Under the Influence

Selling Ugly

While it’s easy to sell a gorgeous item, the degree of difficulty ratchets up when the item is butt-ugly. Some ugly products need a lot of clever marketing to succeed, while no amount of marketing can save other hideous brands. Then, every once in a while, some ugly products become runaway hits.

Some ugly products can be saved with clever marketing, some cannot, and some hideous products become runaway successes.

Back in 1966, director Sergio Leone was shooting the third film in his trilogy of spaghetti westerns.

It was called, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.


The stars of the movie were Clint Eastwood (the good), Lee Van Cleef (the bad) and Eli Wallach (the ugly).

Wonder how Eli Wallach felt about being cast as the "ugly" one? (izoler.eu)

The plot revolves around gold that is buried in a cemetery. Eastwood’s character knows the name on the tombstone, but not the cemetery. Eli Wallach’s character knows the name of the cemetery, but not the tombstone.

Lee Van Cleef’s character wants to make sure they don’t kill each other so he can also get a piece of the action, too.

The film was shot in Italy and Spain.

Leone considered the film a satire of Hollywood westerns, as his cowboy protagonists were morally complex anti-heroes. But he was a master of building suspense, and the cinematography was stunning.

The filming had its share of mishaps. In an early scene, Eli Wallach’s character is sitting on a horse, with his hands tied behind his back and a noose around his neck.

Eastwood’s character shoots the rope to save him, but the loud sound scared the horse, and it took off running at full speed for nearly a mile, with Wallach holding on for dear life with just his knees.

In another scene, a bridge was to be blown up.

The first time, it was blown up by mistake when the explosive expert thought he heard the signal to go via a walkie-talkie. He was wrong.

The bridge was rebuilt, and when it was blown up the second time, the cameras weren’t rolling.

The bridge had to be rebuilt a third time. Clint Eastwood called the director Yosemite Sam because of his temper, but you can almost understand Leone’s point of view.

Eastwood was initially reluctant to do the film. He demanded a $250,000 salary and 10% of the film’s profits from North American markets. Leone agreed, but wasn’t happy with the deal.

The movie would make Eastwood a household name.

Critics have hailed the film as a masterpiece. Time Magazine lists it as one of the 100 Greatest Movies of the Last Century, and many polls consider it the best western ever made.

Then there was the theme song. Written by Ennio Morricone, the haunting score became one of the most iconic instrumentals in Hollywood history, and stayed on the Billboard charts for over a year.

The title of the movie entered the lexicon as a phrase that thoroughly describes a complete overview of any subject - the successes, the failures and the downright disasters.

The marketing business has it own share of the Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

The good and the bad we’ve discussed many times on our show.

But what about the ugly? How do you market unattractive products? Why would any brand celebrate its hideousness? What unsightly products become huge successes?

How do you sell ugly…

Years ago, I was a senior copywriter at an advertising agency, and was given the task of launching the first 7-Series V12 BMW sedan in the Canadian market.

It was easy for us to launch the BMW 7-Series because it was a beautiful automobile. (photobucket.com)

It was a stunning automobile, with a six-figure sticker price.

The copywriting was easy – I just wove an interesting story around all the remarkable features.

But it was the visual in the ad that was a no-brainer – all we had to do was show a photograph of this beautiful car.

Creating desire for a beautiful product is one of the easier tasks in marketing.

But ugly is a strange fruit.

According the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, over a billion tons of food is thrown away each year, costing the world about $750 billion dollars annually.

Much of that food is perfectly fine. It may just be unused, overly ripe, or oddly shaped.

Would you buy this... odd... carrot? (mrkate.com)

One European supermarket chain called Intermarché, looked at that waste, and wanted to do something about it.

They came up with an ingenious idea.

First, the supermarket offered to buy the fruit and vegetables that farmers usually threw away.

Then, Intermarché created a campaign called “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables.”

Grocer Intermarché had to convince shoppers that misshapen produce was pretty ugly AND pretty tasty. (protix.eu)

The purpose of the campaign was simple: To celebrate the irregular, deformed and misshapen produce that is often discarded just because it is unattractive.

In other words, the ugly fruit and vegetables.

Together with their advertising agency, Intermarché produced seven posters starring the most unattractive fruit and veggies they could find.

