon swords. The source of these parti-colored weapons is a birthday clown, milling about and casually inflating, twisting, and snapping long balloons together to make hats, swords, animals, and other accessories. The party is so loudly convivial, the Group of Creative Professionals asks to sit at a bar table on the other side of the restaurant.

As they sip their pints of beer and eat their food, the Group of Creative Professionals has some very dry, very work-related talk about brand strategy, best practices in design, office politics, and the upcoming retreat. 

At some point, the VP of Marketing notices from across the room that the birthday clown is has expanded his orbit, circling around the party in wider and wider arcs, offering balloon animals to surrounding tables that aren’t part of the birthday party going on. The VP of Marketing overhears the clown’s pitch to a family at a nearby table, something to the tune of, “How about a crown for the little princess? Or a royal scepter? Only a dollar each!” 

Hoping the clown sees the obvious demographic split between his fellow patrons in the bar versus the ones in the main section, the VP of Marketing turns his attention back to his table. Moments later, the clown saunters up to the table of Creative Professionals, who collectively give him a look that most people only use when being greeted at the front door by someone holding a Watchtower magazine. 

“Would you guys be interested in some fun balloon animals or something?” the clown asks without even a trace of self-awareness at how ridiculous he sounds. 

After an awkward silence and a quick look to his friends around the table, the VP of Marketing looks squarely at the clown and bluntly asks, “What is it that makes you think that we would be interested in buying a balloon animal?”

The clown, making a quick, furtive glance around the room, leans in and whispers conspiratorially to the group, “I can make a monkey butt-fucking a giraffe.”

And that’s how you sell balloon animals to a group of adult men at a bar. 

—Paraphrased from memory from a story by Brian Singer in the book Graphic Content, 2014

The story above, which is based on one that I first heard on the fantastic Design Matters podcast hosted by Debbie Millman, illustrates the power of recontextualizing the product to fit with your audience. The product is literally long, brightly colored balloons, twisted and tied together in wacky shapes. The only fundamental difference between the product sold to the kids in the birthday party versus the ones pitched to the Group of Creative Professionals is the product configuration. The rest was pure marketing savvy on behalf of the birthday clown, and a good understanding of his audience. 

Summary: Align the tone you're using to market your product to the audience you're selling to. Anticipate what they would find appealing, and then surprise them with it. 

Selling Febreze to Clean People

How has this played out in the world of consumer products before? Take the story of Febreze, a product by Proctor & Gamble that struggled to find a foothold in the market when it was launched in the mid 1990s:

Originally marketed as a room freshener to help neutralize unpleasant odors, the marketing team went to customer’s houses to interview people who’d bought the product. They visited the home of a woman who’d bought Febreze but didn’t use it much after the initial purchase, and discovered this: 

“On one visit to a woman’s living room where her nine cats spent most of their time, the researchers recoiled from the odor. The woman, by contrast, had grown used to it from living with the animals and did not notice the smell at all. They found similar results in other houses with strong scents. The people who most needed Febreze did not realize it."

After completing their research and looking at the habits of people who did use Febreze regularly, P&G i and rolled out a new series of ads in 1998 that showed women spraying it at the end of cleaning or vacuuming, positioning the product as a kind of olfactory reward that enhances the “just-cleaned” atmosphere of their homes. By recontextualizing the product in a way that suggests your home isn’t really clean until it smells clean—and not something that people with smelly homes should use to try and cover up odors—sales doubled within the first two months, and hit $230 million a year later. In the time since, Febreze has been spun off into other products, and now accounts for over $1 billion in yearly sales for P&G. 

Summary: Procter & Gamble made a spray that helped get rid of odors in the home. The problem? Stinky homes aren't stinky to the people that live there. But neat freaks are concerned, and even after cleaning up, want to be sure their homes smell as fresh as they look. P&G retooled their marketing, and ended up with a hit product.

So Many Variables

The lesson that I picked up from these 3 examples? There are many variables responsible for the success or failure of consumer products, and if one marketing approach doesn’t work, it might be beneficial to tinker with it until people respond the way you think they should. 

Read more about the story behind Febreze: