Have you seen, ‘Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker’? It’s a limited series on Netflix, and the first 8 minutes just about hit me over the head with what might be the most important marketing lesson of all.
The scene opens with a small street market in St. Louis, U.S., in 1908. A middle-aged woman stands in her Sunday best next to a barrel, looking shy, a little bit scared and without confidence. But she is determined to see this through.
On the barrel we see a couple dozen small silver tins of, ‘Magical Hair Grower’. It’s clear she wants to sell them but doesn’t have a clue how to start. She’s just standing there awkwardly as people walk past her without a glance.
Finally, she takes a deep breath, pastes a nervous smile on her face, holds the tin up and begins shouting, “Magical Hair Grower, fifty cents a tin, get your Magical Hair Grower right here.”
No one responds.
Taking a different tact, she tries to interact with passersby. “Got dandruff ma’am? Got bald patches? I got your fix, right here ladies.”
Again, there is no response and we, the viewers, fear she might cry.
Offscreen there is a voice: “I’ve heard of that stuff.” We see a woman holding a large basket of laundry, her hair covered in a scarf. “Does it work? Quietly and with emotion, C.J. tells the woman, “It saved my life.”
And then she tells her story. Extreme poverty. Debilitating stress. Terrible work for a pittance of pay. Hair falling out. A once-loving husband turning abusive. She wonders why God even allows her to live.
Then the product appears at her darkest hour. Months later her hair is full and beautiful once more. Now she has her confidence back. She has a new man who loves her. Her life is so much better because of this product. It saved her life.
A crowd has gathered to hear her speak. There is a moment of suspense – will they believe her story? Will they purchase the product? There is one sale. And then a second. And now she has more customers than she has tins to sell.
But while telling you the story of the first 8 minutes of this show, I’ve left something out. Despite her beautiful hair and the new man in her life, C.J. is still working far too hard for too little money. She is a wash woman, which means she spends her days hand scrubbing clothes on a washboard with lye soap. She wants more in life. She wants to sell Magical Hair Grower.
But the Snooty Product Owner doesn’t want C.J. to sell the stuff. Snooty Product Owner wants C.J. to continue doing her wash in exchange for a tin of Magical Hair Grower.
Never mind that C.J. has an incredible testimonial. Never mind that C.J. has already referred 8 paying customers to the Snooty Product Owner. Nope. It’s not said but it is implied that C.J. needs to ‘stay in her place’ because she’s not pretty enough to be a salesperson.
And so C.J. steals those tins to prove she can do it. She is willing to risk everything – even prison – to get herself out of poverty.
There are two lessons here. I don’t need to spell them out for you because you already know what they are. Take a look at your own business and your own life and ask yourself what C.J. would tell you to do.