A few of the smart posters Intermarché created to sell ugly fruit & veggies. (huffingtonpost.com)

Hideousness is in the eye of the beholder. (jellyvision.com)

They also did television commercials. This one showed what appeared to be a deformed two-legged carrot:

The message was clear – oddly shaped fruit and vegetables still tasted good, even if they didn’t look good.

Intermarché knew that persuading shoppers to buy deformed products would not be easy.

So to prove that ugly produce had an “inner beauty,” the supermarket created “inglorious vegetable soups” and “inglorious fruit juices” – complete with attractive packaging and logos.

Tasting was believing. (gourmetbox.de)

Once shoppers took a taste, they were convinced. The produce was just as pleasing to the taste buds as regular produce – it just wasn’t as pleasing to the eyes.

Then Intermarché took it one step further.

They dedicated an entire aisle to their Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables, and priced it 30% cheaper than regular produce.

Intermarché dedicated an entire aisle to ugly produce. Traffic increased 24%. (trulydeeply.com.au)

The result was astounding: The entire 1.2 tons of ugly fruit and veggies sold out in the first two days.

Store traffic increased 24%.

It was such a success that Intermarché’s two biggest competitors began the process of creating their own ugly food aisles.

It was an idea that not only helped solve the problem of food waste, it proved that pretty ugly tasted pretty good.

When I searched “Ugly” on eBay, 66,000 items popped up.

eBay facilitates a lot of ugly. (ebay.com)

Many of those were shoes.

The shoe industry has a long and profitable history with ugly footwear.

Take… Crocs.

Colourful - yes. Beautiful - no. (fox2now.com)

You may love them, you may own several pairs, but they ain’t pretty.

The shoes were originally created by a company in Quebec called Foam Creations. It had developed a new resin called Croslite, which was light, waterproof and didn’t retain odours.

The shoes were initially aimed at the boating world, because they had a no-slip grip on wet surfaces, had aerating holes to keep feet cool on hot decks and floated if dropped in the water.

Sometime around 2001, a man named Scott Seamans was vacationing in the Caribbean, and bought a pair of these strange-looking clogs. He brought them home, showed two other friends, and the three of them immediately recognized an opportunity.

Scott Seamans, the man who saw a beautiful business in Crocs. (semestersatsea.org)

Soon, they had licensed the rights to the shoe from Foam Creations. They added a strap to the back, and noticing that the tops of the shoes looked like crocodile snouts, they renamed the shoes “Crocs.”

Next, they ran ads in magazines that said, “Ugly can be beautiful.”

Truth in advertising. (canalblog.com)

And the rest is footwear history.

Over 300 million pairs of Crocs have been sold in more than 90 countries, and the company has a market cap of just over $1 billion dollars.

That’s a lot of ugly.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. As one writer said, the Crocs ratio of shame to comfort was extreme.

But comfort and function were the features that trumped ugly for most people. Kids loved the bright colours, and you could even clean the shoes by popping them in the dishwasher.

You can wash your Crocs in the dishwasher. Don't do that, ok? (googleusercontent.net)

Crocs weren’t the only ugly shoe on the market.

Uggs are boots made of sheepskin, originating in Australia and New Zealand. While there is some dispute about when they originated, the Mortel’s Sheepskin Factory began manufacturing their version in the 1950s.

They called them Ugg Boots, after the owner’s wife commented that the first pair they made were ugly.

Wife of the founder called them ugly. Hence, Uggs. (glogster.com)

They are a footwear sensation.

Then there are Birkenstocks.

Happily selling ugly since 1774. (zappos.com)

The company first began when Johann Adam Birkenstock opened a shoemaker’s business in 1774.

190 years later, in 1964, Karl Birkenstock developed the first prototype of the Birkenstock sandal that we all know today. While the sandal has many fans worldwide, the shoe has always been criticized for being –– as Vogue Magazine put it – “Pretty Ugly.”

The current CEO defends his shoe by saying they don’t think of themselves as a fashion company, but rather as a comfort company.

As a matter of fact, Birkenstock coined the word “footbed” – stating that wearing a Birkenstock is like sleeping in the most luxurious bed in the most luxurious hotel. Except that bed is for your feet.

Birkenstocks is one of those rare products that succeeds with virtually no marketing whatsoever. And sales are up 30% over last year.

