The Value of Showmanship

We’re taught never to judge by appearances. We all do it anyway.

Our all-too-human tendency to judge a book by its cover surely is unfortunate from a social justice standpoint, but from a marketing standpoint it offers an opportunity not to be missed. Namely, the opportunity to dress up your product or service to look the part so that customers will be more likely to buy it, both metaphorically and literally.

Not long ago I had to deal with a clogged drain. Since my otherwise handy sink plunger had proved powerless against this particular clog, I went looking for the meanest, toughest, beefiest industrial strength drain opener I could find. Amid two shelves of brands at The Home Depot, one contender stood out. Its authoritative black bottle certainly impressed, but the coup de grâce was that the bottle was packaged within a resealable plastic bag that was plastered with warnings.

Now, come on. The beefy bottle and childproof cap provided a perfectly safe seal. The bag was nothing more than showmanship. Its sole purpose was to create an impression of contents so dangerously nasty—and, therefore, effective—as to make even the most defiant clog quake with fear.

It worked. I had no choice. I had to buy that brand. Resealable bag and all.

Good showmanship that impresses is part of good marketing. That’s why airline crews dress in crisp, military-style uniforms. You and I both know that attire doesn’t fly a plane, yet most of us would feel less secure if our pilot sported a tank top and cutoffs. It’s why Del Monte makes Milk Bone dog treats in the shape of little, cartoonish femurs. Don’t try telling me that it’s your dog who finds the design charming. It’s why bank presidents wear suits, symphony orchestra players but not rappers don tuxes and formals, the Raid bug killer logo appears in bold, no-nonsense yellow type over a black shield (underscored by a lightning bolt, no less), horror movies have creepy soundtracks, Tropicana sticks a straw in an orange, iPhone packaging evokes an altar, and the Secret brand deodorant logo is set in a script font instead of, say, Stencil or Impact.

Even nature gets in on the showmanship act. As far as anyone can tell, a peacock’s big, colorful tail, a lion’s stately mane, and a gorilla’s elegant silver back — all otherwise useless or even arguable liabilities in the wild — serve to impress.

Regardless of what you bring to market, how you package it matters. Endow your product, store or service with the kind of look and feel—showmanship—that telegraphs “This is the real thing.” You’ll sell more.

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