What is quality?

There is a TV commercial I keep seeing at the moment that is confusing me. It is for a mattress. I am sure that it is a lovely mattress and I mean the brand no harm, but one aspect of this ad seems strange to me.

As is often the case, there is a series of customers giving bite-sized views on the product, which is all well and good, until we come to a lady who says that as soon as she lies down she can tell that she is on a quality mattress. Really? Not a comfortable mattress, a firm or soft mattress or a supportive mattress, but a quality mattress.

Perhaps it is just the strange way that my mind works, but I can’t help wondering how she knows. What does a quality mattress feel like? What does quality actually look like in any product or service?

You can make a general definition of quality about being well made, using good materials and being more than fit for purpose. But ultimately, high quality ends up being defined by reference to other, more tangible properties. Something is good quality if it does what I need it to do for as long as I need it to do it.

It is much easier to illustrate poor quality of course. The item that breaks on first use, the piece of clothing that shrinks and changes colour the first time you wash it, the mattress that leaves you barely able to walk the next morning. A lot of the time we know good and poor quality when we see it (or lie down on it!)

But realistically, and particularly of you are trying to persuade somebody to buy something, it is simply not enough to just say it is of good quality. It is a much too subjective term. It will only be of high quality to me if it meets my needs, so tell me how it does that in terms that mean something to me.

To go back to that mattress, it would be much more helpful to know whether it will give me backache and if the springs will be sticking through the fabric and scratching me in a year or two. That could be what they mean by quality, but I have no way of telling.

The high-quality aspects of a product may be features that are actually of no interest or use to me. Washing machines are a classic example. A manufacturer may say that a machine is high quality because it has 27 different programmes for all different types of fabrics and clothes. But most washing machine users are, I suspect, like me and quickly identify 2 or 3 programmes which are of general use for just about everything. The quality I am interested in is how well the machine washes my clothes and how much I am going to spend on having it repaired as it gets older.

The only measure of quality that matters is how a product meets (or preferably exceeds) the demands of the customer. A good marketing campaign will address that. Don’t just tell me how brilliant your product is, tell me why and what difference it will make to my life in ways that I will appreciate. There is more than enough meaningless hyperbole in the world – the way to connect with people is to speak to their reality.

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