My son, Lee, is a copywriter.
We were discussing some marketing terms that seem to have become old-fashioned.
Terms such as FMCG or consumer durable or distress purchase.
I asked him if he knew what an FMCG was.
He said, sure, anything disposable – like a pen.
I said a pen isn’t disposable, that’s a consumer durable.
It’s something that’s comparatively expensive, so it’s a considered purchase.
You don’t just grab it off the shelf – you have to think about it first.
Not if it’s a Bic, he said.
That stopped me – I always thought of a pen as a consumer durable.
You can pay £20 all the way up to £500 for a fountain pen.
But it was true: a Bic was a pen and it was also cheap and disposable, therefore an FMCG.
Old-fashioned, expensive pens that needed to be refilled were consumer durables.
But Bic invented a whole new category of disposable pen – the FMCG pen.
And investigating that category difference could have saved Bic millions of pounds later.
Because Bic tried to market mobile phones and it was a failure.
It also tried to market perfume and it was a failure.
Then Bic tried to market underwear – again, it was a failure.
Because it didn’t change those products into FMCGs.
But when Bic marketed lighters and razors, they were a huge success.
Because Bic reinvented those items inside a different category.
Lighters and razors used to be consumer durables, but Bic reinvented them as FMCGs, cheap and disposable.
So Bic should have understood that the category comes before the product.
There’s more to switching categories than simply making something cheap.
Mobile phones or perfume or underwear didn’t work because Bic didn’t reinvent them as FMCGs.
But Bic did it with pens, and lighters, and razors.
All products that had previously been consumer durables.
Products aren’t rigidly fixed within those categories.
But the mind uses those categories for sorting products.
And we can’t ignore the mind.
Bic didn’t market the successful items as consumer durables – it marketed them as fantastic value.
It wasn’t a cheap pen – it was five miles of writing.
It wasn’t a cheap razor – it was 10 great shaves.
It wasn’t a cheap cigarette lighter – it was 3,000 reliable lights.
Bic now sells 31 million of those items daily.
So the usefulness of those categories isn’t in understanding old-fashioned marketing.
It’s in understanding how the mind works, and how we can manipulate it.
How we can position, or reposition, ourselves within it.
Because the mind is the real media, the real context, the real sales environment.
That’s what Steve Jobs understood.
That’s why he didn’t market the iPod as the most technically advanced MP3 player.
He sold it as 10,000 songs in your pocket.
And that’s how you own a piece of the consumer’s mind that no-one else does.
By understanding movement from one category to another, we can understand what is possible and what is necessary – and we can avoid mistakes.
The value in those categories isn’t as straitjackets but as ways to stimulate and question our thinking.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.