When Did Great Marketing Beat a Great Product?

There’s an expression I hear from time to time that I like. It goes something like “great marketing, bad product used to beat a bad product, great marketing, but not anymore”. The idea is that since the rise of the web, it’s much more difficult to use a zillion dollar budget and clever ads to conceal that your product is crappy.

I’m including this little nugget in our ebook, and I want to cite an example. Does anybody have a good example where great marketing and a lousy product beat a great product with dodgy marketing? Maybe movies? But I guess they’ve always been victims and benefactors of word of mouth.


  1. Yeah, I thought of that one, but I’m too young to remember whether or not VHS has good marketing.

  2. First one that came to mind for me was Nike. Middling products, excellent marketing. Especially when they launched the whole Air Nike line and meme. The actual benefits of air in your shoes were minimal, and not as good as competing shock absorption technologies. But to think your shoes could be light as air with a transparent window — awesome!

  3. Buzz Bishop would tell you iPods are inferior to Creative players, but iPod marketing kicks Creative marketing around the block and back. I disagree on the basic premise, but that’s a perfect kind of tech example.

  4. @ Donna: Yeah the first thing that came to mind were some of the beer commercials out there.

    As for a crappy marketing campaign for a great product vs excellent marketing for a crappy product… I can just think of restaurant commercials. Sometimes the BEST and yummiest food in the city doesn’t come from the flashy overly advertised places or chains, but from the little mom n’ pop place on the corner.

    Then there’s the geniuses out there who pick up on the fact that their product tastes like death but is still actually effective… so they take the Buckley’s cough syrup approach – producing seemingly low-budget commercials that tell it like it is “it tastes awful but it works”.

    … before I start searching YouTube for some of my favourite commercials I’ll stop commenting so I don’t get too off track 😛

  5. Darren,

    To old to remember VHS marketing….. yikes now I feel old.

    Unfortunately (ahem), I’m old enough to remember the general debate but not the specifics. I seem to recall that Beta had the better format. Something about wider tape and better quality video then VHS.

    Perhaps you already knew this.

    The other thing that comes to mind is the current keyboard setup on most computers. QWERTY.

    It’s my understanding (I could be wrong) that this is not the best format at all for efficient typing. Apparently it all goes back to the original manual typewriters.

    The way the original typewriter keyboard was set up – the arm thingies that flicked up got jammed with one another so they had to change it and move things around.

    Perhaps it myth but they changed it so the typewriter sales people could type the word “typewriter” with two fingers very fast. If you ever look at the letters for typewriter, they are all on the top line of the keyboard.

    Get an old typewriter and look at the “thingies” that flick up and you will see that they are all positioned in such a way that they will not stick to one another regardless of how quickly you type the word typewriter.

    Not sure if this qualifies but certainly underlines how marketing can drive the sales.

    Final thing.

    OJ vs. Sunny D – I know Sunny D does not come close to OJ in terms of sales but isn’t Sunny D a kind of a petrochemical? They fact is has any market share says something really bad. Not sure what but it has to be bad.

    I guess the same could be said for butter vs. margarine.

  6. Surely Microsoft vs Apple should be in this category. Although perhaps it was more of a case of business strategy over product rather than pure marketing.

  7. Television: hit shows get the quick bites and the good ones get canceled (pre-strike). Film: stupid movies get more marketing money and really good indies get limited releases. Generally…

  8. My opinion – Windows 3.1 vs. OS/2. Windows’ marketing beat OS/2 in two critical channels.

    The first was (obviously) consumers. Cast your mind back 15 years – 100% of computer users knew what Windows was, substantially fewer than that – I’d guess less than 10% – knew what OS/2 was. For people with a fear of technology, there’s safety in numbers.

    The second was application developers. Availability of applications was and is critical to Windows dominance on the desktop, and MS pours a lot of money into making sure that developers continue to develop for Windows by marketing to the development community. Again, for developers looking for a wide distribution channel, there’s safety in numbers.

    There’s clearly a network effect to OS usage, but it takes effective marking to convince the great clueless of that.

    You can argue that the success of Windows is tied to draconian OEM contracts and monopolistic practices, but this really underscores the other side of your point – Windows was unquestionably an inferior product. It was at *least* a generation behind OS/2, neck in neck with MacOS at the bottom of the OS heap. Windows and MacOS survive to this day and continue to fight it out. OS/2 sits in a retirement home with AmigaOS and NeXT discussing how technical superiority lost to savvy marketing. Badly.

  9. Oracle versus Ingres

    Back in the day when Relational Databases where “cool” (yes, it’s true young children), Oracle and Ingres got in to a great dogfight over market share and market leadership (1984 – 1990). Ingres was demonstrably better, adhered to the standard more closely, had more features, etc. Also had one of the founders of database technology working for them!

    Oracle had better marketing, like, waaaaay better. Oracle ran a set of killer ads in Byte magazine (I may mist up now….) featuring a red Fokker Airplane (Oracle) shooting the Ingres airplane out of the sky. Agressive, vehement ads.

    Which worked. Oracle now buys up every enterprise software firm on the planet. Ingres is ….eh, open source.

  10. This is a story I tell often. I remember seeing commercials for 7-11 as a child. The kids in the commercials ran into a store where there were clouds, candy fell from the sky and the the store was a magical place.

    We didn’t live near any 7-11, but one day, my dad and I happened to drive to the other side of town where there was one. I begged him to go inside.

    Man, was I ever disappointed when it turned out to just be a convenience store!!!

    I still remember how disappointed and ripped off I felt.

  11. The first example that occurred to me of good marketing beating a good product was a political campaign. Which one? Any one! But then I realized that this example meets only one of the critera: it’s unquestionable that the better-marketed product wins, but neither it nor the defeated product are any good.

  12. I fear that I am in the middle of a case study where bad marketing beats out a good product. TurningPoint sold us clickers that have numerous bugs and design problems by lying to us about the ability to upload to WebCT and about the numeric capability. I would never have “gone along” with the other members of our clicker selection committee if I had known that TurnigPoint reps were lying about the numeric capability of their product. Like President Bush who has no exit strategy for Iraq, I fear that our university has no exit strategy for TurningPoint. We will continue working with TurningPoint until, with our resources, they finally develop a clicker as reliable and efficient as the einstruction clickers which I used in spring 2007 and a technical staff that knows as much about their clickers as Chico’s State’s technical support.

  13. Interesting post. I think part of the reason it’s “hard” to think of inferior products winning because of superior marketing is because, with superior marketing, we believe the products ‘are’ better – that’s what great marketing really is.


  14. glad I stumbled in the conversation; the best one I can think of is AOL vs compuserve. Compuserve had it all over AOL in the early years. I wish I could do that one over again and invest in AOL even though I thought it stunk at the time. Also, traditonal business models over network marketing, it is a hard one to break…

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