What a $120,000 banana teaches us about selling

If you’re like me, you were shocked to read about a transaction conducted this weekend at Art Basel in Miami. Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan sold his ‘artwork’ – a banana purchased from a Miami area supermarket that he secured with duct-tape to a gallery wall – for a whopping $120,000.

The banana art, entitled ‘Comedian,’ makes me wonder whether he intended it as a joke or he was simply making a joker out of his eventual customer. Whatever the undertones, the fact is Mr. Cattelan created an environment where such a transaction could actually take place for his benefit.

Setting aside the obvious moral (i.e. how many children could you feed with $120,000 worth of bananas?) and common sense considerations (i.e. $120,000 for a banana duct-taped to the wall…really!?), it got me thinking about what this audacious transaction teaches us about selling.

1/Know what ‘a-peels’ to your target customer – I have a close friend who is an avid collector of modern paintings and sculptures. He often updates me on his latest purchases, conducted at prices that I can theoretically afford, but would never in a million years spend on anything I can’t drive, rent out or live in. My friend and I have similar budgets but assign extremely different values to the same products. The astute Mr. Cattelan clearly knew what value his target customer would assign to his latest piece, and he formulated his product positioning and pricing strategy accordingly.

The Lesson: when identifying your target customer, make sure you clarify not only their demographic characteristics – i.e. their gender, location, budget level – but focus in on their psychographic make-up, as well. Learn how your target customer behaves, what is important to them, and what they believe to be true about the world. Balancing both the rational and emotional motivators in your customer targeting and messaging will ensure that you focus on buyers who have both the resources and the willingness to purchase your product or service.

2/Use packaging and add-ons to boost your perceived value — According to Bloomberg News, Mr. Cattelan didn’t simply offer his potential buyer a banana and some duct tape. He included a 14-page manual for its installation and upkeep, which included a certificate of authenticity and detailed instructions on the proper height and angle for the banana’s wall placement. Such details create the impression that ‘Comedian’ is not simply a piece of fruit that you slap on your wall at your discretion. It is, in fact, a high-value product that requires prudent care in order to achieve maximum enjoyment.

The Lesson: as you look at your own service or product offering, make sure you include elements that go beyond the rational and mundane. Think about how you can make buying your wares a customer experience. If you’re selling a software-as-a-service (Saas), incorporate opportunities to participate in customer-only events or webinars. If you’ve got a revolutionary high-tech product, make sure the packaging reflects these qualities and offer companion pieces that can enhance the core product. Whatever you do, make your product or service something your customers can not only buy, but also experience!

3/Create a sense of urgency to drive up your price – It seems Mr. Cattelan’s first two customers got a great deal: they bought the ‘art installation’ for a mere $120,000 each. The third instalment was purchased for $150,000, a 25% mark up realized over a just a few short days. The artist was able to create a sense of urgency that stretched beyond the expected 7-to-10-day lifespan of a ripe banana. He created the impression that if the buyer doesn’t take immediate action, he or she either won’t be able to purchase this one-of-a-kind product, or at best, would only be able to buy it at a significantly higher price.

The Lesson: think about how to create a sense of urgency around the purchase of your product or service. Are there only ten pieces left at the discount price? Do you have only three places remaining in your workshop? Is there no more room in your calendar this year? Whatever the reason, make sure your potential customer understands that what you are offering is difficult to find and not available forever. Make them feel that if they want to engage, they need to act now or they’ll miss out!

A few days after Mr. Cattelan’s successful sale, performance artist David Datuna took advantage of the surrounding hype and posted a video of himself unpeeling the tape and skin and eating the word’s most expensive banana. This heinous act of ‘art-icide’ may teach Mr. Cattelan one critical lesson that he perhaps did not consider as he prepared for his own bold sales effort: if you’re not careful, your competition will jump on your bandwagon and ‘eat your lunch.’ Seller beware!