Avoid Sales Mistakes by Learning from Marge Simpson’s Pretzel Operation
July 9, 2018
Nearly 30 years after its first episode aired, The Simpsons continues to churn out new material and audiences keep eating it up.
“For most of the last 10 years, around 8 million U.S. households have tuned in faithfully every Sunday,” Chris Taylor of Mashable recently noted, “an astonishing achievement in an age of declining network viewership.”
What is it that drives the unrelenting popularity of this animated sitcom? I would argue a big part is that its situations and characters — those yellow-skinned, big-eyed, four-fingered, cartoony inhabitants of fictional Springfield — can somehow be so relatable.
For no member of the titular family is this truer than with Marge, the mother and matriarch, a consistent voice of reason amidst the show’s zany shenanigans.
Her unforgettable venture into entrepreneurism yielded some lessons that today’s sales professionals can take to heart. Grab a snack and let’s embark on a trip down memory lane, setting our destination for 742 Evergreen Terrace.
How Marge Simpson Got into the Franchising Game
For the most part, Marge’s character has functioned as a stay-at-home mom, but in the 1997 episode “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson,” she decided to try her hand at running a small business.
Upon seeing her former peers in the Springfield Investorettes join the glamorous “Fleet-a-Pita” franchise, a shunned Marge eyes her own franchising opportunity, with the less glamorous “Pretzel Wagon” brand. While at an expo, she’s sold on the idea by franchise owner Frank Ormand (voiced by Jack Lemmon and clearly a tribute to his character in Glengarry Glen Ross — another pop culture source of sales lessons.)
Going up against gaudy competition, Marge tries to build demand for the pretzels and grow her sales. Naturally, everything goes awry, leading to hilariously disastrous results. D’oh!
Where did she go wrong?
Know Your Offering Inside and Out
Today’s B2B buyers desire a knowledgeable and consultative approach when working with salespeople, so it’s critical to know what you’re selling. Marge probably could’ve been better set up for success in this regard.
What kind of messaging is most effective for developing a pretzel appetite? In which regions is the snack most popular? Who are the key authorities in the world of pretzels?
Answering these questions through market research may have altered Marge’s fortunes. Instead, she had only a short instructional VHS in which Ormand explains how to make the product. When he urges the viewer to “open your bag of ingredients” and then, with a shudder, advises them to “check for millipedes,” maybe that should’ve been the point for Marge to rethink her decision. You’ve gotta believe in what you’re selling.
Understand the Competition
In order to drum up some business, Marge parks her “Pretzel Wagon” (a makeshift food truck based in the family’s station wagon) outside of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where her husband Homer works.
“Let’s all give in to deliciousness, the Pretzel Wagon way,” Homer exclaims to his coworkers. The plan appears to be working as a line forms outside Marge’s vehicle, but interest is quickly diverted when the prestigious Fleet-a-Pita van pulls in across the parking lot and draws away all her customers.
The takeaway here? Keep a close eye on what your competitors are doing and avoid overlap. Seek out “white space” — gaps and untapped areas that are ripe for the taking.
Be Careful with Promotions and Giveaways
These are popular methods for spreading awareness, and they can be effective. But it’s important to run promotions such as giveaways, free trials, and special gifts in a way that makes sense for both your business and its potential customers, while not devaluing your product or service.
At one point, Marge tries giving free samples to attendees at a Springfield Isotopes baseball game. On the surface, it’s a great idea — who doesn’t enjoy a salty snack at the ballpark? But little did she know that reviled millionaire Mr. Burns would win a new car as part of another promotion that day, causing angry onlookers to heave their pretzels onto the field rather than eating them.
There’s probably no way Marge could have seen that coming, but she certainly could’ve been more thoughtful when designing her “Free Pretzel” coupons, on which she neglected to include a “one per customer” limit. As a result, Cletus takes advantage by feeding his very large family.
Find a resonant angle with your customers and get creative to catch their attention. As one example, IT company SolarWinds ran a promotion on LinkedIn where they gave away a multitool in the shape of the Millennium Falcon.
They knew their audience loved Star Wars and found just the right way to leverage that affinity. Their demand and marketing manager later said the promotion’s engagement was “probably the highest I’ve ever seen for any campaign that I’ve run across any platform.”
Find Powerful Motivation
As her efforts to get off the ground keep fizzling, Marge grows dejected. In search of inspiration, she looks to the Hang In There, Baby poster adorning the wall of her makeshift home office in the garage. But as she gazes at it, she spots a “Copyright 1968” notice in small text.
“Determined or not, that cat must be long dead,” she laments.
Sales is a tough job, filled with its inevitable share of setbacks and rejection. In this profession, you’ve got to find ways to stay motivated and driven. Settle into an environment that energizes you, and work with people who inspire you. Sales managers should always be on the lookout for opportunities to reinforce the motivation of their teams, such as modernized incentive plans or an employee advocacy program.
Partner with the Right People
Watching his wife grow increasingly despondent as her franchise struggles, Homer decides to act. In a desperate move, he enlists Fat Tony and the local mob to assist Marge’s pretzel operation (unbeknownst to her).
As is often the case, Homer’s heart was in the right place but his brain was not. The mobster tactics — consisting mostly of shakedowns and intimidation techniques — provide an initial boost to sales but things quickly collapse when Fat Tony returns to collect on what he’s owed from Homer. Eventually, this devolves into an international mafia showdown in the Simpsons’ front yard.
Collaborating with others as part of your sales strategy is a good idea. Just make sure these affiliations are sensible and mutually beneficial. You might consider teaming up with a non-competing salesperson whose solution is marketed to the same niche. Or you could engage influencers who are respected by your prospect base.
Untwist Your Sales Strategy
Most B2B sales professionals work in verticals quite a bit more complex than salty snacks, but these simple lessons from an iconic TV show are nevertheless relevant to anyone who wants to connect with customers and grow a business.
By following these eternal principles of good selling — knowing your product, tracking the competition, utilizing smart promotional tactics, staying motivated, and picking the right strategic partners.
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