It’s the Product, Stupid

One of my favorite marketing gurus, David Ogilvy, once wrote, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” How true.

it's the product, stupid button

I have argued for years that, “It’s the product, Stupid.” The secret to success in any business is to deliver a great, compelling product. No amount of marketing savvy, salesmanship, or operational excellence can overcome a weak product. This is especially true when it comes to publishing.

The purpose of marketing is to get a book launched—to prime the pump. But if people don’t want to read it and—more importantly—if they won’t recommend it to their friends, you’re hosed. You can’t spend enough money or be creative enough to overcome a lack of word-of-mouth marketing.In light of this, it was fascinating to watch Apple’s introduction of the iPhone last week. Like millions of other Mac fans, I read all the articles and even worked my way through Apple’s slick, interactive Web site. I thought to myself, Very cool. I definitely want one of these. But I also thought, I can wait until the second generation. Let them work the bugs out first.

But then I watched Steve Job’s keynote presentation from MacWorld. (You can download this for free from iTunes. If you are involved in any aspect of product development, this is a must-watch video.) Almost immediately, I fell under his spell. You really have to watch Steve demo this product to fully appreciate it. It’s mind-blowing.

I think there are at least three things that any company can learn from Steve’s keynote:

  1. Create products that you would personally use. When you’re watching Steve, you get the sense that he loves the product. He is so familiar with it, because he has been using it. He thinks it is “way cool,” and he’s not afraid to say so. He sprinkles words like “awesome,” “incredible,” and even “magical” throughout his speech. He exhibits the wonder of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. You really believe him. He’s not trying to sell you something. He’s simply sharing the experience.

    What about the products you create? If you’re in the publishing business, how about the books you publish? Do you even read the stuff you publish? Would you recommend your books enthusiastically to a friend? Do you really love these products or are you only trying to meet some arbitrary SKU quota or generate revenue?

    What if we stopped publishing stuff that didn’t capture our imagination? My guess is that our SKU counts would drop dramatically. And, well they should. The world doesn’t need more books. It needs better books.

  2. Create products that solve problems in unexpected ways. It was interesting to watch some of the biggest cell phone manufacturers get hammered in the press the week before the iPhone was announced. They essentially said, “We’ve saturated the market. There’s nothing compelling left to build. Investors need to get used to the idea of slower revenue growth and tighter margins. From this point forward, competition is going to be brutal.”

    Then Steve announced a new phone that essentially re-invented the category. Not surprisingly, Apple’s stock soared. Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung’s took a dive.

    Apple wasn’t content to create a phone that just had additional features. They completely re-thought the solution—from the ground up. They put themselves in the user’s place and refused to be constrained by the past. They didn’t start with the technology. They started with the dream and then went in search of technology. This is a completely different way of doing business.

    As product developers, I think we too often think “inside the box.” We let the past constrain us. We don’t get in the consumers shoes and ask, “What would make this really cool?” “What would take this to a whole new level?” “What would we create if the limits of current technology weren’t an issue?” We have to get “outside the box” and learn to dream again.

  3. Create products that exceed our customers’ expectations. As I watched Steve’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice the crowd. They were on the edge of their seats. It was like they were watching a master magician. As Steve demonstrated each new feature, the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause. To my surprise, I found myself laughing with glee. I felt like a kid again. Most of all, I wanted one of those phones!

    Part of the charm is that everything is executed with such amazing simplicity and elegance. Every icon on the phone is understated but beautiful. Every feature is easy-to-use, but not complex. Everything seems not only as good as Apple could make it, but as good as Apple could imagine it.

    What about our products? How often have we rushed something to press with a sigh and a collective, “Well, I guess that will have to do. It’s not great but it’s good enough.”

    We don’t start with a lofty vision. We have become content with mediocrity. We aim low and execute even lower!

It’s time to get the passion back. We have to raise the standard. We have to shoot for the moon. We need to push one another and our authors to deliver great manuscripts. That’s where it starts. We have to create head-turning packaging. We must publish books that we are delighted—yes, delighted!—to read ourselves and proud to pass on to others.

If we would do that, think how much easier everything else becomes. Apple spent a fortune on product development. But they haven’t yet spent much on marketing. Nevertheless, they got more press coverage than the entire Consumer Electronics Show that was going on simultaneously in Las Vegas. They have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that “It’s the product, Stupid.” Let’s take a lesson from their play book.

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  • Javier

    Quote: I have argued for years that, “It’s the product, Stupid.”

