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Selling Sinclair:
Sinclair's Marketing Principles

Sinclair's products were cheap, but they were usually not radically innovative and their quality was occasionally questionable. The biggest reason why they sold so well, and why Sinclair himself came to be hailed as "Britain's bespectacled inventor" (as an American newspaper put it), was because of clever and relentless marketing. Readers of electronics and computer magazines from the 1960s through to the 1980s can hardly have failed to have spotted the striking advertisements placed by Sinclair's various companies. They owed much to the ingenuity of Primary Contact, the agency hired by Sinclair between 1971 and 1985 to manage the company's marketing, but the overall principles and strategy bear the fingerprints of Sir Clive himself.

Sinclair Radionics had only begun commercial production in 1962, but by as early as January 1964 Sinclair was already regularly taking double-page spreads in the hobbyist press. At first, strictly specialist magazines such as Practical Electronics, Practical Wireless and Wireless World were the main targets. When Sinclair got into (or more accurately, invented) the pocket calculator market in the early 1970s, mainstream publications - including national newspapers - were targeted. The phenomenal success of the Sinclair computers prompted the company to take out lengthy advertising supplements in computer magazines, especially Sinclair User, as well as producing glossy illustrated brochures. After the traumatic loss of the computer business in 1986, Sinclair's advertising budget was slashed and the company today tends to advertise in the likes of weekend newspaper magazines and supplements.

Sinclair's products may have been small in size - as was his company, in the early days - but his advertisements gave the impression of an ultra-modern industrial powerhouse. They stood out from the start in the somewhat tepid world of hobbyist electronic advertising. Throughout 40 years of Sinclair's advertising, a number of common principles are visible:

  • Make a splash. Sinclair does this through the use of big adverts with large, bold headlines. On some Sinclair ads, the headline takes up as much as a quarter of the space. Significant amounts of space are unused. This was very different to the vast majority of his competitors' ads, which attempted to cram as much detail into as small a space as possible. At a time when rival manufacturers were making do with a miserly half-page or less of advertising, Sinclair consistently went for two or four page spreads. The company might have been small during the 1960s and early 1970s, but you certainly couldn't tell that from its advertising. This was an entirely deliberate tactic, as Sinclair explained years later:

    In those days ... everybody was taking tiny ads. Even if they had a lot of products, they would take a lot of tiny ads. Some took a page of them. I decided to take a half-page for just one product. It worked like a treat, and people thought I was running a much bigger business than I was.
    (Tycoons, p. 158)

  • Have a photo or drawing for every product. Sinclair quickly found that people like to see what they are buying. Online auctions benefit from much the same principle - it's reckoned that simply including a picture with an auction can double the sale value of an item.
  • Praise your product to the skies. Sinclair has never been shy about blowing his own trumpet, although this has led to occasional clashes with the Advertising Standards Authority when claims have been slightly too strong.
  • Emphasise innovation. Sinclair has consistently claimed that his products have been landmarks of innovation - the first, the smallest, the most powerful, and so on. In fact, not many of Sinclair's products have been genuinely technologically innovative: the innovation has been in the way that they have been assembled from existing technologies. The important point is that the impression of technological innovation is conveyed. On occasion, the claimed "innovation" has been driven entirely by marketing concerns:

    Once or twice we have made things deliberately small, like the radio kit. That was just a gimmick, to make it exciting for people to build so that they could say it was the tiniest radio in the world.
    (Practical Computing, July 1982)

  • Vary your advertising even if you have nothing new to sell. The layout and content of Sinclair's adverts have changed constantly, often from month to month, helping to ensure that the image of the product remains fresh in the public mind.
  • Give your products modern-sounding names. Sinclair has famously had a fetish for the letters Z, X and Q in his product names. This is actually a canny piece of marketing psychology - those three letters are the least used in British English, so their use in a product name immediately catches the eye and gives it novelty value. Superlatives and exotic-sounding neologisms are also used. A 10-watt integrated circuit is a "Super IC-10"; a amplifier is a "Neoteric"; a computer is a "QL", or Quantum Leap. Sinclair's product names certainly stood out at a time when the trend was for twee or patriotic names - the "Micrognome", "Sky-Scout", "Sky-Roma", "Imperial" and so on. It has to be said that Sinclair did backslide on one occasion, though, with the gruesomely-named "Transrista" wristwatch strap for the Micro-6 radio.
  • Appeal to the consumer's ego. "Personal" and "professional" have been two of Sinclair's favourite buzzwords for many years. Many of Sinclair's products have been aimed at the individual home user - his mini radios and pocket televisions are a case in point. There are distinct advantages in this. If the product is personal, you maximise the potential market and you give the consumer a sense of pride of ownership. The invocation of "professionalism" is similarly rooted in marketing psychology. Sinclair constantly emphasised that his products were "professional quality" and would bring "laboratory standards" to the hobbyist, which was, of course, just what the hobbyist wanted to hear.

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Chris Owen 1994-2003