Marketing Is Not A Battle Of Products, It’s A Battle Of Perceptions

“Marketing is not a battle of products. It’s a battle of perceptions.” – Jack Trout

Three reasons I love that quote:

1. Marketing isn’t just about how ideas spread, it’s about how we get ideas to spread.
2. The work, in preparation and execution, is a battle. Not just because it’s hard, but because it is to be taken seriously. Battles have stakes. And,
3. Everybody brings their baggage to the table. Whatever is on offer, expect everyone to have their own reasons for their own decisions.

Jack Trout has some great perspective on the competition between Home Depot and Lowe’s during the run-up to the housing crisis (2000-2007). At the time, Bob Nardelli had left General Electric to run Home Depot with the “Six Sigma” magic that lead to GE’s operational dominance. The idea was they would blow Lowe’s out of the water with improved efficiency, only that’s not what happened. In Nardelli’s defense, it wasn’t a complete face-plant, but in fair criticism, while he fussed with products, Lowe’s ran laps around them by owning the home improvement market’s perceptions.

In Nardelli’s world, building and showcasing the best products at the best prices would attract rational consumers into Home Depot’s. What they missed was really understanding what those only semi-rational consumers were actually looking for. Lowe’s picked up on the perceptions from here. They launched their “improving home improvement” campaign and redesigned their in-store experience to feel more like a department store (familiar lighting, displays, cleanliness, etc.), they avoided the contractor business (strictly regular people working on their own homes in the aisles), and they specifically catered to novices and newbies who needed help figuring out what to do.

By focusing on how they were being perceived, Lowe’s handily outstripped Home Depot’s gains in market share, market cap, and profits. This was a master craftsman’s master class in how to win a battle of perceptions. They understood how the idea of preferring their stores would spread by creating a welcoming and familiar environment. They knew the stakes of competing against a larger, already entrenched incumbent and focused where they could gain an advantage. They found those points by listening to what the people who didn’t love going to Home Depot wanted, and then gave it to them. In abundance.

Perception is the frame we see products and services through. Marketing, or telling the story about anything we care about, is the act of putting that frame in place. When the situation is competitive we don’t want to battle over the product, but over the placement and control of the frame. These words will never grow old, “Marketing is not a battle of products. It’s a battle of perceptions.”

I’ve only scratched the surface here. If you want more, the gods Al Ries and Jack Trout both discussed Nardelli and the Home Depot versus Lowe’s early 2000s battle here and here.