    So true! Sometimes it seems like success makes people stupid. Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, Stupid.” He won two presidential elections by stating the obvious. Al Gore lost because he forgot that simple phrase. It’s ALWAYS the economy; it’s always the product.

    Sure, the channel and customer service are also important….

  • Mark Goodyear

    Great post! And inspirational. Too bad I can’t afford an Iphone.

    While reading, I realized that I stumbled onto this same philosophy when I was a teacher. My students asked me one day, “Why do we have to read The Scarlet Letter?”

    I listed off all the reasons it was culturally important, all the strong themes, all the powerful language.

    And they said, “But it’s so boring. Why are all the important books so boring?”

    And I thought. Snot. They’re right. Even I hate this book. In fact, I’ve never liked it. Why in the world am I teaching it?

    From that day on, I never taught another work that I didn’t love. I figured if nothing else, I would be having fun. And if I was having fun, chances are they would be too.

    So if Thomas Nelson only publishes books that you love, well, at least someone will be enjoying the books that come out. And if you enjoy them, chances are others will too.

  • Deb

    Well said!! Thank you for taking the time to post this. These are not new thoughts, but a new presentation of an old principle. Isn’t it interesting how we can forget the purpose behind what we’re doing? We get so involved in the details that we forget the point. Kudos to you for reminding us!!

  • The Lost Art of Customer Service

    It’s The Product Stupid

    From Michael Hyatt: One of my favorite marketing gurus, David Ogilvy, once wrote, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” How true. I have argued for years that, “It’s the product, Stupid.” The secret to success in any

  • Todd

    Mike, I couldn’t agree more. It IS about the product. But one of the frustrating things (or marvelous things depending on how you look at it) is that different books, different writing styles, different packaging, etc. works well for some and not others. There have been books I completely loved and enthusiastically shared with others – only to find the others unimpressed. But I do agree with the idea that it’s important to publish books that I would personally use. Great post!

  • Michael Covington

    What about stating the opposite…”It’s the stupid product”? After all, what gets in the way most often of the success of good products in a commoditized industry are the mountains of products that are just plain bad. After spending years in a retail environment selling books, I learned that there truly are some gems out there to be had but because they were left to sell on their own, without the type of viral marketing needed in today’s environment, they would simply get swallowed up by all of the other blah books that continue to be written and published.

    You are exactly right, the difference begins with the author. Take Don Miller or John Eldredge, both of them experienced an exponential curve that took months (close to years) to create. They both enhanced the sales of their books by augmenting them with web forums, speaking engagements and direct connectivity with the reader. This type of interaction makes the author real, and his words alive. It takes time, but it sells books. Books such as theirs create a tribe-like following. Books without that can often just be “stupid product”.

  • The Lost Art of Customer Service

    It’s The Product Stupid

    A great post from Michael Hyatt’s blog From Where I Sit: One of my favorite marketing gurus, David Ogilvy, once wrote, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” How true. I have argued for years that, “It’s the

  • Michael Hyatt


    This is not a bad way to look at it. You’re right: we have too much stupid product being produced, especially in the book world. What percentage of the 190,000 new books introduced last year are worth reading? I would bet less than 1%.



  • Fire and Hammer

    Interesting Reading: It’s the Product, Stupid

    In “It’s the Product, Stupid” Micheal Hyatt (President and CEO, Thomas Nelson Publishers) tells us, “The secret to success in any business is to deliver a great, compelling product.” I thought about this in terms of blogging.

  • Amy Boucher Pye


    Thanks for this post. I’m an editor, and a former author – allied with one of your competitors! – sent it along to me as one of the most encouraging things of the year. (He came across it while doing a search on the iPhone.) I couldn’t agree with you more, and have sent the link to some of my publishing contacts in the UK.

    Best wishes

  • Michael Hyatt


    Great. I’m glad you liked it. It’s generated quite a bit of internal discussion here at Nelson.



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  • Rachel

    Spot on. It seems like there are a lot of churches who are missing this concept. The overall message of the church is great, but sometimes our smaller groups and events are so boring that even the leaders don’t want to attend. It’s hard to sell something that’s not exciting and full of life to begin with.

    Quick question. You mentioned that David Ogilvy said “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” I looked him up to see other quotes by him, and I saw in several places that William Bernbach said that or something very similar. Do you know if they both had similar quotes? Thanks!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Honestly, I am not sure. I went back recently to try and source the quote and couldn’t find it. Sorry I couldn’t be more help. Thanks.