A tale of two peanut butters :: 2024-02-02

A great pitch is worth more than a great product.

Imagine going to the grocery store and into the peanut butter aisle. (If you're allergic to nuts, I'll have to ask you to imagine something else that you like.) You came to buy peanut butter, and you aren't leaving without it.

Arrayed in front of you are all the peanut butters that you're familiar with. Some are generic, some are cheap, some are fancy. Some are processed, some have that natural oil separation going on. You know the drill.

There are also two other new peanut butters there. You've never seen them before, and you've never heard of them before either.

The first peanut butter looks amazing. Imagine how your favorite peanut butter looks, but even better. The label is in an art style that draws you in, and it says all the things you love. You like creamy? It's creamy. You like crunchy? It's crunchy. You want it to be GMO free? Check. It's also got a short blurb about values that you hold dear. Someone you look to as a role model is right on that label endorsing it. If there's anything else that would entice you, it's right there too.

The second peanut butter is in a jar with nothing on it but a barcode. The container is all opaque in a shade of a color you don't particularly like. You can't see inside the jar to even really know what's inside, the only indication that it might contain peanut butter is the price label on the shelf that says it's peanut butter.

They both cost the same, and you can only get one. (You only have cash, no cards or mobile pay or friends or other ways to pay.) You have zero experience tasting them, and have heard no other information on them.

Which peanut butter are you walking home with? How much does the quality of the peanut butter in the jar play into this decision?

In the Short Term

All other things being equal, the pitch, the marketing, the information presented is the only thing an uninformed decision can go on. This isn't a trick, but a lot of us are tricked by this anyway.

The story above makes no claim about their quality. Maybe the attractive jar has the most delicious peanut butter, or maybe it's disgusting. The same goes for the weird jar, it might have the best peanut butter ever made... or just something disgusting.

In the short term, most decisions will be based on appearance and not experience.

This plays out in so many ways for anything new to you. You can't marry someone with the knowledge of what being married to them for any amount of time. You can't get a new job or a business with the experience of having done it before. You can't even watch a new movie with the experience of having watched it before. You can't know what to expect with newness.

This also is going to play out with people that can influence your life. Your manager can't know what promoting you (versus the other person) might be like. They can only really go on what it looks like, and I have known a lot of people who produce enormous value but can't communicate it at all.

Imagine that person at work (or school or whatever) doing 10 times as much as anyone else, but also downplays every one of their own accomplishments. They're vague when communicating what might get done when (even if it's a lot and often), and just generally keeps to themselves partially out of resentment either for not being recognized or for not receiving more attention.

This person is the hidden gem. They are a world class peanut butter, but packaged up like that suspicious black jar. Not only do they fail to represent themselves accurately, they are in fact actively representing themselves negatively and undermining anything their own success rightly deserves. Most people who are consistently negative and aren't responsible are not good at their jobs. If a boss skips this person for promotion, or even fires them, they may be making a terrible mistake, but it's a mistake they may not be able to understand, and one that the worker was setting themselves up for.

You can imagine similar situations in other realms. The date that describes themselves as plain and boring with no plans in life, for example.

I've been that guy; you might be doing something similar. Stop it, and I give you permission to be honest about yourself, your accomplishments, and your goals. Being positive about yourself does not have to be sleazy, dishonest, or misleading. Truly positive things about yourself are true.

The upside for people in this unbalance is that in the long term, a better product will beat a better pitch. The catch is that you do have to survive long enough for there to even be a long term, and so you do have to

In the Long Term

With relevant experience, a good product becomes its own pitch.

Go back to the peanut butter aisle, but this time run the two-new-jars scenario with any one of these tweaks:

How much does the packaging matter if you had any one of these pieces of information?

If the amazing label peanut butter is amazing, then the label did its job. It's a good thing if the label matches the taste, since almost everybody will choose it first and waste less time on other options.

If the amazing label peanut butter is anything less than amazing... even if it's just "great," it will still be a minor disappointment. Its label is going to plant a seed of distrust, and it will probably wind up considered slightly worse than it objectively is.

If the mystery jar doesn't taste great, well... What could anyone have possibly expected? Any disappointment is going to be pretty unremarkable.

If the mystery jar is good, well someone somewhere is going to have been brave enough to try it, and they're going to be delightfully surprised. They're going to tell people. This is going to take some time, because it's just not obvious at all, but if the makers have not completely given up, and enough time passes, black jar peanut butter will go on to be a luxury, even a legend. Waiting is expensive though, it costs time which is infinitely more precious than money.

A good product that perseveres will win eventually. It's better to underpromise than to overpromise in the long term, but you should at least communicate something about it, and it should be true.

But in a final twist, the way that a good product wins in the end is that it somehow becomes its own pitch. Or from another perspective, other people must do the pitch for you.