Friday, September 2

Being Consumers: It's Not Us And Them, Stupid

"I was always more interested in being a woman first and an advertising person second." — Shirley Polykoff

This isn't the first time a quote from Shirley Polykoff resonated with me. It's not likely to be the last. The first woman copywriter for Foote Cone & Belding was as sharp as they come.

She was sharp because she didn't mind skipping the barriers between advertiser and consumer, and her advertisements had more impact because of it. There was no trick to convincing women that blondes had more fun. But she surely had fun telling the story.

Stop trying to move masses and try being a human being.

There are plenty of people who have taken to talking about human business. Most of them are full of it. One day they chat about how businesses do better when they are personal. And then the next day they talk up how it's all about target audience and sales. And then the next day it's back to being human, with hurt feelings because not everyone liked what they had to say.

Such sleight of hand is a marketing mistake. Sooner or later people will notice. But it's the same thing on a big scale too. When companies sit around in board meeting rooms talking about how they will move the sales needle or (groan) go viral, they begin to lose ground.

They're asking the wrong questions. Instead, they might ask better questions. Specifically, instead of asking "how can we sell more crap," they might ask something like Shirley did. "How can we help women feel more in control over their lives?" And then, she did it.

Women aren't necessarily asking that question today. They're asking other questions. So are men. And moms. And dads. And business people. And all sorts of other groups of people with special interests. And yet, it seems, there is a good amount of marketing today that is dazzled by its own ability to crunch numbers — consumer interest be damned.

If you want to write better copy or content, stop being a salesperson and start being a consumer.

couponThinking like a salesperson predisposes marketers to creating barriers because the initial premise is that there is an "us" and a "them," with the primary goal being that we want "them" to do something for "us." It's stupid talk, and not nearly as effective or as interesting as thinking like what you are anyway. Advertisers are consumers, albeit not very good ones because they start to believe that somehow making some clever or slick or sharable or sales pitch is more important than a product promise.

Have you been paying attention? Most people don't share silly pictures (cats and bacon) because they want attention (at least, not the majority who have no interest in becoming popular). Some do it because things seem a little tougher and uncertain in their lives and they need a diversion — 15 or 30 or 60 seconds where planet bacon or dancing cats can help them forget their mortgage is past due. Some do it because they want to feel like they're part of something. Only one percent consider it strategy.

In other words, that doesn't mean the question du jour ought to be how do we put cats and bacon into our video. It ought to be how can we make people feel more secure, more in control, more normal, more attuned to what is really important in life, or perhaps more likely to lighten up a little in the face of daily doses of fear TV a.k.a. the evening news. And how do you do it, applying it to whatever product you have (assuming it applies)?

If you're not thinking like the consumer, you're not thinking.

organic colorFacebook did it. People wanted an easier way to connect to friends, originally in college but then at every stage of life. Google did it by inventing a way to find the right information faster (something it will lose if it continues to socialize the Web). And in their own ways, Walmart, Target, and Best Buy all deliver on cheap convenience, creating the illusion that people are buying something of equal quality for less (even if it is not). It's their chance to feel normal on a tighter budget.

Sure, these examples all benefit from a foundational product or service development but existing products can capture similar success by asking and answering the right consumer questions. How does your product help fulfill the less obvious needs of the discriminating consumer? For example, Polykoff tapped into the feminist movement to be more fun than 1950s conservative but she might be more inclined to tie in home (consistency of color), health (good for your hair), and environment (eco-friendly) today.

Consider how much more effective that might be than the tactics employed by advertising-centric marketers: discounts, free samples, and sex appeal (celebrity worship). The reality is that advertisers targeting women with those tactics are competing much more aggressively in a crowded space for a thinning consumer base. Why? Because they aren't thinking like consumers.

*The trade advertisement shown would be better without the fear marketing, but they are on the right track. It's the right message, one off from in how to communicate it.
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