Change Nothing, Sell More


The webcomic “Doc Rat,” by Jenner (a practicing physician somewhere in the wilds of Australia) has long taken potshots at the marketing department of drug companies. It’s no coincidence that the marketing floor is represented by weasels.

I’ve written about the nature of persuasion before, but sometimes an example of the extreme folly of advertising and marketing rises to the surface, and I feel moved to share – a recent marketing campaign for Shreddies, a Wheat-Chex-like cereal sold in the UK, Canada, and New Zealand.


It was a good seller, and popular, and as well known as Wheaties or Cheerios in the USA, but the manufacturers wanted to breathe new life into the product, and so Kraft Foods came to advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather with a unique request – to re-brand Shreddies as a leader, without having any news about the product to work with, and while keeping in mind that focus groups showed that Shreddies’ customers liked it just the way it was. The resulting campaign was devious, brilliant, humorous, and successful, all at once.



All they did was rotate the image of the cereal by 45°, altering the visual perception of the product.




And despite the fact that the product was identical, taste-testers actually reported a difference in flavor – and a positive one to boot. They liked it better. Not content to rest on their laurels, the company milked the campaign for all it was worth:


The campaign was percieved by many as being tongue-in-cheek, but there were many who did not… and as a result, the sales of shreddies increased by 18% in the first month, and remained higher for many months thereafter. You can read the details of the campaign and see some video clips at Visual Targeting.

There are two main parts to marketing: 1) convincing your target audience that they absolutely need what you have to sell, whether or not they do, and 2) tailoring your product to what your target market actually wants and values. This bit of marketing jiggery-pokery addressed the second in a brilliant way, without the manufacturers having to do anything whatsoever to the actual product.

That’s funny, but it’s also scary. We are being bombarded on a daily basis by upwards of 5,000 ads a day, up from around 500 in the 1970’s [1]. That is an incredible amount of clutter to either tune out or sift through, depending on what your needs are. And almost every one of those ads is using targeted persuasion techniques to get your attention and influence your purchasing behavior. President of the Marketing Firm Yankelovich, Jay Walker-Smith, has said, “Consumers don’t hate advertising. What they hate is bad advertising.”  There is some truth in that; I’ve mentioned some of my favorite advertising spots before, and if all advertising were as clever as these, I’d be persuaded to watch more of them. At the same time, it’s important to remember that this advertising has only one purpose – pushing every single one of your buttons in the hopes that you will open your wallet.

A couple of good tips:

  • Nothing is free. You’re paying for it somewhere else. A “gimme” is only a good thing if you’re willing to pay the price elsewhere, and if that price has value for you.
  • A sale is not a sale. It’s simply a retailer cutting an inflated price back to the profit level he wants in the first place. (Liquidation sales can be the exception to this rule.)
  • Saving 20% on an item is not a good deal if you can’t afford the other 80% in the first place. Don’t buy things you don’t need.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] CBS News.


6 responses to “Change Nothing, Sell More

  1. This *may* be apocryphal, but I remember a story told in the 1940s (from a book published then, so there) that talked about a new kind of canned salmon. It was white, and the ad men were having trouble convincing the public that it was just as good as the traditional pink stuff. So they came up with a campaign that pointed out that this salmon was “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can.” Blew one out of the park!

  2. As always Old Wolf – sage advice. Long ago, I received a BA in Advertising and Design because I loved the idea of thinking up catchy jargon with equally catchy graphics. One day, it dawned on me that I’d never be able to create a campaign for a product I didn’t believe in (why I never had this thought before is beyond me – I’ll chalk it up to a youthful indiscretion). I left advertising and ventured into publishing.
    ps If you’ve never seen it before, there’s a great movie – I think it’s called, How to Get Ahead in Advertising. i remember Rachel Ward was in it. (it’s a black comedy of sorts and pretty wild). You might appreciate it.

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