Business Lessons: On Buyer Vanity and Selling Your Product

Business Lessons: On Buyer Vanity and Selling Your Product

The core of today’s piece is a story about selling that I read some time ago. It goes thus. Abu, a beggar, had a beautiful silk turban that he wanted to sell. So his told Najim, one of his friends, “ Najim, I am going to receive a thousand gold pieces from the Sultan for this silk turban.” Najim laughed: “how do you hope to do that? This turban is high quality, but it is not worth more than fifty pieces of gold at best.” “I will show you,” Abu replied. So Abu went to the Sultan’s palace and said: “O! Great Sultan, I have this beautiful silk turban I want to sell to you, it costs a thousand pieces of gold.” The Sultan examined the turban, then he laughed and said, this turban is high quality, but it is only worth fifty pieces of gold.” “Yes, O great Sultan!” Abu replied, ”You are correct, this turban is actually worth  fifty pieces of gold, I wanted to sell it for a thousand so that I can distribute the remaining nine hundred and fifty to other poor people like me.”  The Sultan was impressed by Abu’s altruism and gave him a thousand gold pieces for the turban. When Abu told Najim the story, Najim said: “You only sold the turban for fifty pieces of gold after all.” “Yes that is true” was the reply, “but I also found out how much a man is willing to pay for his vanity.”

This story reminds me of something that happens to me almost every time I enter taxis in some areas in Ibadan. There will one or more passengers who would bicker with the taxi driver over a difference in the transportation fare.  Sometimes you find driver and passenger raising a storm over something as small as ten naira. While most of the time, it is because that difference, minute as it may seem, is a major drain on their finances, but some of the time, it is not because of the money, it is to preserve that belief (for both driver and passenger) that they are shrewd and sharp, and no smartass can stiff them of any money, no matter how small. It is that same sense of vanity that makes the average African woman (i.e. all of our moms) beat the price of products sometimes to a third or a fourth of the price, even when she clearly can afford the original sales price.

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So what has everything I have said above got to do with selling your products, especially as someone who is trying to grow a business in a rapidly evolving city like Ibadan?  A lot.  I go around Ibadan a lot, talking with entrepreneurs and businessmen, and the litany of complaints are always the same “the people of Ibadan are rigid,” “they don’t like innovation.” “They don’t want to spend money” “Ibadan is too steeped in its ancient ways to be a viable place to grow a business.” It is no use starting an argument that all those complaints are not true because I have grown hoarse from screaming that fact to business people . So I will say this, even if all those things are true, the real reason you haven’t been selling as you wish to, is because you have not started selling products that they need or you haven’t started to convince them about why they need the product you are selling.

The truth is this, no matter where they are from or where they are, people will buy things and spend money. Everyone knows that person/family that can barely afford three square meals yet throw parties fit for kings or that person who is unemployed yet somehow finds money to buy the latest I-Phone when it is released. Forget what you’ve been told, people buy things not because they have the money for it, but because it satisfies their vanity.

So whatever it is you want to sell and wherever it is you want to sell it, be it a bustling metropolis like Lagos, a rapidly evolving city like Ibadan, or even the most rustic of villages, here a few things you can learn from Abu, the poor beggar in the opening story.

 Have a good product to sell

The turban Abu wanted to sell was both quality and eye-catching, and that is why he was confident he could sell it to the Sultan. Even the good book says it “can you see a man diligent in his works? He will stand before kings, and not before mere men.” If you put your best product forward you can sell it to anybody no matter how rich and choosy the person is.

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Identify the target(s) with the biggest sense of vanity to buy the product

In the story, Abu identified the Sultan as the person most likely to pay the price of the turban. I feel that a lot of people who complain that they are not selling as they should in Ibadan for example, have that problem. They only go tell customers why they need a product; they don’t tell those customers how that product will assuage their vanity. The reason people are always in long queues in front of Apple stores when new products come out is not because they need phones, there are lots of phone brands that are cheaper (and arguably work even better) than Apple phones. However, Apple phones are prestigious, they make their users look cool and trendy. The Sultan bought Abu’s turban not because it was beautiful or because he needed a turban, but because he needed to feed his vanity.

Do your research, look at the data and don’t listen to the negatives

Abu knew he had the data and the sales pitch to sell his turban to the Sultan, so in spite of Najim’s best efforts to discourage him, He knew he could sell the product nonetheless. People who spread narratives do not know what you sell or the services you offer. Again it is a problem many people who complain that Ibadan people are not a viable place to grow a business have. If you come with the mentality that a set of people will buy your product, you will not make the required effort to sell to them and they will not buy from you. Once again learn from Apple, rising unemployment, rising credit card debt, increase in in competition is not a concern, they will release their product and people will buy it in the thousands because Apple has the market data and they understand user spending habits.

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Be honest with yourself about the price of your product

In the story, when the Sultan laughs and tells Abu that his turban is worth a lot less than his selling price, Abu admitted the real cost price of the item. Abu didn’t intend to sell an overpriced turban to the Sultan in the first place, he intended to get paid for the Sultan’s vanity. That way even though the Sultan bought the turban for twenty times its true value, there was no way he could complain that Abu had cheated him. You have to convince the customer that they must buy the product at your price, you should not try to stiff them of your valuation of the product, because once the customer finds out that the product is far less than its value, they will avoid you like the plague. Being honest with yourself about the value of your product also means you don’t sell below the value of your product and stiff yourself of the effort you put into producing it.

Give, Give, Give,

A lot of times when the issue of giving comes up in business, the first thought that comes to mind is about promotions or sponsorships, the business gives so that customers  can buy more from it.  That is part of the story, but that is not the whole idea. The richest people in the world, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet even the likes of Aliko Dangote, they all support one cause or the other.  Giving freely makes you look caring, the customer that sees how much you give will think “this brand is kind and sympathetic, so they will not cheat me because they are good people.” As Lanre Onasanya, CEO of Aunty Lanre Initiative once told me “people want to give to charity but sometimes they need someone to show them the way.” Like that Sultan, if your customers realize that their money is being used to make the world a better place, they will buy from you.

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