Sell Me The Left One


We all know a bottle of water is a bottle of water.

The way to increase profits is to cut costs.

You outsource labor, wherever possible, to some cheap third world country.

You make manufacturing more efficient and skimp on resources used.

According to standard economic theory, a bottle of water is a bottle of water.




Well, what if I give you the impossible task of selling me the left one?

If they’re truly interchangeable then this is a nonsensical assignment… but is it? Is it really?

Let’s see…

We know that specificity sells better than generic.

Describing it as purified, mineral, hydrogen ion water is better than ‘water’.

Never mind that all water is purified, contains minerals, and a small degree of hydrogen ions (consistent with the self-ionization constant i.e. concentration of H+ and OH− ions in solution, 10^(−7) moles of the ions per liter of pure water at 25 degrees Celcius.)*

We know that scarcity increases desire.

But how can you make water scarce.. you can’t.. it’s fucking water?!

The most abundant liquid on the planet.. 

Well, if we tie it to a specific location then we can create scarcity by the mere fact that we’ve introduced a geographic constraint.

Lake Tahoe Fresh Water, for example.

(Btw. You might’ve never given it much thought but Everest water comes from plain ol’ Texas and Glacier Mountain comes from Ohio.)

The impact of names is well known.. which is why many foods went from unpopular to delicacy by mere renaming:

Antarctic Toothfish to Chilean sea bass. (It’s not caught in Chilean waters and nope.. not bass either. Invented by Lee Lantz in 1977.)

Whore’s eggs to Maine sea urchins.

And my favorite: slimehead to orange roughy. 

Can you imagine being in a fancy restaurant, going through the menu and seeing slimehead just below whore’s eggs… yeah.. not the greatest user experience probably.

My final, slightly over the top example,

is to find out a way to get face to face access with a celebrity, perhaps a book signing or charity event. Say, Khloe Kardashian.

Then when you’re talking with her, make sure your hands are full. That left bottle of water in one hand and her book in the other hand. 

Then your phone rings (the alarm you set earlier) and you ask her to please hold the bottle for a moment while you grab your phone.

Now, you can sell that bottle of water on eBay as KHLOE KARDASHIAN’S UNOPENED BOTTLE OF WATER.

You can likely find fault with the above examples but that would be missing the forest for the trees.

The point is that with some creativity it’s possible to turn stone into gold… because we’re marketing things to humans. And things only have value to the degree humans decide they have.

So always remember that you’re in a world filled with imperfect (or perfect depending on how you look at it :)) people and not machines.. so be creative my friends and fabricate some value (and by extension happiness) out of thin air. Why not have a fun challenge in your company between a few groups and see if they can’t come up with some cool alchemy to increase profit.

*You can use this magic to produce value and change human behavior for the better (in getting more people into STEM for example). But unfortunately, it can also be used to create problems. The environmental impacts of bottled water are severe and while there are circumstances where a bottle of water is preferred (when you don’t have or want a reusable bottle), most people don’t realize that one $2 bottle of water would give you 4000L of tap water and the quality is often superior.

Today’s essay was inspired by Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life which, as far as I’m concerned is required reading for any founder or marketer.

RJ Youngling