Who wants a better mousetrap?

In this Thursday night insight Paul Hague looks at the phenomenon of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and argues that “product” isn’t everything.

Have you read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? It’s a great story, there’s no doubt about it, but the story of how the book became a bestseller is even more incredible. Written in his spare time as a hard-working journalist, Stieg Larsson first called it Men Who Hate Women. Having finished his whopping manuscript and without publishing it, he began his second book. When this was finished he wrote his third. And then he had a heart attack and died. Only after his death were the books published.

The publishing of his books is another incredible story. The rights to the books in the UK, where it began its huge success, were bought by Quercus, a small and unknown backstreet publisher. The owner of Quercus became so desperate to shift copies he gave them away to people in parks and he planted dozens on the back seats of taxis and on tube trains. Today Quercus has moved to luxurious offices in Bloomsbury Square, and its revenues trebled to £15m in the first six months of 2010 on the back of the Larsson phenomenon.

So what can we learn from this? It seems to me there are at least five lessons:

  1. What you call something is critically important. There is no doubt that sales were lifted by the intriguing and catchy label of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. When Marks & Spencer first launched its Vichyssoise soup, it didn’t sell. The name of the selfsame product was changed to Leek And Potato Soup and it flew off the shelves. We shouldn’t underestimate the names of our products. They are our brands, they carry a connotation, and they can positively or negatively affect sales to a dramatic degree.
  2. The route to market is key. In the case of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo it may well have helped that the publisher was small. The desperation to move the books may not have existed with a more prosperous and less hungry company.
  3. Success requires critical momentum. Giving the books away in the first instance had a big cost but it kick-started growth. Somebody has to start reading and talking about the book and the sooner the better. Like a plane trundling down the runway, products gain height quickly once the wheels leave the ground.
  4. Find a good PR story because it costs nothing. Undoubtedly the strange story of Larsson’s life and death captured the imagination of the media. It resulted in acres of newsprint which cost nothing and awakened the interest of the general public.
  5. The product is important, but it isn’t everything. Larsson isn’t Dickens and he isn’t Shakespeare. However, his books have been published in 44 countries and have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide so far. They are a great read, there is no doubt about it but a product doesn’t have to be the best in the world to achieve the highest sales in the world. The debate still rages on as to which is best, a Mac or a PC . I won’t join that one but I will point out that Mac’s have less than a 10% market share and this in no way reflects the performance of the excellent product.

My insight today is that we should always take care to put as much emphasis on the other parts of the marketing mix as the product itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that, If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap, than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door. I am not so sure that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have had such a large path beaten to its door without a little bit of marketing help.

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