Learning the Wrong Lesson From “Artificial Scarcity”

pumpkinspicelattePumpkin Spice: Every food marketer wants in on the trend, which Vanity Fair’s Dan Pashman chronicles hilariously here.

And though I don’t think the purpose of Dan’s piece is hard-nosed business analysis, he makes a statement that’s similar to the incorrect lesson that a lot of marketers take away from the “Pumpkin Spice” phenomenon:

“ … as an American there are two things I love — sugar and artificial scarcity. Stamp the words “LIMITED EDITION” on a package of something sweet and I will buy it immediately.”

I’ll leave aside the “sweet” part of the argument, since most live events come with no added sugar, but let’s talk about the other concept.

Do you really only have to say that something is “limited” in order to sell it?

Many live entertainment and arts marketers believe this, and they behave accordingly. They gear their strategies to pretending that their show is in high demand, with the firm belief that this will make people want it more.

I call this “Pretendinitis.”

Just because the Pumpkin Spice Latte works for Starbucks doesn’t mean that the strategy of saying something is “limited” works generically. True, the human brain hates having something taken away, and this feeds the “Fear of Missing Out.” Yet, for this to have a meaningful impact, you have to care in the first place, at least some.

We all know examples of the idea of “artificial scarcity” working because they’re the success stories. We don’t record all the times it was tried and failed and tally those against the rate of success. We just forget (or never knew about) the failures!

pumpkin-spice-latteSo, don’t fall victim to “Pretendinitis” because you heard that Starbucks made money from limiting the Pumpkin Spice Latte. That wasn’t the initial strategy. The initial strategy was to create a product with a fall theme to spike sales. It happened to work and work very well. They built on it very nicely and now benefit from the “scarcity” that it only happens in fall.

If your strategy starts with creating scarcity before creating demand, you just end up with a flop: a product no one wants and there isn’t much of.

Don’t build perceived demand. Build actual demand and then manage the perception.

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