Can snake oil survive the crowdswarm bubble?

Posted on Aug 25, 2015

We see plenty of blog posts about the coming End of Bad Products. 

Now that there’s a digital crowdswarm bubble™ as I call it, marketing pundits think it’s no longer possible to get away with ineffective or inferior businesses, product lines or even items.

A placebo for the crowdswarm bubble

Can a brand that does nothing at all survive in the social media crowdswarm?

Crowdswarm Yelp reviews will kill that restaurant with the rude staff. Withering social media judgement will shoot down the new lame romcom. Warp-speed indignation will torpedo the candidate who made that racist remark. Yeah?

Sometimes, yes. (Think how Sam & Nia crashed.)
Sometimes, no. (Think how Lululemon survived.)

It is admittedly more difficult to get traction for something new if it can’t generate brand evangelists. You can’t spend your way to category leadership, especially if the crowdswarm tells people not to re-buy. You might not even get retail shelf space. 20 years ago we could exaggerate (i.e., lie about) market test results pitching to CPG buyers – no longer possible. She has the scanner data.

An added complication is that “really good customer service” used to be a selling point. Today, everybody’s CS is expected to be perfect the first time and every time. “Really good” fails to clear the bar.

The assumption, however, that worthless products are worthless is often dead wrong. If the product category is one where purchase comes from wishful thinking, and performance is not measurable, a product that does zip zero nada nothing at all has a good chance of surviving or even thriving. The bottled water industry depends on it. So do most vitamin supplements. And homeopathy. And televangelists who (if you send them your social security check) will offer satisfaction guaranteed in the next life – from which nobody’s ever complained about non-delivery.

If the purchase is based on belief, and no hard evidence of efficacy is demanded, then confirmation bias will guarantee satisfaction. Snake oil may not fare so well in the lab in a double-blind clinical research study with careful metrics … but it will cure grandma’s fibromyalgia if she believes.

One cautionary tale from the crowdswarm is this: if your brand is “litigator” you have to win every case. If it’s “smartphone” or “craft beer” you have to impress your customer’s friends. But if it’s “bee pollen capsules” or “anti-aging creme” it doesn’t have to do anything at all, just offer a big promise on the package.

But what about your brand? Does it need to be renamed, or refreshed, or simply re-examined? Let’s schedule a conversation. Call us at 312.836.0050.

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