Finding the Perfect Toothbrush: A Lesson in Marketing

A few articles back, I talked about Oreo and how their message is simply this: we are America’s favorite cookie. These are the sorts of messages that can backfire but, executed properly, you really boost the perceived value tenfold. The brilliance in Oreo’s current strategy lies in their use of contests and celebrity lick races, promotions that people talk about with others. These are ideas that spread in a viral manner or, as Seth Godin puts it, ideaviruses. The key to this strategy is creating simple, consistent messages that anyone can spread onward; of course, you have to get people excited.

In this article, I’d like to discuss a marketing strategy that is a little less buzz and hype-driven yet still viral in nature. Let’s look at a simple thing that everyone uses (well, mostly everyone): a toothbrush. Traditional marketing and old money business people will tell you that the better toothbrush will sell more but what does “better” actually mean? It depends what your target customers are. For kids, both big and small (some of us are still kids at heart), cartoon-stickered and music-generating toothbrushes are the epitome of oral hygiene devices.

Does this cow do anything for you?

For the rest of the world, style still matters but effectiveness, practical use, becomes a greater distinction. Think about the last time you purchased a toothbrush and how often you make this decision. What affected your decision? Did you go for the toothbrushes in the front or did you look further back on the shelve? Was it an impulse buy, perhaps triggered by a clever end-cap display or cashier counter arrangement? Did you even notice how hard or soft the bristles are? Was the type of grip and general structure of the toothbrush a big focus for you? What was the final tie breaker (assuming you were initially indecisive)? The chances are that, if you were put in a group of 50 people, your decision-making process would be quite distinct. Once we recognize that not all consumers think the same way is a humbling experience for all business people…

In spite of the many differences in buyer decision-making processes, there are common threads. Some packaging may appeal more to others while other packaging may be effective for a different type of buyer. Marketing is very much about packaging or, better yet, how you frame a product or service, yet there is a lot more to that than the product itself. Production, a thing of the Industrial Age, can be easily sent overseas and thus matched. That being said, if you hang your hat on just having the best toothbrush, you are setting yourself up for failure.

The coolest colors, the best grip, the most effective bristle lay-out, and all these other design issues are nice but they are nothing in themselves. We return to the original determinant of logical buyer decisions: the effectiveness of the product. The caveat to that last statement is that consumer decisions are often all but logical. I say this often because there are many great products out there that don’t survive or barely hold onto their market share. Why is it that there are great products not selling? There are many answers to this but one of them is the fact that people have forgotten how to tell a good story. Seller talk and interrupt marketing have desensitized people to the point at which it is very difficult to get a buyer’s attention.  There’s just too much noise for people to want to stop to listen to something that may very well meet their need or establish a need they didn’t even know they had.

You see, even if there is a real need for your product (as in the case of most commodities, things that facilitate real, perhaps immediate needs), a high demand, and little competition in your market, if you do not have a good story to tell, you are as good as invisible to your target market. Every other Jack and Jill promises the best, the highest quality, the most distinct, the longest successful track record, and whatever other superlatives you can think of. Here’s the rub: customers often rather have a safe good choice than a risky awesome choice. We, as consumers, often rely on familiarity and recency when making buyer decisions.

I try to replace my toothbrush twice a year or whenever the bristles go out of wack. Recently, I switched to the Colgate 360. There were other toothbrushes that looked better, some of them were even cheaper, but they didn’t really call out to me. I had recently seen some Colgate commercials plus I was familiar with other products. My most recent experiences with Colgate, that I could recall, were very positive; heck, I use their toothpaste and find it quite effective. I was an easy sell. I was actually excited about what would otherwise be an uneventful purchase.  It was not a mere matter of brand loyalty.  I had recent satisfaction to draw upon.

