Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

You Can’t Polish a Turd – so just stop trying.

turd polishnew & improvedit's still a turd

As a student of human nature, I’m always amazed at the obsessive way we, the human race, go out of our way to fake ourselves, and our brethren, out. To avoid the hard realities and make the false, true. We rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, make molehills out of mountains, we call a heart a spade. Which is why I have always loved the idiomatic phrase, “you can’t polish a turd”. Because it points directly at our desire to try to tidy up disaster, to keep up a good face, and to avoid reality, telling ourselves everything is fine. However, let’s be honest. Everyone poops, as the children’s book tells us – and it seems that everyone then tries to turn it into something else.

And no other arena has made turd-polishing more of an art form than marketing. From “new and improved”, to “nothing works better, to “delicious AND nutritious”, marketing and advertising has consistently polished turds in order to make the lame sound good, make the weak feel strong, and make the lazy feel dynamic. Hurrah!

Well, it’s high time we stopped deluding ourselves, trumping ourselves up in the eyes of others, and taking shortcuts in order to keep us from doing the real work.

Stop deluding ourselves to make ourselves feel better
When confronted with a marketing situation that is less than positive, turd-polishing and spin doctoring begins to take place at a high level. Years ago, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, the marketing department decided to reduce the amount of cleaning enzymes in the product as a way to reduce costs. That’s right, they decided to make the product perform worse. But they convinced themselves they were giving the consumer the right level of cleaning – instead of that “over-formulated” product they’d produced for all these years.

Similarly, I worked on AT&T many years ago, and they were looking for ways to increase the revenue they made from long-distance calling (as I said, it was many years ago). They knew that most residential calling was happening after 8PM, when the rates went down – so they decided to raise the night-time calling rate. They also lowered the day rate, in order to create a single rate for the entire day. Because most calling happened at night, it was effectively a price hike for nearly everyone. But AT&T spun it as a “simpler” and more consumer-friendly plan. There, that turd is polished!

So what can you do? Ask yourself – is this really what the consumer wants? Is this based on a true human insight? Would I want this? What makes this a good thing? Consumers, more than ever, demand honesty and transparency. Anything less will be exposed, ignored and ridiculed. New and improved, my arse.

Stop trumping ourselves up with veneer and shallowness
One thing the industry has no shortage of is buzz. As in buzzwords, the “latest big thing” and the new. But so often people use this buzz to cover up a lack of substance, knowledge or honesty. How many times have you heard someone rattle on and on, using the latest terminology –  DMPs, RTB, “brand as publisher” and “native advertising”, anyone? – and, afterwards, you aren’t really sure they said anything at all? The turd that’s being polished here could be ignorance and insecurity, or, worse, a lack of ideas being masked with shiny words. So, instead of buzzwords and generalities, speak in plain English. That’s the only way to see if you’re really saying anything.

Stop taking shortcuts
When it comes to the real work we do, so many people seem to prefer to do as little as possible – and cover up the lack of effort and quality with a shiny wrapper and a nice bow on top. They’ll take below-average work and cover it with gilt – production values, technology, fancy talk. I’m here to tell you that no “content amplification system” can make crappy content successful. No amount of algorithmic optimization will make a bad campaign more successful. Calling your product “new and improved” doesn’t make it so. No fancy talk, over-jacked production quality or celebrities can make a dumb idea or poor product successful. If you’ve got a turd on your hands, the likely best thing to do is flush it down and start the work of producing something good. No amount of polish will change it.

Despite what I’ve said, people really do seem to think they can polish a turd. In fact, I’ve found that even the phrase this article is based on has been made “new and improved”. I found the edited phrase to be “You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter”. Well, I guess that is kinda polished…

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