The Single Most Powerful Word in Marketing

Can a single word generate a 7x increase in sales in one year?
January 31, 2012

Can a single word generate a 7x increase in sales in one year?

It was in 2004 when I met a pharmaceutical brand director (I’ll call him Dave) who was credited with turning around the sales of a new cholesterol drug. His company had launched the product with high expectations, but in its first year sales totaled a disappointing $129 million.

Dave came onboard, rewrote the drug’s positioning statement, ensured that the new message was reflected in the marketing material and sales pitch and, voila, the next year’s sales were a whopping $908 million. Just like that, the very same product had a seven fold increase in sales—in just one year. Within six years, the drug’s annual sales would exceed $9 billion.

One day I mustered up the nerve to ask him about it. What was his secret?

Just like the cowboy, Curly, in City Slickers, he lifted up one finger, leaned over and said, “This is the secret. Don’t be the best. Be the only. Let everyone know when and why you are the only choice. The magic word is only.”

The magic word is only. Huh?

Dave went on to explain that the initial positioning statement for the cholesterol pill was something like: “ProductX is the most potent drug, in the statin class, for people with high cholesterol.”

Sounds pretty good, right? It’s the best in its group, targeted at people with high cholesterol. They expected the drug to become the therapeutic gold standard. But doctors didn’t prescribe it. They were used to the old drugs. What about safety? Did they really need to switch? They had too many options.

Dave knew he couldn’t change the product, so he changed the positioning. His new positioning statement went something like: “ProductX is the only drug in the statin class, that both lowers LDL-cholesterol and raises HDL-cholesterol, for people at high-risk of coronary-heart disease.”

He picked out a unique feature of the drug (impacting both LDL and HDL) and targeted a very specific patient population. While doctors may have questioned whether a “most potent” drug was needed for all their patients, they certainly were willing to try a dual-benefit drug on their hardest-to-treat patients.

After learning Dave’s secret I went back and rewrote the positioning statement for my own company, Axiom, which at the time was a developer of corporate training programs (I sold it four years ago). I had always taken pride in the fact that our approach used the latest findings from cognitive psychology and instructional design. So I decided to go all in and make sure the world knew about it.

We became “…the only provider of training solutions, built with the principles of evidence-based training, for the life science industry.”

That was it. Since I invented the term “evidence-based training”, and we really did practice a research-based approach to design, nobody else could make the same claim.

Suddenly, it was a lot easier to land first-time meetings. We had fewer RFP dog-fights. Purchasing departments couldn’t do apples-to-apples comparisons to shop on price. My revenue went from $1.5 to $3 million in one year.

Once you know the "magic word" you begin to see it in the ads of other great marketers.

Last Labor Day, I saw a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal from Monster, and I laughed to myself as I thought of marketing guru Dave. Although there are numerous online job boards around, Monster laid out its position in five crisp bullets:

  • Only Monster has 6Sense search technology.
  • Only Monster has SeeMore.
  • Only Monster has BeKnown.
  • Only Monster has Career Ad Network.
  • Only Monster is Monster.

Only, only, only, only, only.

It’s easy to believe that your service and quality is better than your competitor’s, and maybe it's even true. The problem is that everybody makes vague claims about being the best, fastest, cheapest, etc. Superlatives don’t sell anymore. Prospects just don’t believe it.

Realize that when you make a sale, a customer is making a choice to buy you versus another, similar product or service. Your job is to eliminate the alternatives. Give them no choice.

In the words of one tie-dyed business guru, Jerry Garcia, “You don’t merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

Photo credit: flickr/Steven Depolo