Selling cheese: an error of marketing strategy

An incident in the the BBC TV programme ‘The Apprentice’ provided an excellent example of a marketing error. It also demonstrated how the term ‘marketing’ is often misunderstood and used simply to mean ‘advertising’ or ‘selling’. In fact the marketing process goes much deeper than selling.

In one episode, Sir Alan Sugar sent his teams of would-be apprentices to sell English food toat a farmer’s market in the centre of a French town. One team did particularly badly and they were invited by a furious Sir Alan to explain themselves. The team leader pointed his finger at a member of his team, blaming the team’s ‘marketing manager’, saying that the banner advertising the food stall was the problem. He tried to deflect criticism from himself by blaming it on his ‘marketing department’.

In my opinion, the problem was indeed a marketing problem – but not the one the team leader identified.

When given the task of selling English food to the French, the team leader had decided to go to a ‘cash and carry’ food wholesaler and buy a huge slab of processed cheese, wrapped in plastic. They then took it to France, cut it into small cubes, and presented it to prospective customers on cocktail sticks. Then the good people of France were invited to buy chunks of processed cheese!

Needless to say, the French customers refused to buy. More than any other nation on earth, the French know about their cheeses and are very selective about what they eat.

Trying to sell processed English cheese to French consumers was always going to fail. Even if they had a multi-million Euro advertising campaign, the French would never buy the stuff. The problem was not the advertising and promotion (the ‘marketing department’). The real marketing problem was choosing the wrong product to sell to customers – the marketing strategy. There was a fundamental mis-match between the product and the target customers!

If you have a flawed marketing strategy (ie business formula) , then no amount of operational marketing (adverts, promotion, banners, brochures etc) will save you!

On the other hand, if you get the marketing strategy right – perhaps by choosing to sell English chutneys, pickles and marmalade to the French – then the advertising doesn’t matter as much. You could say that if you get the [strategic] marketing right, then the product doesn’t need [operational] ‘marketing’.

The biggest marketing mistake of all is to think that ‘marketing’ is just about clever advertising, colourful banners, websites etc, without checking first whether the underlying strategic marketing formula is right. In other words, marketing is not about ‘selling anything to anybody’ using clever techniques, but about carefully matching your products or services to the right customers.

The lesson is: get your strategic marketing right first, then think about your operational marketing (marketing communications).


Read more about marketing strategy in the book ‘Chase One Rabbit: Strategic Marketing for Business Success
63 Tips, Techniques and Tales for Creative Entrepreneurs’.

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