What Makes Your Product or Service "the Best"? Perception, Part I

“... marketing is essentially the manipulation of perception.”

by Michael Cooney

Just think. If your product or service was really and truly “the best,” wouldn’t you sell a lot more of it? Wouldn’t sales leap to the number one spot in the country? And wouldn’t you make the next cover of Forbes, soaking up the rays from the spotlight of fame and fortune?

Maybe... maybe not.

The problem, of course, is that every one uses different criteria for defining what makes a particular product or service “the best.” And people buy according to perception, not fact.

“Best” is merely a perception

You’ve heard that perception is reality? Well, it was never more true than in marketing. You buy what you perceive as best, and your perceptions are formed by what you see and hear. Much of that comes from marketing efforts.

Since I’m a certified car nut, and used to live in Japan, may I use Japanese cars as an example?

Soichiro Honda started building motorbikes after World War II. As those motorbikes, then motorcycles, became more popular, he decided to manufacture cars too. But by then, in the mid 1960s, Honda was firmly entrenched as a motorcycle company in the Japanese collective mind.

And there Mr. Honda ran head on into perception. Though hugely successful here, Honda cars have always struggled to maintain market share in Japan. Here, Honda sells more cars than any Japanese manufacturer. But in Japan, it is a rather distant third, behind Toyota and Nissan. There, Toyota sells nearly four times as many cars as Honda.

Here, Honda is perceived as having excellent reliability. The perception in Japan seems to be ‘Honda is a motorcycle company. Why would you buy a car from a motorcycle company?’ Does that thinking make sense? Would you buy a Harley Davidson car?

Perception drives sales

Honda successfully tackled the problem of perception on another front, however. In late 1985, Honda started manufacturing a car larger than the Accord. It was the Honda Legend. Unlike any Honda before, it had a six cylinder engine, leather, more luxury. But Mr. Honda also understood that in the U.S., if you spent $25,000 for a 1986 Honda, your neighbors would have laughed at you.

The solution? Create a new, upscale company to sell a new, upscale car. And thus Acura was born. Tens of thousands of people who would never have paid $25,000 for a Honda Legend paid $25,000 for an Acura Legend. Same car as the one sold in Japan, except for two differences: which side the steering wheel was on, and the chrome name plate.

Toyota soon adopted Honda’s concept. Their 1989 Lexus LS 400 was the result. Just as there is no Acura in Japan, there is no Lexus. In Japan, the Lexus LS 430 is the Toyota Celsior. Yes, a Toyota. But again, how many people here would pay $60,000 for a new Toyota sedan? Not many. But thousands of people will pay $60,000 this year for a Lexus LS 430 sedan.

Is a Lexus LS 430 a “better” car than a Toyota Celsior? No -- it’s the same car! But we perceive a Lexus to be better than a Toyota because of how Lexus has positioned its cars in the market, and in our minds.

Acura, Lexus and also Infiniti (Nissan) spent huge sums -- not to make their cars better than their Japanese market siblings -- but to make you perceive them as better! Why? Because they understand that people buy based on perception, not on fact.

Tune in to your client’s perceptions

Marketing is essentially the manipulation of perception. Your job as king of your company is to determine how prospective clients perceive your product or service, and act on that.

Start asking yourself some important questions: How do others perceive my product/service? What are their expectations? Is my perception of what is “best” hurting sales? Could my product appeal to twice as many people if I made a few changes? Does that new, bigger, better product I’m thinking about match people’s perceptions of this company? Would it be better instead to create a new company with greater perceived sophistication to properly launch that new, bigger, better product? How can I alter my marketing to improve other’s perception of our company and its products?

Successfully, ethically altering people’s perception is what drives sales. Sorry, there is no “best” product. There is only the perception of which is best.