“Sell Me This Pen” The Right Way

Last week Brandon and I had the pleasure of helping out at Campbell Collegiate with some mock job interviews. We were pared with students from grades ten and eleven and grilled them on their skills, interests, and experience as we attempted to find a student we would “hire” to work at Strategy Lab. Being the weirdo that I am, I asked almost exclusively out-of-the box questions like “Who do you think would win in a fight between a silverback gorilla and a grizzly bear?” and “How would you describe the colour red to someone who’s never seen colour?”. One test I used for every candidate was the old-school Jordan Balfort challenge: “Sell me this pen”.

Traditionally this is used to develop persuasive, cold-call sales techniques which is more than a little sleazy, but there was method to my madness. At the beginning of the day we were given free Conexus-branded pens (thanks guys!) and as I handed one to each interviewee to sell me I was hoping against hope that someone would think big enough to use the Conexus brand in their sales pitch.

As far as TED Talks go Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” has been used to death in marketing circles to the point where it’s almost become a tired cliche. I stress “almost” because I think it’s truly timeless and I get something new from it every time I watch it. My interviews with these kids were the most beautifully perfect embodiment of the “Why-How-What” concept.

What?

The majority of the students immediately tried to sell me on the different features of the pen like the stylus, the grip, the ease of use, etc. The bells and whistles that made it a good pen among pens, but didn’t really make me want to buy it. I mean, if I already have a pen why would I shell out money for this specific one? They were trying to sell on the “what”.

How?

A handful of the interviewees told me all the things I could do with the pen. Doodle, write notes, draw pictures, you name it. They positioned the pen as a means to an end and something that would solve a problem I had. This went one step beyond just showing off the features because they were identifying something I needed to do and trying to sell me the solution, or the “how”. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Why?

One student out of eight took the bait. It’s my second last interview of the day. I hand her the pen and she thinks for a while, then turns to me and asks “Can I use the Conexus logo in my pitch?” Up until now no one had even seemed to notice the logo, so I start to nod excitedly. “Well I would probably ask you first if you were a Conexus member, then I’d tell you that by buying this pen you’d be supporting us so we can help more people”. I’m freaking out at this point. Finally, someone sold me the “why”.

Here’s the moral of the story. Modern marketing requires us to not only show off the features or solve people’s problems, but to actually connect with them and make them feel something. There’s a reason paid programming “As Seen on TV” ads seem almost laughable these days. There’s a reason the practice of trying to convince people buy something they aren’t in the market for seems inherently sleazy. Creating a belief or a community or a world-changing vision creates intrinsic motivation in your customer base to not only buy from you, but to love you. Once you have that, you’ll never need to market again.