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It’s taken me years to discover a lesson about marketing (and about life), from this childhood experience. You shouldn’t wait, before overhauling your marketing plan. Even if your product is a market leader, and your company’s brand identity is well respected, you can’t afford to feel complacent.

When my cousin and I were about four years old, I went to visit him for a week or so. He lived on the edge of a small town, and we ran through the veld in bare feet and shorts, climbing anything we could, and pushing the boundaries of parental law. It was a glorious South African summer.

We got very dirty, and every evening my aunt would put us in the bath together. I diligently washed myself, top to toe. We splashed around, threw our rubber ducks out the bath, and had a great time. One night I noticed that my cousin hadn’t washed. “Aren’t you going to wash?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “I never wash, I just splash.”

I had always admired his chutzpah, but this was revolutionary.

A Ring of Dirt

My grandmother came to stay a few days later. After our bath, she inspected us. I passed with a nod of approval, but she found a ring of dirt around my cousin’s neck. She exclaimed with mock horror. His mother was summoned from the kitchen, and his father looked disapprovingly over his paper.

This is where I should have asked myself about marketing.

The next night in the bath, we played around as usual. After a while I asked my cousin, “Going to wash your neck?” He seized a nailbrush, and started scrubbing. “is it clean?” he asked. He scrubbed till it was red. Then he washed his face. The rest he left untouched. We’d run out of time–my aunt was yelling for us to get out of the bath, and come to the table for supper.

First, we lined up for my grandmother. She exclaimed at how clean my cousin’s neck was. Right then, I should have made my pitch. I was of course clean as usual. A marketing opportunity that I missed.

For this difference in the state of his neck, she rewarded him with half a crown (two shillings and sixpence, then). I got nothing. And still said nothing. I was too astonished to speak. I went to sleep with a feeling of outrage. Today, half a crown would buy about five dollars’ worth of candy.

Novelty Attracts

Only this year did I learn the lessons. I suppose they’re similar to those in the Bible story of the prodigal son. Difference attracts attention. Improvements and change are rewarded, but consistent virtue and quality get little or nothing (maybe this applies in politics too?).

Specifically, a new product (a clean neck, formerly dirty) attracts notice from the customer (my grandmother). Customers who have little “brand loyalty” will probably choose new products over established ones that may be similar or even better. Just like my grandmother failed to reward me for a consistently clean neck.

Innovators and early adopters (as described by Rogers’ famous curve) will buy at least once, regardless of the brand image or lack of it. Just as my grandmother ignored my cousin’s dirty feet (some days, he could have grown tomatoes between his toes).

Today I follow some basic rules. That a good, reliable product that has static and predictable marketing is likely to lose market share, and even possibly fail; that small customer segments are likely to try new products at least once and may switch permanently; and that market-leading brands must effectively and continually remind customers that their product’s value has been proven over time.

Refresh Your Marketing Now

For years, I thought of that half-a-crown as an injustice. Now I realize that I had needed better marketing. Can you refresh your marketing plan now? Create a new campaign that shines a new light on your product? There’s always some upstart down the road, waiting to steal your customers. Unless you take action, you might lose them forever.