The dangers of worst-case marketing

When making a case for their products or services, far too many companies’ sales and marketing efforts focus on the worst ones.

That worst case is typically whatever troubles them the most. Sometimes, it’s an aspect of their product or service about which they’re particularly sensitive. Sometimes, it’s a perceived flaw they worry the competition will exploit. Sometimes, it’s just a touch of internal paranoia. Often, it’s the prospect that just plain refuses to buy, no matter how hard they try.

Whatever their worst case may be, they engineer their sales and marketing messages to address it, instead of building upon their strengths and what makes their offering unique. And, in so doing, they fail to connect effectively with the most promising (and usually largest) segments of their market.

I’ve seen the best examples of worst-case marketing when I’ve had occasions to sit down with clients’ sales teams. When asked about marketing tools and tactics that would best support their efforts in the field, there’s a tendency for salespeople to concentrate on that one prospect they just can’t land. They think of what it would take to capture that one prospect’s attention, and then declare that it’s what they really need.

Now, I’m a salesman’s kid, and nobody has more respect and affection for those who tackle one of the toughest jobs in business, but focusing on your worst prospect is usually the wrong call. Why? If you’re able to connect with everyone else in your territory, and everyone but Mr. Mugwump is willing to buy from you, you’ve clearly found a highly effective message and a powerful strategy. Change your approach to focus on Mugwump’s preferences, and you’re likely to leave most of your other customers behind.

In essence, when companies base their strategies and tactics on what they’ve been unable to accomplish, instead of duplicating the efforts that have already generated success, they foolishly stroll away from the most effective ideas.

Or, instead of zeroing in on the needs and preferences of the largest portion of the market, they concentrate on some small subset. By becoming fixated on that smaller group, and shaping their marketing and sales efforts around it, they run the risk of ignoring the larger majority.

Another common example of worst-case sales and marketing is the companies that are absolutely terrified that they might offend a prospect or a customer. They’ll come up with a particularly powerful and exciting message, but before they roll it out, they’ll start to have second thoughts. There’s always that chance that the new message just might upset someone. Perhaps they’ll think that we’re being cocky. Maybe they might interpret the message to say we don’t care about them anymore. The longer they study those new messages, the more nightmarish scenarios they imagine. Before long, the promising new message seems very risky and wrong, so they retreat.


Frankly, no matter how carefully you try, you’re going to offend someone. Your most innocuous message is going to strike someone the wrong way. When you get the angry email from that someone, you’ll probably think, “I had no idea anyone could interpret it that way.” Some people are just ready to be offended with minimal prompting. Others are simply insane. But when you base your decision-making upon that handful of prospects and customers who might, just might, be offended, you’ve let them become the tiny tail that’s wagging a much-larger dog.


Fortunately, there’s a simple antidote to worst-case sales and marketing. It’s called confidence. Know who you are, know what makes you different, and state them with pride. Focus your thinking and your efforts on the vast majority of the marketplace that will respond positively to those efforts, instead of concentrating on the tiny percentage that will either be offended or refuse to pay any attention to you.


Focusing on what already works may not be as exciting as dreaming up something dramatically new. And it’s true that landing one sale from that worst-case prospect may be more satisfying than making 100 repeat sales to established customers who already like you. But if your objective is to maintain and grow your existing business, you’ll do much better if you put your worst-case goals aside and concentrate on putting your best feet forward.