Marketing and Public Relations

How to Sell the Diminished Product

By November 28, 2019 December 17th, 2019 No Comments

This article was originally published with The Manila Times on November 28, 2019.

When we market products, we think about product features, what was designed into the merchandise: its shape, heft, color, efficacy, shelf life, and, of course, the ingredients, or the absence thereof. There are products that are less a feature, or quality, or anything that may be deemed unhealthy or unwanted by a segment of the public. These products are sold on the basis of not having what exists in normal fare.

A non-fat milk brand, for instance, is a product minus a major component. The consumer mind regards non-fat milk as a diluted product; he considers it rationally, appreciates the absence of the quality. There are many examples of this kind of offering. Think fat, nicotine, tar, calories, soy, or even caffeine. Think sugar, MSG (monosodium glutamate), gluten, dairy, shellfish, lactose, artificial coloring and flavoring. Think steroids, how the product components are derived (with genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers, animals given growth hormones and antibiotics, crops grown with pesticides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers). NAB is an example. For those who do not remember, it was San Miguel’s non-alcoholic beer.

If a product is based on the absence of an element or ingredient, people will remember it by what it lacks. Understand that a rational proposition means that competition can easily insert themselves into the arena, sell your consumer a similarly disabled product. They do not have to propose better, only minus the same quality. Now if competition proffers cheaper, customers will prefer it.

Expect that the door opens easily for competition when there is no product story other than the subtraction of an undesired quality.

A product story is always necessary, preferably powered by an emotion, by “heartsell,” as I prefer calling this ability, this wind that makes products fly out of the store; and not just by features, ingredients, not just by “hardsell.”

A strong product story becomes obligatory when the merchandise is based on the absence of an ingredient. Diet Coke’s “Just for the Taste of It” was a resounding success, but, mind you, it had a story — the strength of the globally popular flavor of Coca-Cola, but with less calories.

Let this be a mental exercise for the student of marketing: if you handled a non-alcoholic beer, what story would you grant it today? What would be on the label with which you would wrap your bottle? Since beer is for social gatherings, for carousing, for sessions with the karaoke, how would you sell a product that designed the inebriating substance out of the inebriant?

Our tongues recognize the offending ingredient, or its absence. Diet Coke does not taste as good as regular Coca-Cola; organic cheeses are insipid; lactose-free dairy milk, compared to full cream, is watery; vegemeat, or any meat analogue, cannot mimic beef, cannot hope to satisfy someone eager for a thick and juicy tenderloin steak. The cigarette made of vegetable instead of tobacco died early enough, and, to a smoker, vaping is a sad replacement.

The point is not to camouflage the deficiency, but to build upon that deficiency, use it to shape an entirely new story. You must provide the replacement for what was removed, a supplement, the romance of a good story that helps the customer stay with the tasteless but healthy, commit to stevia rather than sugar.

When I was handling Anchor non-fat milk in Leo Burnett, I turned the absence of fat, this ingredient normally found in milk, into a credible reason to believe a larger story. Instead of asking grownups to drink milk minus a substance known to be deleterious to the adult body, we sold the brand as milk “reformulated for the needs of adults.” We presented Anchor non-fat as “The Milk for Adults.”

Martial Law, or the Marcos regime, is a formidable and impressive equity. Now, lest I be accused of being partial to dictatorships and dark days, let us define equity.

“In marketing, equity refers to the value of a well-known brand that conjures positive (or negative) mental and emotional associations.” (Branding, from Introduction to Business, Linda Williams and Lumen Learning)

Equity is measurable. It is a worth you can study as a financial asset. The Marcos regime is equity so strong, from a communicator’s point of view, you can take it to the bank.

Now compare that to all the regimes or dispensations that followed. Juxtaposed against the dictatorship, gvernment minus an iron fist is considered weak.

Faced with the horrors of the drug menace, hobbled by poverty and lack of education, hoping against hope for better, many see Martial Law, the Marcos regime and the dictatorship as desirable; they consider ’kamay na bakal’ as a product that is stronger now than then, stronger than what followed, stronger than opposition’s offerings and messages today.


Again, think in terms of stories. This is not political.

“Human rights,” for instance, is a concept you can lay on this table and study. It asks that the downtrodden and hopeless prefer a government that is kind and gentle and just even to culprits and criminals— a government less an iron fist.

In a climate of violence and drug addiction and street crimes and rapes, human rights is a product very like non-alcoholic beer. It needs a story, a strong one, a brand equity, which the angry and the hurt might consider, believe in, and embrace, despite risk to family and property. At a time when people wish there were more Lim Sengs brought before firing squads, the concept of restraint and civilized forbearance needs to be packaged better, shaped better, and marketed better.

The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multidiscipline consultancy firm. He can be reached at

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