Saturday, March 27, 2010


Yesterday, someone told me I was "too honest to be in marketing". I think that was actually a compliment, but that got me thinking. Why does marketing and advertising have to be dishonest? Honestly, I don't think it needs to be. I believe that dishonesty in marketing isn't just a shoddy way to treat your customers, it's also bad business.

So, by way of a somewhat tongue in cheek example, here's what I mean by honest marketing. I must have seen thousands of car ads in my time. I can't remember a single one of them, though.* Except this.

"Volvos. They're boxy, but they're good."

That's not actually a Volvo ad. It's from a movie, Crazy People, in which Dudley Moore enlists the inmates at an asylum to write ads, and they respond by just saying things that are true. I've had several Volvos, and you know what? They're boxy, but they're good. Would I have another one? Yes. Why? Because although they're boxy, they're good.

My other favourite ad is for a range of DIY products in the UK, Ronseal. Here's an example.

"Ronseal clear wood varnish. It's clear, and it's for varnishing wood. Does exactly what it says on the tin."

Fabulous. If I went to the DIY shop, I'd buy Ronseal products. I'd skip past all the hyperbolic "amazing", "incredible" and new, ultra-whatever products, and go for the one that does exactly what it says on the tin. That phrase is so damn good, it's passed into standard British parlance.

So, here's my first tenet of honest advertising.

Skip the bullshit. Tell your customers exactly what they're buying. If it's what they want, and it's any good, they'll buy it. And they'll respect you for it.

The great thing is that this works, even when you have a second-rate product. If people know they're buying into something that's not brilliant, they won't get disappointed. Going back to cars, Skoda was a shitty Eastern European car maker that got bought up by Volkswagen. VW used Skoda to manufacture cheap versions of the VW range. It took a while to get the quality up to scratch, but when they got there, it was quite impressive. You had all the reliability of a German car, but at half the cost, because they ditched all the styling, polish, and frills.

When I bought a Skoda, the dealer was absolutely straightforward. I took a Skoda out for a drive, and took the equivalent VW out too, so I could see what I was missing out on by going for the cheaper vehicle. That Skoda did exactly what I needed, so I chose it. And no, he wasn't trying to upsell me to a VW. He was a pure Skoda dealer, and the VW wasn't even for sale.

Interestingly, surveys of car owners for the last ten years repeatedly show that Skoda owners are more satisfied with their cars than owners of any other vehicles. More than Ferrari, Lexus, Rolls Royce, or Mercedes. More, even, than VW. Why? Because they knew exactly what they were buying, and they're happy with what they got.

Same with broadband. If you're offering "up to" 10Mb, but only delivering 2Mb, your customer's going to get pissed off. But if you sold him 2Mb in the first place, he's happy. He doesn't feel cheated. I really appreciated it when our new ISP, Century Link, told us they weren't sure we could get 10Mb here, so they'd come and test the line. If the tests showed we could only have 5Mb, they'd downgrade the package for us, so we wouldn't be paying for something we weren't getting. Right there, I felt I could trust them. (And was very happy when the tests showed we were getting a rock solid 10Mb after all.)

So, here's tenet number two.

Don't be afraid to talk about your shortcomings. The customer will find out sooner or later anyway, and if they know in advance, they won't badmouth you later.

The reason I believe dishonesty is bad business is that your reputation is all-important, particularly in the internet age. It doesn't take long for word to spread. If all you're in it for is to make a fast buck and get out, you can get away with it. But if you're trying to build a long-term business, you can't afford to piss people off. They'll tell their friends, blog it, twitter it, and so on. And that stays online for ever. It only takes a few complaints to ruin your seller rating on Amazon or eBay. A quick Google will unearth all the bad experiences people have had with you, and those will completely outweigh all the good ones in your prospective customer's mind.

It's the same with luring people to your product under false pretences. There's the Evony saga, for example, which promises sexy women, and then delivers a crap 2D top-down game based on Age of Empires. And then there's the "free gift" tactic, where you offer something enticing for free, but don't tell people that they have to buy something to get it. For example, I could advertise free pony rides in the marketplace on Saturday afternoon, but then tell my customers that they only get their pony ride if they buy a copy of my amazing new comic, Mighty Mongoose Monthly.**

This is bad for two reasons. First of all, I'd be attracting the wrong people. I'd have a crowd of people who want to give their kids a pony ride, not people who want to read MMM. So my advertising's going to the wrong place and I've wasted my money. And secondly, they're going to be pissed off. They build up their expectations, then get hit with the double whammy of "give me money to get the free thing" and "get this thing you don't want". Yeah, the free pony ride is real, but I've misled my potential customers. So they go away and tell everyone else who's waiting in line that it's a scam, and people who might have bought MMM now won't, because they think I'm a con artist. I'd end up being bracketed with those guys selling time-share homes in Spain by offering your auntie a free dinner or a cheap cruise.

