Marketers—a breed alienated from real life?

Self-admiration. Boasting. Talking about oneself. Think how you would rate a person displaying these characteristics.

Listening. Wanting to help. Taking the other person into consideration. What would you think about a person like this?

Imagine you’re on a date. The surest way to kill a budding relationship is to talk about how wonderful you are and what you have achieved all the time.

Why then do many—if not most—companies, even those considered the top dogs in their business, insist on marketing themselves in this self-destructive way?

How customer-oriented is “we”?

Some articles I recently read said the worst mistakes you can make in marketing and advertising were things such as “seeing all people over 45 as a homogeneous mass” or “underestimating your target group”. Wrong. The single worst mistake in advertising and marketing is navel-gazing.

Take a look at almost any company’s marketing materials. How many times do you find expressions like “we”, “our” or “our company” or something similar? Compare that with expressions showing that the company really cares about its customers, puts itself in the customer’s position, wants to solve the customer’s problems, or even understands the customer’s problems. The most amusing thing—or tragic, depending on the angle you’re watching from—is that a company has no scruples about saying “we are customer-oriented” or “we supply solutions tailored to the customer’s needs” and in the next sentence goes happily on about how great “we” are. Any paradox here?

At least for a quarter-century, the time I’ve been in the marketing communication business, it has been repeated over and over again how important it is to put yourself in the position of your potential customer and talk to the recipient of your message. During this same quarter-century, scores of marketing BSc’s have graduated from business schools, but when they get their first job, they don’t hesitate to throw the customer orientation education they just finished into the waste bin and start to repeat the how-great-our-firm/product/service-is mantra.

Don’t get me wrong—I do understand that even the most enlightened marketing people often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The management floor is filled with Very Important People who all have their own opinions on how marketing really should be managed. Or the corporation is run from abroad, and the head office forces you to translate their boilerplate materials without the slightest consideration for the special conditions of your home market. Yet, you need to overcome these obstacles. Many times, marketing is as much internal as external.

Even more surprisingly, there are scores of advertising agencies, supposed to be experts in marketing communications, who just seem to provide pretty layouts for the we-we-we liturgy supplied from above. They never question the message of their client, let alone bother to find out what the client really needs, despite or in addition to his wishes.

Laziness is a virtue only if used correctly

The We syndrome is laziness in its most unproductive form. Of course, it is easiest just to tell what we do, let the customer figure out whether and how it can benefit her. A couple of sentences before, the advertiser has probably stated that based on our decades-long experience we fully understand our client’s business—but somehow that understanding fails to seep through into their marketing materials. (Note the tone: in an 11-word sentence, this advertiser managed to slip in “we” 3 times. How many “you”s?)

Laziness used correctly is to avoid doing things in more complicated ways than necessary. Or planning what you do, for example designing your marketing materials, in modules. Then you can combine standard components in various ways to quickly build just the right message for any situation.

Benefits trump features

Please allow some elaboration. “Our product features this, that and the other” is a feature. Every feature leads into an advantage. Every advantage brings a benefit.

An example. Feature: A power drill has rubber handles. Advantage: Less fatigue to the operator’s hands and arms. Benefit: More holes during a shift. Because it’s the holes we’re after, isn’t it?

You got it, almost. Not only the holes, but the project getting finished sooner, which will bring in better profit. With power drill handles, an insignificant detail in themselves, as one component of that profit. Which do you think the customer is more willing to buy: rubber handles or better profit?

Of course this example is made up, rather far-fetched and doesn’t consider the interests of all the people involved in the buying process. The idea, however, probably became clear.

Having a talk or giving a speech?

In addition to proving a limp marketing effort, the “we” attitude may totally defeat the purpose of your marketing. People aren’t generally very interested in what someone shouts over the crowd from a pedestal. They are much more willing to have a face-to-face talk. There’s no reason why your customer would think otherwise.

That’s why all your marketing stuff needs to talk to the customer instead of about you. Remember also that if you’re supposed to be having a friendly talk, the customer is not “our customer”, she is “you”.

OK, what’s the solution?

First, an internal review of the marketing messages might be in order. What are we selling? What are its features? What kind of advantages can be derived from the features? How does it benefit the customer? And if we want to be really ultra-customer-oriented, we might turn the question the other way round: “What does the customer really want? How could we modify the product or service we know inside out to fulfil her particular need?”

Second, you select the right partner to design and produce your marketing materials. Someone who understands what you’re trying to achieve. Who is able to ask the right questions, sometimes a little embarrassing, such as “and how does this benefit the customer?” or “what the heck does that mean in practice?”. Who focuses on how the end customer will benefit instead of what the advertiser knows or does. Who understands that the target audience is “you”.

Then you brief this partner thoroughly and honestly, forgetting all beautification. You should also be willing to consider suggested solutions that do not follow the “this-is-how-we-have-always-done” tradition.

In a nutshell: Be an innovative realist. After all, you’re not marketing and advertising to make your own company’s salespeople or management happy. You’re marketing to make the prospect buy.

Comments

  1. jckh - March 24, 2010 @ 04:17

    This has been a bit of a struggle for me. I try to start all conversations with trying to learn as much about the issues of the other person.

    It’s easy for me to generate leads, but tough to close. One common problem I have is when people ask me “what I do.” The true answer is that I’ve done just about everything and can do everything that involves language – but people want to hear I’m a specialist.

    That’s part of what I’m learning by reading your blog – you have a defined niche and you write knowledgeably about it.

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