Proving you can sell ugly by the foot.

I’m always fascinated to find businesses with the word “ugly” in their name – because the word is usually toxic.

Take UglySofa.com, a company that promises to transform ugly couches into beautiful ones with slipcovers.

Ugly Sofa sells beautiful sofas. (uglysofa.com)

There’s the Ugly Sister Boutique, which sells women’s fashions.

You'd probably look pretty good in Ugly Sister threads. (theuglysisterboutique.com)

Then there’s a company in Minnesota that manufacturers maintenance-free decking. It was originally called the All Seasons Building Company, but the business was just breaking even, and nobody seemed to remember their name. So the owners decided to rebrand.

The name they chose was UglyDeck.com. Within three years, sales doubled.

As the founders say, they went from a construction company to a brand name. And the company has never looked back.

Then there’s the town of Ugley, in Essex, England. It’s anything but, and it’s one of the most desirable areas to live.

Ugley, England, has a website. On it is a heading entitled, "Ugley Ancestors." Might explain everything. (bbc.img.co.uk)

It’s a strategy of opposites that is rarely used in marketing, as a rule. Very few companies or towns would choose a name that is the polar opposite of their image. And fewer still would dare brand their product with the word ugly.

But sometimes… it works.

Way back in 2001, David Horvath was writing a letter to his girlfriend, who had to move back to Korea because her work visa had run out. In the letter, Horvath said, “Don’t worry, we’ll make this work” and signed the letter with a picture of a cute but ugly little monster with long arms, stubby legs, fangs and a giant head.

His girlfriend turned that artwork into a plush doll as a gift for Horvath, and showed it to a friend who owned an toy store. The store ordered 20 dolls, and within one year, the couple couldn’t keep up with the orders.

They christened the toys, Ugly Dolls.

Ugly Dolls turned into a $100 million business. (shopatron.com)

In 2003, they set up a booth at a New York toy fair - and were bombarded with orders. Since then, they’ve generated over $100 million dollars in revenues.

As the founders say, they wanted to define ugly not as something negative, but rather as something different and unique. That was a profound message to millions of children.

The two have created an Ugly Dolls universe, and just to prove that there’s big money in ugly, Universal Studios has bought the rights to turn Ugly Doll into an animated feature-length motion picture.

Back in 1896, an advertising man who loved to fish named William Shakespeare Junior – I kid you not – invented an improvement for fishing reels that wound the fishing line more evenly back onto the spool.

William Shakespeare - no relation to William Shakespeare. (fishinghistory.blogspot.com)

He patented that invention (which is still in use today), and created the Shakespeare Company.

In the 1960s, a new compound had been developed called Graphite, and all the manufacturers raced to develop a fishing rod utilizing this new lightweight fibre.

So the engineers at the Shakespeare Company started experimenting with a graphite rod, mixed with fibreglass and epoxy. But the resulting rods didn’t come out straight.

Meanwhile, the marketing department told engineering to make the rods look better. They felt the competition had more style, more colours.

The engineering department then tried an all-graphite rod, and decided to make the first batch transparent – so they could see what was causing the rods to go crooked when manufactured.

Not only were the transparent graphite rods straight as an arrow, they couldn’t believe how strong they were. No matter how much they bent them, it was almost unbreakable.

And it was a breakthrough.

Engineering quickly called a meeting with marketing, and proudly demonstrated their new unbreakable rod.

Marketing liked the innovation, but said it was the ugliest rod they had ever seen.

With that, the head engineer slammed the rod down on the boardroom table and stormed out of the room.

He had created a breakthrough, and all marketing could say was that the rod was ugly.

Three days later, a big meeting was called with all departments. The president announced that the Shakespeare company would be launching the brand new, transparent unbreakable graphite rod.

And they were calling it… the Ugly Stik.

The Ugly Stik outsells most other fishing rods. (cabelas.com)

At the next trade show in Chicago, the Ugly Stik caused a sensation. The rods were demonstrated by lifting heavy weights and big buckets of water, and never broke. Competitor’s rods, trying the same feats, snapped in half.

The Shakespeare Ugly Stik was a runaway hit, and it proved two things:

One - it was an unbreakable breakthrough.

And two - its ugliness hooked more fishermen than any other rod in history.

