In his book, All Marketers are Liars, Seth Godin contends that consumers prefer fantasy to the truth, and that consequently marketers should “live the lie, fully and completely.” Stopping short of endorsing marketing methods which might kill people, Godin says that marketers should “give people what they want,” regardless of its relation to reality.
Many of Godin’s tactical points are accurate, such as that people respond to storytelling better than they do to a dry recitation of features and benfits, or that people are better able to hear a story if it fits in with what they already know. But are all marketers liars? And should storytelling have no connection to the product or service being offered?
Some marketing and design firms say yes. The firm which branded Tazo teas (Tazo is owned by Starbucks) stated flat-out that there was nothing new or distinctive about the product. In order to break into the marketplace, they built a brand on cool package design and a story of how Tazo is a “reincarnation of tea.” Its website and other marketing materials reinforce that story with images and language which are supposed to make the viewer think it’s an exotic, superior product, and that drinkers of Tazo teas are enlightened, spiritual beings. For this, the design firm has received numerous awards and been lauded for its success. But the bottom line? They’re lying.
These cynical views that drive much of the marketing and design industries today, are shaped by the fallout of large businesses trying to compete in a global marketplace. (Although “lying marketers” have always been around: remember “rich Corinthian leather”? Didn’t actually exist). With media saturation at almost 100% (a recent study found that the average American receives over 15 hours of media “hits” each day), it’s getting harder and harder to catch people’s attention.
At the same time, the American marketplace, rather than consisting of five or six broad categories of people, is diverging simultaneously into two different models. One model consists of only two classes: low-priced commodities and upscale luxury goods. This mirrors the growing gap between rich and poor. Business scrambles to get into Wal-Mart and other discounters or positions itself for the “luxury” market, which now covers what used to be the middle class.
The other model consists of thousands of micro-niches. This mirrors the explosion of media channels available in our society, from 500+ channels on television, to a world-wide Web delivering millions of targeted sites each day with every imaginable personalization option. “Mass marketing,” where a company could simply throw its product on the market and hope people buy it, is dead.
In addition, there has been an explosion of design and marketing providers in the last decade. Firms competing for the dollars of big business must provide bigger splashes, bigger impact, and bigger results in order to survive. Some of them buy into “the big lie” theory and believe it’s the only way to be. They are rewarded for it with industry awards and speaking engagements that focus on flash rather than substance.
But there’s another reality out there, and that reality is the world of small and medium-size businesses. Particularly for those businesses whose target market is local or regional, the situation is different. Business is driven by word of mouth and personal contacts. Reputations are built less on flashy marketing campaigns and more on the actual experiences of the people using the product or service.
Having smaller scale operations and reaching a smaller audience means businesses can respond to customer wants and needs more quickly and effectively. Customers have much greater awareness of and contact with the top management and owners of small and medium-sized firms, whether by reading about them in the paper or seeing them at social functions. Businesses get involved with their communities through sponsorships, donations, and volunteer labor.
It’s a smaller world, more closely knit, less cut-throat, and based more on cooperation and personal relationships rather than “scorched earth” competitive strategies designed to drive others out of business.
In that environment, marketers can’t afford to lie! Not only will other businesses see through it, but customers will as well. Nor is lying necessary. What’s actually more effective is to tell the truth, clearly and consistently. Should it be a dry recitation of features and benefits? No. Nobody wants to hear that. Successful brands tell stories, but those stories are rooted in the authentic experience of the person buying the product or service.
Telling the truth in an engaging, creative, authentic fashion builds trust with your audience. It builds goodwill and encourages repeat business. It draws people into connection with each other and makes a community that much stronger. Authentic marketing begins with defining what makes your offering unique and then telling a great story about that unique advantage. Truthfully, clearly, and consistently. And that goes not just for small or regional businesses, but for big business as well.
A better world is possible. The cynics may try to shape the reality of consumers while claiming they’re only “giving people what they want,” but liars are ultimately found out and, in the long run, all companies involved will pay. As is already happening, marketers will tell so many lies that consumers will no longer believe anything. That, in turn, makes it that much harder for marketers to get their attention. It’s an “arms race” of trust-breaking. But meanwhile, those businesses (especially small and medium-sized ones) that embrace authentic marketing will build their brand and reap the rewards.
When you consider that most businesses in the United States are small businesses, and that that number keeps growing, the choice is clear. Rooting your brand in the truth is not only ethically sound but essential for long-term success.
This article was prompted by a number of events, one of which was a professional graphic design conference where design firms openly gloated about their ability to manipulate consumers. Our firm finds this reprehensible and disavows any design organization that does not have a firm grounding in ethics.