Will a spectacularly creative and memorable campaign help you sell a product that is decidedly poor value compared to other alternatives in its category? The short answer is yes. And the longer answer, as always, is a little more nuanced.

To answer this question conclusively, we need to first understand and make note of a marketing concept called the ‘moment of truth’. Between a consumer and a brand, the moment of truth comes when the brand has to live the promise made in its promotional campaign. Therefore, for a car brand promising a mileage of 20km per liter in its advertisement, the moment of truth happens when the consumer fills up the tank for the second time and gets to calculate the mileage. This is the precise moment when the brand’s promise has to come true. If it comes true, the consumer’s trust in the brand grows. If it doesn’t, the brand possibly has a problem at hand.

A great marketing promotional campaign can therefore help you sell a bad product until the moment of truth arrives for the consumer. Intuitively, it now becomes clearer how this principle can be applied to brands across multiple categories.

In all categories where a repeat purchase is not an expectation from the consumer, a great marketing promotional campaign can simply help entice the consumer to make the first purchase. Because the moment of truth for the consumer is inevitably going to arrive after the purchase is made and there is no real expectation for a repeat purchase, the marketer has little to lose. Precisely how little? The negative word of mouth that disgruntled consumers will no doubt generate after their moment of truth has arrived.

Now let’s see how this phenomenon plays out in the world around us. All political parties rely on ‘the moment of truth’ and the fact that their consumer – the voter – is not expected to make a repeat purchase until say another five years. Therefore, the product does not matter, promotion does. Movie studios use the same principle as great promotion can help them draw the audiences in for their first viewing, over the premiere weekend, and that is all matters to make a movie venture profitable these days. A bad movie can therefore make a profit even if there are no repeat viewings purely on the strength of outstanding promotional campaigns that draw in enough number of consumers for a first-time viewing. Why? Because the moment of truth only arrived after a consumer has bought the ticket and is sitting inside the cinema auditorium.

On the flip side, the greatest of marketing promotions can possibly not sell a bad product repeatedly to all consumers. This has implications for FMCG and all other categories where consumers are expected to make frequent repeat purchases. One of the primary goals of marketing in these categories is to generate trial – and if a consumer’s moment of truth following a trial is degrees away from the brand’s promise, the consumer is rarely going to buy the product again. Of course there will be some consumers who will disregard their moment of truth in favor of a spectacular campaign, or continue to buy hoping that their next moment of truth will be just what the brand promised, but these exceptions prove the rule.

At this point, it is also important to quickly visit the fundamental role of marketing promotion. At their core, all products (and here we include services as products) that are marketed around the world – from a matchstick to a commercial jet – hold intrinsic value for a set of consumers, which are collectively called the market for that product. This set can be explicitly defined, however, marketers typically do not focus their efforts on this entire set. The products are instead ‘targeted’ at a precise market segment – which the marketer believes would get maximum value out of the product, or who play a significant role in purchase decision-making. It’s worth repeating that there will always be people outside the targeted segment who would still find value in the marketed product. Therefore, the entire set of consumers who would find value in any given product is nearly always larger than, and supersedes the set of consumers that are explicitly targeted by the marketer. We may call this overarching set ‘the superset of value-deriving consumers’ for any given product.

The entire point of all marketing communications – or promotion in classical terms – is to communicate the intrinsic value of a product to the superset of value-deriving consumers. Now, it is often impractical, unfeasible or simply impossible for marketers to precisely determine the size of this superset, and equally impractical, unfeasible or simply impossible to successfully communicate the intrinsic value of a product to every single consumer who is part of the superset.

That is why marketing communications is always a problem of maximization subject to various constraints, with financial resources being the primary one. All marketing promotion therefore seeks to make a promise to as many people within the targeted segment as is possible, largely ignoring the superset of value-deriving consumers (because of the constraints).

A clever or superlative marketing campaign can of course exaggerate the promised value and help enlarge this superset by drawing in larger number of consumers to the brand – but only until the moment of truth arrives for every individual consumer, particularly those who were first exposed to the promised value through the campaign. If the promised value is not delivered at the moment of truth, there is a problem.

Marketers have to constantly make this trade-off between choosing to design and run a spectacular campaign that promises exaggerated value than the product is actually able to deliver, or to gain internal organizational consensus to improve the product itself, so that it delivers greater value to consumers. The former route is easier – campaigns are often designed by external agencies and they can be pushed hard. Pushing internal stakeholders for product enhancement is a completely different challenge but if marketers choose to take this route, they don’t actually need any spectacular campaign. Just effective and efficient campaigns will do the job – the success of WhatsApp and virtually all of the biggest technology brands today is a case in point. And of course, how marketers make this decision on a continual basis determines their long-term success.

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