Upon using the product, I felt that it left my mouth a lot more fresh. The tongue-and-cheek cleaner on the back of the brush was a brilliant little touch. The combination of rubber and traditional bristles combined to create a nice brushing-massaging effect. I was and still am very happy with my purchase. It helped that the last toothbrush I had did not make me very happy so I had a recent baseline that pretty much any product could have exceeded.  With so many choices and things calling for attention, it can be quite difficult to make a decision.  I didn’t do too much research because this wasn’t a big-ticket investment but I still did a little homework.  In spite of the price tag, I still considered it an investment as I wanted something that would last and facilitate my needs.

My results excited me so much that I shared them with others and, lo and behold, my friends and family start purchasing the same toothbrush. That is what I call organic marketing, in the flavor many of us know as word of mouth, and it essentially cost Colgate nothing to market in that manner. When you spread a simple message that excites people, you make your customers your best advocates. This type of marketing is only really possible when there is a real need. When a product is the first or one of the first in it’s market, it is hard to explain what it is your product does, let alone if it is effective. Consumers need a frame of reference that is readily-identifiable. Sure, you can “create the need” but that is a whole different ball game.

Already, we see many marketing considerations when we evaluate one of the simplest inventions ever made, a mainstay in the marketplace. It is always a risky move trying to invent a better wheel or mouse trap but, when there is a demand and product life cycle is short-lived, you can have a steady supply chain going, which is always good for business. In the case of a toothbrush, some people replace them once a year, some once every five years, and some once every few months. Regardless of the frequency in replacing this much-needed product, it is something that has real value so, if you give it some perceived value, you’ve positioned your product for success. Go ahead: make an awesome toothbrush and then a great, authentic story behind it. If you target a specific market, you can be the king of the hill. You need to be passionate and, of course, having a powerful brand like Colgate-Palmolive behind your product doesn’t hurt!

The interesting thing about my recent toothbrush adventures is that I had recommended things to my friends before, my brother especially, only to have my recommendations ignored. This happens with friends and families a lot, no matter how much respect and trust you may have with your loved ones. Timing is a big part of it. These days, consumers have smaller attention spans than ever. There may be a need but, with so many providers, that need can be quickly fulfilled before you can even say a word. With all the people that purchased a toothbrush, we just so happened to talk about dental care and then there was the natural segway. We consumers have a tendency to get tunnel-visioned. If we are in the mood for thin-crust pizza in the East Village, we don’t really want to hear about the new Japanese izakaya spot in Chelsea. Sadly, most advertisers and salespeople do not get this and try to sell bicycles to Superman. It’s silliness, I know, but people do it all the time.

The thing I want to communicate to my fellow entrepreneurs is this: do not make the mistake of assuming that having a high-quality product in itself is enough – it never is good enough to just be good (as Seth Godin puts it, you have to be remarkable to stand out above the rest). In fact, quite often, stellar customer service, technical support, and all the marketing efforts surrounding that become far more important. With products that have a short specific time line, ROI (Return On Investment) is determined by more subtle things than how the product looks or how savvy the design/engineering is overall. Integration of product lines, trade-in programs, and reduced/upgrade prices for existing customers is a great way to drive value through products that have a relatively short life span in their specific industry.

I ran a question regarding product quality on my LinkedIn profile. This question lasted several weeks. The question was simple and drew lots of people in. Each participant had to choose between product quality or product support as the winning factor. As I expected, some took the easy answer and said both matter equally then the rest said product quality is key. Those people missed the point.  They’re still stuck in the old ways and probably still think the gravy days of sales are still about (they are not).

The manufacturing and design of a product, something we can touch and feel, can be easily copied in this post-Industrial-Age world. We see copycat products and bootleggers all the time. While most of the world focuses on bigger and better, the smart business people are focusing their efforts on the marketing efforts that really matter: identifying YOUR captive audience, researching what THEY want, and making THEM excited about your thing.

