How to sell steak and sizzle on the web

Elmer Wheeler is little known today, but he may have coined the most famous marketing phrase ever.

“Don’t sell the steak – sell the sizzle,” Wheeler said. This phrase is often trotted out to portray salespeople as shallow hucksters, pulling a fast one on gullible buyers with a flashy sales pitch.

In fact, Wheeler’s point was much more sophisticated than that. In his view, “sizzle” represented an overlooked selling point that could be uncovered and emphasized by the skilled salesperson. These “sizzles” connected on a visceral level with the customer.

Here’s Wheeler selling the sizzle:

I’ve been thinking about Wheeler’s advice in light of the Internet and its impact on the sales and marketing business.

Consumers have never had such an opportunity to learn everything possible about any product. We’ve got the collected wisdom of the world at our fingertips; anyone can instantly, exhaustively research any product.

We can download technical data, dig up pricing information and read reviews and comments from other consumers. We can go deep on any subject.

So, maybe the time is ripe to sell the steak – to use this staggering wealth of knowledge to make logical, factual appeals to consumers. Give them the information and let them decide. 

But wait: at the same time, the information universe is more fragmented than ever. Dozens of TV channels, on 24/7. Hundreds of options for absorbing audio or video content on demand. Mobile apps by the thousand, websites and blogs by the million.

Advertisers have long talked about “cutting through the clutter.” They didn’t know from clutter. What we’ve got today – that’s clutter.

Amid this information overload, it sometimes seems as if the only way to gain attention is to be louder and more freakish than everyone else, to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.

So, what’s a marketer to do?

I’d argue there’s a third way that combines the best of both extremes. Give your prospects all the information they need, but do it in an entertaining and engaging way. Be a trusted source of information even as you’re a rewarding companion to spend time with. Meanwhile, use social media to build relationships with customers and encourage them to spread your message through word of mouth.

If things work out, you may be able to have your steak and sizzle, too.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 10/26/2009 - 01:28 pm.

    In the early 1960’s, a business inspirational and motivational seminar company published via film, audiotape, or reference books this marketing precepts. For a high school business marketing class these old tried and true concepts were presented to us.

    Many of these concepts go back to the turn of the 20th Century. Funny how these concepts could be applied to everyday life and relationships. Stranger still, I used these principles in my high school forensic debate team competitions and found relatively great success in implementing them.

    From what I know of Elmer Wheeler he was ahead of his time in collecting/collating these principles and others into coherent, applicable, and useful tools for the salesperson[marketeer] in post-war America. Too bad business schools don’t espouse these marketing concepts since they are adaptable to a modern cyber age.

    Selling the “sizzle instead of the steak” proved useful in life but “saying it with flowers” makes a bigger impression. Ask my wife!

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/26/2009 - 03:06 pm.


    Wheeler made his living by coming up with carefully created sales lines for company sales forces to use. Here’s an example that I thought was excellent:

    In the ’30s (when gas stations actually had attendants), Wheeler advised Texaco on what its attendants should say.

    Instead of, “Can I check your oil?” he advised them to say, “Is your oil at the proper level today?”

    According to what I read, his advice very quickly resulted in Texaco stations selling 250,000 more quarts of oil a week.

Leave a Reply