Why I failed to market an amazing product

When I started out in sales, it all looked quite simple. All it took was make good connections with prospects, keep showing up and be persistent.

You had to approach it like a numbers game. If you filled up the pipeline with enough prospects, some of them would eventually give you the business. It was all about discipline and consistency.

You could further improve your odds by making an effort to get really good at building relationships and earning trust.

I know I’m not saying anything new here. This is the stuff of cliche. It is tried, tested, and tired.

It worked really well for me when I was in the investment management industry. Especially when I was raising capital for established products and services in markets with much competition and routine procurement processes. The investment industry is mostly like that. I guess that more than 90% of the business is formatted into standard practices. 

But everything changed when I started to work with ideas that were more ‘revolutionary’ or even ‘exotic’. These were investment ideas and strategies that didn't exactly fit into any of the ‘boxes’ or established categories. 

It lies in my nature to want to venture into unchartered territory. I was doing really well in the ‘red ocean’ of traditional investment management. When I set out to do more 'exciting' things, I realised how hard it was to get people to think ‘out of the box’ and take chances on new ideas, I was often tempted to peddle back to the mainstream. But then again, I guess I am a sucker for adventure so I just kept going.

I eventually started to travel to the Middle East every other week to call on investors. I’d been getting very little traction in Europe, so I needed new pastures. I saw it as a new frontier. It was only 6 hours away, and it seemed to me that the dogmatic standards of the old continent weren’t as baked into the system yet. 

But then I faced another major problem. In hindsight, it was one of my own making...

I decided that it would be smart to focus on financial institutions. More specifically, the people who manage propitiatory portfolios. In case you are not from the investment industry, these people typically invest the capital of their own institution. Their mandate is usually all about finding investment opportunities that aren’t too volatile but do generate a handsome return above money market rates.

I don’t want to get too technical on you here but, the thing is that my fund was perfect for them. It invested in a diversified spectrum of high yielding fixed income and it provided exactly what they needed: a stable return well above the reference interest rate.  The track record was great. For years, regardless of market cycles, the fund did exactly what it said on the tin. 

The only peculiarity was that the product was kind of ‘creative’. It mixed together different types of high yielding securities. And although by now this has become a common strategy, back then it was a fairly unorthodox idea. It was also difficult to label and it didn’t have a designated ‘box’.

The only thing that these securities had in common was the fact that they paid high yields. Most other aspects were different enough to ensure diversification. And that is exactly what made the strategy work so well in producing stable returns.

If you know anything about investing, it makes sense to diversify between different types of assets, especially the ones that produce regular income. However, in the real world, it was pretty much like what it must have been like to convince people to eat potatoes right after they were first brought back from the Americas. Today it is part of our food staple, but the story of getting people to buy into potatoes is a fascinating marketing case study on its own. I’ll tell you about that some other time. (if you really want to know more about it now, here’s an amusing take on it

So I went out to the Gulf Region. After all, that is where all the money was right? 

At first, things seemed to be going well. The potential target investors kept taking meetings with me. Our conversations were promising and we were getting well acquainted.  I had grown a Rolodex that kept me busy and I was regularly calling on these people during the 2 years the campaign went on. 

They seemed to understand the strategy. I could tell from our conversations, at least they were asking the right questions. It seemed obvious to me they were ready to invest but the only problem was that they just weren’t crossing the line. I kept coming back but everything seemed to be stuck and they kept on coming up with excuses. I heard all kinds of explanations, except for the real reason why they weren’t allocating...

This went on for months. With every visit, I got more confused. What was taking them so long?

In the end, only a handful of dozens of institutions invested, allocating only what you could describe as a 'token' investment. It hardly even moved the needle. It was disappointing. 

I used to tell myself that this is simply the way things are in the Middle East. I comforted myself that it is notoriously difficult to raise assets there. Everybody else seemed to think so too. These excuses helped me to feel a bit better about things for a while. But in the end, they were just excuses and they were nowhere near the truth.

Only years later everything snapped into place for me. The obstacle that kept them from investing was right in front of me all along but I simply couldn’t see it at the time.

The thing is that the people I was meeting with didn’t make investment decisions on their own. Typically, they would need to convince an investment committee first.

It mattered that they understood the product, but because it was so ‘exotic', they needed to gather the courage to stick their neck out for it and risk their reputation by doing so. There was no way they were going to put my strategy on top of the pile. The reality is that even though I spent so much effort on educating the gatekeepers, they hardly ever even brought my strategy up at these meetings.

By nature, institutional investors are as risk averse as they come, especially in the ‘Middle Kingdoms’. What you need to know about the region is that a working visa is pretty much like a membership card to a select club. The moment you step out of line, someone will show up to escort you out. So, asking these people to put their reputation on the line for a somewhat 'outrageous' idea isn’t exactly the smartest thing to do.

The bottom line is that my mistake was that I never really helped them to position the idea to others. How could I expect them to figure out a way to position such a ‘revolutionary’ idea on their own? What on earth was I thinking?

My conversations and my presentation materials were more like a technical manual than an intuitive narrative. The more information I shared with these people, the more complex my proposition became in their minds.

Essentially, I thought I was in the business of impressing gate keepers. But then I realised that instead, my job should have been about helping the gatekeepers bring these new ideas to their stakeholders.

This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned. So much that it eventually became my livelihood to help people make new and often complex ideas easier to understand.

And even though this article is all about marketing an investment product, I have come to realise that this same problem arises in any situation where new ideas need to be positioned. It happens in science, technology, or any product or solution that challenges the status quo.

I recently did a talk at a packaging event, another well-developed industry,  and I soon realised that they are struggling with the exact same issues when it comes to positioning new ideas. I work with people from different industries and I have seen first-hand that this is a universal challenge.

The gold lies in making it easy for others to adopt and champion your products or ideas. It means that you need to make the proposition more intuitive. Even more importantly, you need to make it easier to share, and even contagious if you can.

The good news is that this is simpler than you might think it is. There is a tested, ancient, and simple method to make people pay attention, remember and share your message. 

That method is called storytelling. 

Now, I know it is a bit of a buzzword, but once you figure how the formulas work, it will leave you wondering why on earth you hadn’t found out about this earlier on. When you understand what storytelling is all about, you will be able to put it work in almost any aspect of your life. It is that obvious!

The crazy thing is that, as far as I know, they still don’t really teach us about this at school. The good thing is that it is never too late to learn all about it. We are all storytellers, it is just a matter of sharpening a natural ability that we already possess.

A great way to start is by getting your elevator pitch right. If you are interested in finding that message that makes your ideas or your propositions more contagious make sure to get my free 20-minute guide on how to make lasting first impressions.

It’s a short read (20 minutes) but it might have long lasting impact on how you position yourself and what you do going forward. 

Check it out and if you like it, please share it. You’d help us make the world a bit less confusing :-)