We marketers are optimistic by nature. We’re trained to see the most desirable aspects of the products we sell and minimize the potential drawbacks. This optimism can be a problem however if we lose sight of how customers actually perceive our products and start to believe everyone sees them the way we wish they did. In my first marketing job my boss gave me some very wise advice:

Don’t get caught smoking your own marketing

Which brings me to this example. Here in Canada, the University of Guelph announced a research project called “The Enviropig.” From the site:

The Enviropig™ is a genetically enhanced line of Yorkshire pigs with the capability of digesting plant phosphorus more efficiently than conventional Yorkshire pigs. These pigs produce the enzyme phytase in the salivary glands that is secreted in the saliva. When cereal grains are consumed, the phytase mixes with the feed as the pig chews. Once the food is swallowed, the phytase enzyme is active in the acidic environment of the stomach, degrading indigestible phytate in the feed that accounts for 50 to 75% of the grain phosphorus.

Simply put – this pig can digest phosphorus from pig feed more efficiently than regular pigs. This means the pig doesn’t need to get fed expensive phosphorus supplements and also produces manure with less phosphorus. Phosphorus in pig manure is a major source of freshwater pollution. Hey, less pollution, that sounds pretty good! The site even goes so far as to helpfully point out that raising an Enviropig is just like raising a regular pig:

…the technology is simple, if you know how to raise pigs, you know how to raise Enviropigs!

The obvious pig, er, elephant in the room however is the fact that we are raising these pigs, not to consume grain and produce manure, but to feed them to ourselves and our children. What are the risks involved in ingesting a few months worth of eggs over easy with a side of Envirobacon and pulled Enviropork sandwiches? The folks in Guelph decided that the best approach would be to simply avoid that question. Their discussion of “Societal and Ethical Issues” (notice the word “health” is avoided) contains nothing on the subject (although they do assure us that the pigs are very “fit”).

This head in the sand approach didn’t work out so well for the Enviropig project. The backlash was quick and loud. The “Frankenpig” was criticized by consumers, food groups and politians but most of all by environmentalists who quickly pointed out that:

  1. Regular old pigs are pretty environmental when not raised in gigantic mega pig farms and
  2. Pigs are being fed grain which they are not able to fully digest and changing the pig’s diet or adding supplements to it would also help fix the problem with no genetic engineering required.

Of course both of these things would be costly for conventional pig farmers.

So upon closer inspection, the Enviropig wasn’t a solution to an environmental problem at all. All the marketing in the world couldn’t change the fact that the Enviropig didn’t benefit anyone but pig farmers looking to grow cheaper pigs.

Consumers and the general public reacted with a hearty “hold the bacon!” Last week the project lost its funding from Ontario Pork and the University announced that the pigs will be euthanized. Optimistic marketing wasn’t enough to make those pigs fly.

So here’s the marketing lesson. You can’t ignore how customers perceive your product. Saying it’s great does not make it so and failing to address customer concerns won’t make them go away. Optimistic messaging won’t turn a crappy product that nobody wants into a winner.