Harry Beckwith, First Interview: Conducted by Bob Morris

BeckwithBeckwith has advised countless Fortune 100 companies, including Target, Wells Fargo, and IBM, and won the American Marketing Association’s highest award. His published works include Selling the Invisible (1997), What Clients Love (2003), You, Inc. co-authored with Christine Clifford Beckwith (2007), and The Invisible Touch (2009) and have been translated into 23 languages. Beckwith graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University and later served as Editor-in-Chief of Oregon Law Review, the Stanford Law School’s highest honor. He also served as a law clerk to a federal judge. Since 1975, Beckwith, a four-sport, four-year letterman in high school, has run over 58,000 miles (more than twice around the world) in his spare time. He also serves as a part-time grade school teacher, a member of the Stanford University Athletic Board, and a participant/member of Renaissance Weekend, a regular private gathering of worldwide leaders in business, education, government, science and the arts.

This interview of Beckwith was conducted two years ago. He has since published his fifth book, Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy, published by Business Plus/Hatchette Book Group (2011).

Morris: You were a four-sport, four-year letterman in high school. What were the most valuable lessons of your involvement with competitive sports?

Beckwith:  Team sports teach that health is a key to a rich life, and can transform you into an athlete throughout your life, a good idea. They teach that hard work pays, in strong correlation to the effort. They teach grace under pressure, to be calm during storms.  And team sports teach that while success can be fleeting failure can be too.

Morris: What seem to be the most common misconceptions about  “selling?” How do you explain them?

Beckwith: That it’s backslapping, arm-twisting and myth-spinning. The explanation is the extremes, parodied in our culture: the old Snake Oil salesmen, the oily car salesman, and the brokers in the movie The Boiler Room.  But great salespeople are so good you don’t know they are selling.  If you did, you would recoil from them.  And they are also good people, from the inside out.

Morris: What do peak sales performers share in common?

Beckwith: Resilience, integrity, and a conviction that their product can really improve the quality of someone’s life.

Morris: During Q&A after your presentations and workshops, which questions are most frequently asked and what is your response?

Beckwith: I conclude most presentations by saying “take the road that runs along the cliff, the one without guard rails.”   People tell me how much that meant to them; sometimes, their eyes are damp. Generally, branding gets the most questions–except outside North America, where price does.   People know branding matters but don’t know how to build one, and it’s a weakness among businesses; only one business in fifty understands branding and manages its brand well.

Morris: Warren Buffet reportedly suggested that price is what you charge and value is what people think it’s worth. Your opinion?

Beckwith: He’s forgetting that price tends to enhance most people’s perception of quality.  For example, most women think L’Oreal is worth more because it costs more, just as Diner’s Club credit card users switched to American Express when AmEx nudged its yearly fee just above Diner’s Club’s.  Price conveys quality and implies value. You cannot separate price and value as easily as Mr. Buffet’s comment suggests.

In The Invisible Touch, published in 2001, you identify “the four keys to modern marketing. What were the “keys” then and have you changed your thoughts since then?

Beckwith: Price still matters, but consumers have more information than they did six years ago. They can shop more shrewdly. But people do not comparison-shop services as often because they can’t–there’s not enough comparative data, and because services are harder to commoditize. All haircuts, for example, are different. If you want a nice haircut, you assume it will cost more.

Key two, brands, matters even more, because our options continue to proliferate, making it harder to choose among seemingly similar products and services. Just go to the store today, determined to switch toothpastes. Try to compare your options; you will feel overloaded. Ultimately, you will migrate to the one whose brand message resonated most.

Packaging, the third key, matters more, too. Design plays a growing role in our economy. Target has made cheap chic by enlisting the architect designer Michael Graves. Look at what Dyson has done in vacuum cleaners, a category that seemed so mature it appeared exhausted–the Dyson design is a brilliant example that design can transform an industry where design appeared irrelevant. Look at the IPod. You open your IPod box and are taken back to childhood Christmases, because it is wrapped like a wonderful gift. It’s an MP3 player, for heaven’s sake, but the design has turned it into a lust object and the virtual name for the entire category.

And the fourth key, relationship, matters deeply, not least of all because it has been somewhat neglected. You can go to college and business school and never learn how to relate to others. Your education can mislead you into deciding that all that matters is technical prowess and that the ability to relate to others is for anyone but you.

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