So tenet number three.

Don't try and bamboozle the customer. Sell what you're selling. Don't waste your time and theirs promising them one thing and then trying to persuade them they wanted something else.

Social media has changed the way customers relate to businesses. They want to know the business. If they're going to develop a long-term relationship with that business, they want to feel part of it. They want to believe that the business cares about them. And above all, they want to trust that business.

More and more customers are suspicious and enquiring. They read blogs, Facebook pages, and twitter streams. They ask their friends. They check on Google. If they like what they see, they'll buy, and then they'll spread the love. If they don't like what they see, they won't buy. And if they feel uncomfortable or disappointed, they'll spread that too.

So, if your relationship with your customer starts with hyperbole, false claims, or the like, you're asking for trouble. It's like trying to find a girlfriend by impressing young ladies with your Ferrari (rented), telling them about your (imaginary) job in Hollywood, and promising to get them roles in movies (and we all know what that entails). There might be a few one-night stands in it, but it's hardly the basis for a long-term relationship, and it won't take long before everyone knows what sort of sleazebag you really are.

Maybe you'd be better off telling them the truth: you're an accountant from Surbiton who does occasional work for a small indie film company. They might actually like you.

So, all you marketing guys, estate agents, and advertisers. Stop being so proud of the fact that your job is about misleading people. They'll find you out, you know. Honest marketing works, and creates long-term business far more effectively than trying to pull a fast one.

Sincerity. When you can fake that, you've got it made.
George Burns

* This is a lie. I also remember "Vorsprung Durch Technik".
** This is also a lie. Mighty Mongoose Monthly comic does not exist. But if it did, reading it would make you irresistibly attractive to women, wealthy, and would come with a free Caribbean island on the cover of Issue #1.***
*** This is a lie too. The island's not actually on the cover as such. You have to mail in a coupon and I'll send you your certificate of entitlement to the island. And I say "island", but it's actually more of a rock than an island, and it's only on the limited edition of Issue #1, which costs $72m.


Overman said...

Well said.

I love "Crazy People," and if I were starting an ad firm I'd make viewing it a prerequisite for hire.

anaglyph said...

Having done a lot of work in advertising I think I can make two observations:

1. Mostly, advertising people don't think they're being dishonest, even when they are. I call this 'The Two Headed Chicken' phenomenon. When I was a kid, I paid some of my own money to see a two headed chicken at a carnival sideshow. I really wanted to see the two headed chicken that was painted on the tent - you know, two proper heads pecking and squawking. What I actually got to see was a one headed chicken with some kind of weird mutated growth on the side of that one head. Maybe it was technically a 'head', I couldn't say, but I was disappointed. I felt, though, that I couldn't ask for my money back because the spruiker had justified the extra 'head' in an abstract biological way and, at the time, I had no intellectual tools to dispute the ruse. I do believe, however, that although the carnies were fully aware that they were conning the suckers, they felt that it wasn't just an out-and-out lie - more a bending of the truth. In my experience that's exactly how advertising people justify what they do; it's not a 'lie' in effect, it's just a little massaging of the facts.

2. People who have a good product don't really need 'advertising' as such - just promotion. People who have average to lousy products rely on advertising to compete with the aforementioned people with good product.

So, to be succinct - if someone has a product that is mediocre, or has little inherent value, they resort to the kind of advertising that distorts and misrepresents. If someone has a product that is valuable, they need merely promote it as best they can. This pretty much holds true over every advertising situation I've ever encountered.

Matt Kelland said...

So what's the difference between advertising and promotion?

anaglyph said...

I meant 'advertising' paranthetically, as in the way we've come to know it - little 'half truths' that are selling something other than the product itself.

Promotion is of course advertising too, but in this sense I mean just telling it like it is, as you suggest in your post.

There's nothing inherently wrong (in my book) with saying 'I've got a great product and I think you'd like it'. It's the thumb on the scales that I object to.