Some Very Smart People Make Very Stupid Mistakes

While catching up on some business reading Saturday morning with “Fortune Magazine,” an article entitled “A Visionary Tech Founder Returns” caught my eye. It was about Cher Wang. If you’re like me, you never heard of her. She was the co-founder of HTC, a Taiwan-based smartphone maker. Her name was bandied about with Steve Jobs and Michael Dell. A very smart woman.


Cher WangHTC began as a wholesale phone maker for companies such as Hewlett-Packard and later decided to sell phones under its own name. In 2008, Google selected HTC to partner with it on the first phone to run on its Android operating system. Long story short, HTC’s sales were $9.6 billion in 2010 and by 2013 the company was in trouble. They hadn’t met sales projections and had supply chain issues and other problems. Once the top seller of Android-Powered smartphones, HTC failed to make the list of the world’s top 10 smartphone makers. They got crushed by Apple and Samsung who solidified their positions at the top of the mobile phone food chain.


Why the fall from grace? “In the beginning, the competition was not as severe,” says Wang. “We didn’t think marketing was as important. We thought the product was more important than marketing. And we didn’t know how to communicate with the customer.”


Why am I sharing this story? Because very smart people can make very stupid mistakes! I’ve been witness to this for nearly 40 years now. Early in my career as a product publicist in San Mateo, CA, I visited a manufacturer of portable hairdryers. A small company with a great product. However, when I was explaining the marketing advantages of implementing a publicity program which was affordable because the publicity, or media news coverage, is free and the fee for our expertise was positioned for smaller businesses, he cut me off and said, “Don’t tell me how to sell hairdryers, I’ve been in this business longer than Oster, Revlon, and all the other companies out there.” Wow! What could I say? I asked him, “How come nobody knows about his company’s hair dryer and they all know about Oster and Revlon?” With that he asked me to leave. But the answer was obvious: a lack of respect for marketing.


When I returned home to Boston and started Venmark, we were hired by an engineering firm in Waltham, MA to publicize an electronic component for them. In those days, sales leads from product publicity were sent to our clients on labels, ready for mailing and we were copied. We also hired a press clipping service and knew the company received an extraordinary amount of product news coverage. Naturally, that prompted a follow-up visit to the company to solicit more business. The company president, who was a very bright MIT graduate with an electrical engineering degree said to me, “Your publicity didn’t generate any sales for me, so I’m not going to hire your firm again.” I was absolutely shocked and asked, “How did you handle all of your sales leads?” You won’t believe his response! He went to his bottom desk drawer, opened it and pulled out a stack of sales leads in the form of stick-on labels ready for mailing. He hadn’t even responded to the leads we generated for him! I educated him and we eventually worked together again.


Fast-forward to 2004. A manufacturer of plastic cable harness whose products I publicized monthly for 26 years and helped build his business by attracting OEMs and supporting distributors through widespread news coverage on the covers and product feature pages of leading trade publications fired me. Why? Because he was no longer receiving sales leads in the form of stick-on labels ready for mailing from publishers. He hadn’t taken the transition from “sales lead label generation” to “website visits” seriously. He only checked his web traffic bi-monthly at that time. His assertion was that product publicity didn’t work anymore!


What was transitioning, of course, was that readers would see his product features and rather than taking the time to fill out “bingo cards” (reader service forms for you younger folks), they simply Google searched for the product or company by name. When I tried to explain this evolution to him, I was accused of going into a diatribe and our relationship was finished. All he had to do was use Google Analytics to verify that we were generating a ton of website traffic from our publicity instead of physical leads. Ironically, the most web-savvy clients back then were doing that and hiring us more frequently as a result. One door closed for us and another opened!


Back to HTC and the smartphone market. Apple is number one because in addition to having fine products, the company knows how to take full advantage of free publicity with every product introduction. The Apple Mac was introduced in 1984 with a legendary publicity stunt by Steve Jobs who had the computer introduce him!  He was a marketing genius.


What Jobs understood totally was that the key to getting lots of product publicity was based upon the presentation, not the product. If there is a need your product or service fills, there will be audiences interested and, therefore, media outlets including publications, websites, and blogs available to reach those audiences who are anxious to satisfy that interest. In fact, the most successful products in history were all introduced using publicity. Publicity, of course, isn’t the only marketing tactic in the mix. However, if done properly, it is the most powerful and affordable by small businesses.


The problem I’ve observed with small businesses, especially those run by engineers, is they don’t fully understand what product publicity is and what it can accomplish for them. They may have tried publicity and failed to get results because it was poorly executed or they didn’t properly follow-up or integrate it with their website and other marketing programs. Because of a lack of understanding and appreciation of what publicity can achieve, such as product positioning and market research, the business owner tries to do it himself or since it is “free” delegates it to a lowly employee or part-time writer (not a publicist) and the effort fails.


Product publicity is the only way a small business can fast-track their marketing program. What’s more, product news is an equalizer. You cannot distinguish the size of a company by a product news feature endorsed by a respected publication or website. Unfortunately, some very smart people make very stupid mistakes. Fortunately, I have more stories about very smart people who have let us help them take full advantage of their publicity opportunities and partner with them to build their businesses than those who haven’t.




© 2014 Steven M. Stroum


Steve Stroum

Steve Stroum

Steven M. Stroum, founder and president of Venmark International is a seasoned publicist, marketer, and entrepreneur who has been featured in INC Magazine, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, Industrial Marketing, OMNI Magazine, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, The Middlesex News, San Francisco Chronicle, and other media outlets. He has also appeared on numerous radio and television programs, addressed many business and civic groups, and been a guest lecturer at Boston College, Babson College, MIT, and his alma mater Northeastern University.

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