Truth in Marketing: Dismantling the Great Marketing Swindle
Sometimes, the most valuable business lessons are those that are formed early in one’s career. In my case, I discovered the importance of “truth in marketing” from a rather young and inexperienced automotive engineer. It’s a lesson that has driven my approach to marketing for better than a quarter of a century.
I was in my mid-20s, had a newly minted MBA, and was working in Detroit for one of the “Big Three” automakers. As the product planner for a new vehicle line, my role was to represent the “voice of the customer” on a team of product engineers, supply chain experts, and manufacturing engineers who were developing an entry-level sporty car. This meant I had to define product specifications for the vehicle and then collaborate with the team to make the necessary cost, quality, style, fuel economy, and safety tradeoffs during a multi-year development process. Despite the long hours and many tough, sometimes emotional decisions, I loved every minute of it.
A “Truth in Marketing” Lesson From an Unlikely Source
My truth-in-marketing lesson? It started with a simple question from a fresh-out-of-college engineer: “How thick should we make the rim of the steering wheel?” I didn’t have the faintest idea. If she had asked me about the demographics or broad style or performance preferences of our target customers, I could’ve provided an exact response. But this inquiry was so specific and so unexpected, I was taken aback. My initial inclination was to simply wing a response by telling her to design the steering wheel to be about as thick as those offered on competitive vehicles. But I immediately remembered that the competitive set was varied, and our proposed vehicle was supposed to be a fun-to-drive car with outstanding “control surface” quality and feel. Besides, this was an earnest, amiable engineer who was trying to create the right experience for our customers, so I didn’t want to steer her wrong.
After considering some options, I recommended that we “clinic” the steering wheel issue, along with several other control surface matters. Essentially, that meant recruiting target customers to central research locations, where they could directly experience and rate the controls of several competitive vehicles. Their ratings would allow us to discern the optimal steering wheel thickness, gear shifter feel, turn signal experience, material preferences, and so on.
So, we conducted the research clinic and learned a ton about our target customer’s vehicle preferences. And I was able to give that engineer specific, valuable feedback regarding the steering wheel and other control surfaces she was designing. The car itself? It went on to become the top-selling vehicle in its class in the U.S.
Lose Ego, Add Audience Input
What does my story have to do with truth in marketing? Simple. Marketers, marketing communicators, and agency folks who consistently wing it are fraudsters. Their egos and insecurities get in the way of success. They think – or pretend to believe – that their ideas and opinions are somehow more valuable, more insightful, and more creative than those of everyone around them. They don’t bother to evaluate their ideas, products, promotions, or messages to verify or improve them, wasting the organization’s valuable time and money. In short, by pretending to know the truth, they swindle everyone who matters– their co-workers, bosses, stakeholders, and target customers.
My lesson from long ago, then, is that organized, objective input from your target audience can make any product, any service, any promotion, and any messaging set better. Call it research, call it marketing intelligence, call it data analysis, call it whatever you want. But regardless of what you name it, organized, objective input from your target customers is necessary to create a sound product and a resilient team that pulls in a unified direction.
The good news is that today, such input is more available, less expensive, and faster to obtain than ever before. Using it just requires marketers and marketing communicators to check their egos at the door. To be open to target customer input. And to understand that “truth in marketing” begins with honestly and empirically representing the voice of the customer among the colleagues and other stakeholders who rely on them for sound direction.
For over two decades, Brandware has helped emerging and iconic brands discover and communicate their true colors and authentic stories, all backed by in-house analytics and insights. Contact us for a truth-first approach to marketing communications that uncovers what’s possible and, most importantly, what’s believable and most compelling to consumers, customers and media.