I experience this notion every day. In the past, I have been a salesperson for some of the most over-confident, hype-driven companies around. They rested their hopes on using empty statements such as “we are the best” or “we are the only ones that offer this” – and they failed miserably. I felt dirty trying to sell their lies so, naturally, I quit and moved onto more fruitful, honest pursuits. The problem with saying you have a better or more effective product is that it is hard to show the customers this before they make the purchase. Does underselling and overdelivering ring a bell, anyone? You can’t tell that something is better than another thing, even if you have data sheets to support this, because those are things that are very much hands-on.  People want benefits tailored to their specific needs, not facts and figures or mere features.  As they say, features tell but benefits sell.

Trust me, if it was merely about having a better or even cheaper product, the traditional ways of creating value in a product, the market shares would look much different in this tough economy. The sad reality is that it is a winner-take-almost-all marketplace, which means that often the first ones to really spread an effective message in the marketplace will take the spoils. Now, don’t get me wrong, while the stories, the buzz, the ideaviruses, and hype are what ultimately sell products, the old-school stuff still matters. The rules in today’s marketplace are just different and people have to recognize this.

For most business owners, their arrogance says “I’ve been in business for many years so why change my ways now?” Chances are you can stick to your old ways and stay in business but, if you want to expand or be well beyond merely surviving, it is crucial to recognize that customers need to be wooed. Don’t forget your competition either: that small, insignificant company may be adapting better and will surely edge you out of business. Think of dating (that is marketing too). How effective would your marketing be if you said “You should choose me cause I am the smartest, sexiest, most successful, and nicest person you’ll ever meet!” Sounds ridiculous, right? This is what many large corporations do today and they get away with it because they have brand power to off-set their lazy marketing efforts and strong-armed selling tactics.  We smaller businesses and freelancers don’t have the luxury of shooting for a 1% conversion or closing rate.

To me, a company of any size will truly thrive if they control their image by way of active PR efforts, consistent marketing messages, and excellent customer service. Look at the big companies of today. You may notice more advertising dollars being spent while they very same big spenders are cutting corners on Information Technology, Customer Support, and other key business components. The companies that have a true power of presence are the ones that are making deliberate efforts to engage customers, spread the word about their product, and contaminate others with their own viral passion and belief. A good story starts with the storyteller; once you believe your story and get excited by it, others will soon follow.

The perfect toothbrush is already out there. Few will agree on which toothbrush that is and, who knows, in the future, we may have other means for cleaning our teeth and the toothbrush will become a thing of the past. Until then, the lesson to learn here is that customers all measure value and quality in different ways, and we cannot make that decision for them. Know your customers, listen to them, and the hard/strong-arm sell will no longer be necessary.

Oh, and if you don’t think the Colgate 360 is for you, check out this blog on the Oral B Vitalizer for another perspective.  The Twinbrush also shows a lot of promise as well (check out the Channel 12 – Norwalk, CT – interview with Dr. Porper)!

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4 thoughts on “Finding the Perfect Toothbrush: A Lesson in Marketing

  1. I find that I make more purchasing decisions, even with commodity products such as toothbushes, using trusted information from communities rather than just being brand loyal.

  2. Dear Sir: My name is Dr.Robert Porper. I am a retired Oral Surgeon and will begin marketing a new Tooth-gum brush called Twinbrush. we have an initial marketing plan for those people that have special needs such as Autistic people. We have already tested the market and have excellent results. We have patents and trademarks for the product. You can review our website at: Twinbrush.com. I would appreciate your comments.
    Thanks, Bob Porper

    • I checked out the Twinbrush and updated my post. It’s interesting how much attention this simple article attracted. It seems that the simple needs are often the ones we think about the most, even if we don’t realize it.

      From a marketing perspective, I like how you specifically targeted children and smokers. The latter group is one that I haven’t seen too many specific products for. Smokers tend to forget how vital it is to take care of your gums. This is always importance but, with smokers, there is certainly a greater urgency. Feel free to link back to my blog. I’d appreciate that. 8)

      Good luck in your endeavors and your product may very well be my next choice!

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