There are circumstances under which it is possible to profit by lying to your customers.  It’s not a practice that we endorse as an over-arching strategy, but there’s no way to argue with the success of ThinkGeek.com’s annual April Fools’ Day of Being Big Fat Jerkface Liars by Teasing Us With Amazing Things That We Can Never Actually Have Because They’re Totally Made Up.  That’s right.  Once a year, the nerdy sadists at ThinkGeek create an entire line of fictional products to tease their clientele with dreams of what might have been.  Recent offerings include delicacies like Squeez Bacon® and edible gummy iPhone cases alongside innovations that would definitely simplify our lives if they existed, like the Original Shirt Plate (from the makers of Bowl Pants and Sock Spoon).  Each of these enticing lies is worthy of our attention, but today, we’d like to talk to you about the iCADE.

The iCADE (shown here) was featured in 2010′s ThinkGeek April Fools’ product line.  As a desktop replica arcade cabinet that acts as a dock for your iPad and also allows you to play retro videogame hits, the iCADE is clearly the most important consumer product in all of recorded human history – the one hitch being that it wasn’t an actual product.  It was just a joke (a cruel, cruel joke).  Unfortunately, the fact that it didn’t exist didn’t prevent the iCADE from making the internet rounds with lightning speed as salivating geeks across the globe had their hopes raised and dashed like nerdy dominoes when, upon rushing to buy this Holy Grail, they found that there was nothing to buy.

Don’t worry.  There’s a happy ending after the jump…

In case you hadn’t figured it out from the headline and the heavy-handed foreshadowing, the demand for this fabricated marvel compelled ThinkGeek to actually produce the iCADE for sale.  By partnering with ION and Atari, ThinkGeek was able to bring the hotly anticipated iPad accessory to the market in just over a year.  Since its introduction, the iCADE has become widely available through ecommerce outlets like Amazon and brick & mortar chains including Urban Outfitters, GameStop and Best Buy.

Of course, the iCADE is a best-case-scenario example.  It was a brilliant idea, it had huge viral appeal and it was aimed squarely at a tech-savvy and vocal demographic: gamers.  This combination of elements may seem a bit like lightning in a bottle, but if it is, then the folks at ThinkGeek have a shelf full of lightning-stuffed jars in their trophy case.  Other real-world products that started out as jokes include the Chocolate Zombie Bunny, the Personal Soundtrack T-Shirt and Canned Unicorn Meat.  Each of these went from gag to product based solely on customer demand.  The unicorn meat, in particular, stands out as a marketing success – as long as you consider complete product sell-out, free press coverage and more free press coverage to be a “success.”

There’s a clear lesson here and it’s the very basis of any successful retail operation (ecommerce or brick & mortar):

Know Your Customer

ThinkGeek knows their customers.  Clearly, part of the reason that they know them so well is that they’re consistently listening and responding to their customers’ needs.  Their customers need to be entertained while they shop.  Their customers need to feel like they’re in on the product creation process.  But mostly, their customers need to buy some of the most delightfully useless crap available in the entire consumer marketplace.  Seeing those needs and responding to them immediately and directly (in the way that only ecommerce merchants can) is, in effect, crowdsourcing your marketing and purchasing strategies.  You can let demand lead supply.  You can let your customers market your product for you.  You can engage with your customers in ways that would have been impossible years ago.  You can and you should.  For example, check out this page that customers are directed to if they try to buy a joke product.  They’ve basically formalized something that used to happen organically.  In the past, a joke product would have to shoot across the blogosphere to provide enough traction to make it to production.  Now, ThinkGeek solicits votes directly on their site, not only adding to demand, but perhaps creating it where there was none.

Speaking of demand for ThinkGeek products, we demand that they immediately and quickly navigate the legal and licensing obstacle course that would be required to make the PLAYMOBIL(TM) Apple Store Playset a reality so that we can immediately get in line to buy it on launch day.  Enjoy the commercial then come join us in line…