Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We Sell Things They Don't Need


“When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail.”


The classic definition of marketing is to represent the hammer. The marketer doesn’t invent the hammer, but s/he finds potential customers for it. Then explains why a hammer is desperately needed. Even if – especially if – it had never occurred to you that hammers could be useful.


The classic definition of branding, of course, is to create the impression – deserved or not - that one particular kind of hammer is superior to all the rest and therefore deserves a price premium.


Both of these paradigms involve thievery, which is why people hate marketers so much.


* While it is theoretically possible that everyone needs a hammer, it is actually true that many people can live just fine without them. Yet it is a rare marketer that will turn a customer away – “Who are we to deny them choice?”


* It is also possible that some brands deserve to charge more. But it is also pretty common for a pretty, shiny, labeled hammer to do just the same thing as an ugly, dull, un-labeled one. And the branding specialist doesn’t tell the client, “You’re stuff just ain’t that special…I can’t represent you.” After all – money is money, right? As long as the product isn’t dangerous or illegal.


It’s sort of the same thing with lawyers…we find it hard to respect a lawyer who defends someone guilty as sin. Except with the law, the system is set up so that “the best argument wins.” So we live with it.


When marketers turn thieving – even surreptitiously thieving, deceptively thieving, under-the-table thieving, not explicitly stealing - the profit they realize is only short-term. Because in the end, the customer can’t trust them. And they know it.


When I was growing up there were people who ran stores in the neighborhood. If you were looking for something and they didn’t sell it they would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have what you’re looking for. Go to that guy across the street.” If they were really ethical they would say, “You know, you don’t even need that…if you buy (other thing, cheaper) it will work just as well.”


In other words, the job of the marketer, and by extension the salesperson, is to give the customer the solution they want and need. Not to blindly push product. Which is why:


*  “Infomercials,” no matter how successful they are at getting people to buy things, have the ring of a cheap win.


* A visit to the car dealership is literally dreaded.


* It’s tough to deal with real estate agents.


* There are certain boutiques you absolutely avoid.


All of this because you know that someone is pushing, and pushing, and pushing for you to do something that is in THEIR best interest, not your own at all.


The classic salesperson knows you for five seconds, and they will guilt you into spending five thousand dollars, or fifty thousand, or five million. To them you are just a sale – a commission – another day’s work.


How to fix it: Change the definition of the profession itself.


The old paradigm was to sell anything, anywhere, anytime. Trash that.


The new paradigm should be to return marketing to the fold of strong business rather than stove-piping it into the “sell, sell, sell” playpen.


In the real world, business thrives by taking a holistic view of the community in which it is engaged. There are long-term relationships that must be nurtured by exchange relationships of genuine value.  Everyone’s got to win, or the business ultimately is exposed as an exploiter, or a cheater, and dies.


From a business perspective, it is the marketer’s job to nurture long-term relationships with a customer by providing a real solution to their pain point.  If our stuff works, great. If not, we have to point them to someone down the street, or find a way to address their problem with a mashup of our product, someone else’s product, or even tinkering with the customer’s own way of life.


In the olden days, “doing a good job” meant putting your head down and doing what you were told, without asking why. One of my first jobs involved doing mail-merges in WordPerfect. It was very important that I use the small paper clips. I remember spending an entire week removing the large paper clips from a mailing to replace them with the small ones. Who cares?


Now and in the future, it’s simply unacceptable to rely on “that’s what I was told,” or “that’s what I have to sell,” or “that’s not my job,” or “I don’t know anything about that, I’m just selling jeans.” You have to be a cultural anthropologist – get into the customer’s life – and sell them things they actually need, at a fair price. And yes, turn some customers away or direct them elsewhere.


Doing the right thing isn’t just a nice-to-do. Or common sense. It is the only way to make a profit in the future. When the business relationships we have are going to be based on one thing and one thing alone: Do I trust the person sitting at the table in front of me?


Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here