How to Market Something Awful: Be Honest

It’s the last days of summer, and I’m thinking about cough syrup.

Specifically, I’m thinking about Buckley’s.

I grew up with Buckley’s -- although not too early on (I must imagine that my parents thought the taste of it would be too much for a very small child). For my entire life, I have known it principally by its slogan, “It tastes bad, but it works.”

What drew my attention to this recently was a thought about what makes this such an outstanding piece of advertising copy: its uncompromising honesty. It doesn’t shirk from the fact that Buckley’s does categorically taste awful. It sells itself on the fact – balanced with the fact that despite its taste, it is very effective at suppressing cold symptoms.

I understand that there is some solid medical science behind why this is, although I suspect that part of it has to be with nothing could ever possibly be as bad as taking a spoonful of Buckley’s, making the cold seem bearable by comparison.

The tagline is the product of one of the pitches that Peter Byrne, a copywriter working for a Toronto agency at the time, now retired co-founder of Toronto marketing agency Bensimon Byrne, gave to the Buckley’s CEO, Frank Buckley, in 1986. Frank, clearly prepared to take a risk that day, decided to go with it. It would skyrocket the brand to the top of its product category: from maybe the 9th best-selling cough syrup in 1986, to 1st by 1992, and (although I have been unable to find more current information) was still the top-seller when Buckley’s was bought up by the multinational Novartis in 2002 (it now belong to GlaxoSmithKline, who bought it from Novartis earlier this year).

The point of this is though, that, when properly positioned, honesty can help you sell. Even when the honest truth might be a bit unpleasant, or at least, not something considered to be a positive feature of the product or service. It is authentic and genuine, which inspires trust in your customer because it shows that will not hide important information that influences their buying decision.

What is more, I believe, is that, while the Buckley’s campaign was conceived in the 80’s, when it was considered a fringe marketing technique its example is tremendously more profound in the age of internet marketing. It is practically impossible to keep secrets from your customers when it comes to your product or service, and will and is making honest marketing the default for brands in Canada and the rest of world. Maybe not as front-and-center as bad-tasting cough syrup, but the ability to hide anything is quickly vanishing.