Remember this scene in the film Wayne’s World?

Wayne, Garth and friends are singing Bohemian Rhapsody while driving in a baby blue 1976 AMC Pacer. Which Wayne called the “mirthmobile.”

The mirthmobile. (blog.hemmings.com)

Back in 1971, car maker AMC knew that if they were going to compete against GM, Ford and Chrysler, they had to offer buyers something brand new.

So in 1975, AMC unveiled the Pacer. Almost 40% of the car’s total surface area was glass, giving it a weird fishbowl look, and the quirky passenger’s door was four inches longer than the driver’s door.

The strange looking car sold well initially, but sales quickly dwindled, and it was phased out by 1980.

While it had its fans, the Pacer has gone down in history as one of the ugliest mirthmobiles of all time.

Major car manufacturers have certainly given the world a wide range of ugly.

But one of the ugliest cars led to arguably the best advertising of all time.

In 1959, the Volkswagen company was looking for a new advertising agency in the United States. After reviewing most of the biggest ad shops in New York, the German car maker settled on a small predominantly Jewish agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach.

As I’ve mentioned before, that agency would go on to create what I think is the best advertising of all time for the homely Volkswagen Beetle.

One of the ugliest, most beloved cars in history. (cardekhi.com)

First, Doyle Dane Bernbach, or DDB as they were known, realized the Beetle was an honest car. It wasn’t pretty or flashy, just affordable and dependable. It was also small, which was unusual in the late 50s, when Detroit was going big.

So the first ad DDB did for Volkswagen said, “Think Small.”

Maybe the most famous ad in advertising history, signalling the start of the creative revolution on Madison Avenue. (wikimedia.org)

It was a revolutionary idea, because the VW in the photo was tiny, it showed no people and the headline was decidedly anti-Detroit.

Most importantly, DDB didn’t shy away from the ugliness of Volkswagens. As a matter of fact, they embraced it.

A print ad from the early 60s featured the headline, “Ugly is only skin deep” and the copy began with the line, “It may not be much to look at.”

What other car manufacturer would say this? Really? (alga.org)

What other car – to this day - would dare call itself ugly in its own advertising?

Another ad said, “The 1970 VW will stay ugly longer” and went on to say the engine had been improved for a longer lifetime.

Still another print ad featured comedian Marty Feldman, who played Igor in Young Frankenstein, and who was, well, strange looking.

The ad showed a close-up of Feldman’s odd face with the headline, “If he can make it, so can Volkswagen.”

A face only a mother could love. (www.pinterest.com)

And in maybe the most famous, and possibly funniest example, VW ran a full page newspaper ad the day after the Apollo moon landing in 1969, that just showed a photo of the strange-looking lunar landing module and a VW logo, with the headline, “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.”

Maybe my favourite VW ad. Love it. (alga.org)

DDB helped the VW Beetle become one of the most successful and beloved cars of all time – and did it by using ugly as a strategy.

And along the way, DDB created the best advertising… for advertising.

Songwriter Serge Gainsbourg once said that ugliness is vastly superior to beauty, because it lasts longer.

He could be right.

Ugly does have a long shelf life.

Selling ugly is an interesting challenge. At first blush, you don’t have all the usual colours to paint with – no beauty shot, no immediate desire to exploit, no designer buzz.

But ugly can be beautiful.

Some people just want to stand out by rejecting the status quo, and they want to do it in a fun way.

That would explain the Volkswagen Beetle. The advertising made it lovable, the car offered an underlying dependability, and it thumbed its homely nose at Detroit.

Beneath its ugly yet colourful exterior, Crocs offered people a soft fit at just $30 a pair. And Birkenstocks tell the world you don’t give a hoot about style, you just want comfort.

Maybe that’s the secret to selling ugly. You have to tap into the protest of the purchase. For many, it’s an anti-fashion statement. For others, it’s a rejection of hype.

And for most, it’s the fact an ugly product contains a kind of honesty. It doesn’t try to bowl you over with how it looks, just how it performs.

The Beetle lasted forever. Crocs are comfortable. Birkenstocks are a bed for your feet. Ugly Stiks never snapped.

It’s anti-marketing at its best. Because you have to play up the flaws instead of hiding them…

…when you’re under the influence.