Can you sell absolutely anything?


Wolf urine, as sold on Amazon

There have always been niche markets for bizarre things.

Believe it or not, some people want to buy wolf urine. Apparently it’s good for warding off deer. Which is why it’s for sale on Amazon.

And there are willing buyers for practically everything offered on eBay.

One of its customers bought a man’s entire life for around £200,000.

But can you sell anything to a market of millions of customers?

After all, over the decades, we’ve seen all sorts of brands that have been less than successful:

  • New Coke
  • Apple Newton
  • Sinclair C5
  • Ford Edsel
  • Tucker cars
  • Celery-flavoured Jell-O
  • Sony Betamax

Those are just a few of the famous flops. I’m sure that you and I could dredge up plenty of obscure ones from the murky depths of marketing history if we tried hard enough.

Thinking about those failed products, you can’t help wondering:

Would they have succeeded with the right marketing and advertising?

It seems that Tucker cars and Sony Betamax were both good products, where bad business decisions and/or bad luck led to poor sales and eventual failure.

As for celery-flavoured Jell-O, well, come on, anyone could see that was never going to fly, except straight into the bin.

But over the years, I watched as people bought mineral water, Mexican beer (so unpleasant that you have to put a lime wedge in it to make it drinkable), male skincare products… and I began to think, yeah, maybe it is possible to sell practically anything.

You just need to get certain things right for it to work.

5 factors that affect your product’s success

  • Positioning (e.g. mineral water as purer and healthier than tap water)
  • packaging (or serving method, e.g. Mexican beer with lime)
  • pricing (e.g. Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi might have been more successful if it wasn’t priced so high)
  • advertising (e.g. Volkswagen, Marlboro Man or De Beers)
  • timing (e.g. people weren’t ready for the Apple Newton; it was ahead of its time)

Don’t get “found out”

One serious pitfall to avoid is your customers discovering that your brand isn’t what it seems. Of course, this need never happen if your brand is completely transparent, honest and straightforward from the start.

Here are three brands that failed to meet customers’ expectations in a big way:


This was Coca-Cola’s attempt to get ahead in the bottled water market. People believed they were buying a “pure” mineral water. Then, in 2004, the media reported that Dasani was made from Sidcup tap water, and by the end of the year, Coca-Cola had withdrawn the Dasani brand from the UK market.

Sunny Delight

You may recall this former P&G drink. When launched, it was displayed right beside the fresh orange juice in chiller cabinets. So we all thought it must be another brand of orange juice – natural, healthy stuff for the kids. Within months, it became the UK’s third biggest-selling soft drink after Coke and Pepsi. Then we learned that it was actually “5% citrus juice, and a lot of sugar and water, with vegetable oil, thickeners, added vitamins and flavourings, colourings and other additives that make it look like fresh orange juice” (Guardian). The subsequent media outrage caused sales to plummet.


Remember the story of Gerald Ratner? He owned a very successful UK chain of jewellery shops. His merchandise was remarkably inexpensive if you considered that it was “jewellery”. Then one day, in a speech to a conference, he referred to a particular item for sale in his shops: “People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’I say, ‘because it’s total crap.’ The media got wind of it and, so big was the fallout (the value of the company fell by £500 million), the firm nearly collapsed. Gerald Ratner had to resign, and his chain was renamed Signet Jewelers.

How to succeed with a weak product/market position

If you apply those five considerations above (positioning, packaging, pricing, advertising and timing) and your brand meets your customers’ expectations, I believe that you can sell just about anything. The following are examples of four brands that have done this with great success.

New Labour

British voters wouldn’t buy the old Labour Party. So it modernised itself, chose a new leader who looked like a Tory, and repackaged itself as New Labour. Hey presto, a party that gets itself elected and stays in government for 13 years.

Peroni Nastro Azzurro (as sold in the UK)

Ask any beer expert to name a great lager, and they probably won’t mention Peroni. Yet, by surrounding it with the best of Italian style, Miller Brands is able to sell loads of it in the UK – at a premium price.

Old Spice

You’ve probably seen “The man your man could smell like” campaign. It’s put new life into a tired, old man’s brand and made it appealing  to young men.


How could this brand from Ireland, a country not known for its cider, enter England, the home of great ciders, and jump ahead of the local brands? My beer client says it was Magners’ advertising that did it. I think Magners’ success was due to the way it was served in outlets: not like normal cider, but over ice.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Are there limits to what we can sell?

Let me know, below. And if you can think of any better examples of brands that have succeed against all expectations, please share them.




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