Fear and Marketing

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We’ve been working a great deal lately on positioning and creative strategy for a new client. They are in financial services, an industry not typically associated with bold creative innovation. As a matter of course, I’ve been re-reading for what seems like the thousandth time the communications of other companies and I’m struck, yet again, by the herd mentality.

Take banks. The large banks all talk products. In fact, they rarely ever stop talking about products and rarely giving you human reasons why you should choose their practically generic service over any other. And then there are the smaller banks, the community banks — all they talk about is service and why you’ll never be anything more than a number if you use one of the big banks. The banking world has cleaved neatly in two. Everything is a minor variation of these two themes. It’s like the entire industry treats themselves and their customers as commodities.

Banking isn’t alone in this. You see it everywhere, companies treating their own products and their customers as commodities and then acting surprised when their customers treat their products as commodities in return. The most obvious place it shows is in the language.

As part of an exercise, I cut and pasted text from a dozen websites in the same industry and put it all on a board, then challenged people to tell who said what. You can imagine the results.

Blandness born of fear

Fear in marketing is a powerful force. We talk about standing out. We talk about “creating unique experiences.” But in the end, most of us are afraid of doing something truly original. And that’s why marketing across entire industries is consumed with sameness. That’s why differences between competing companies vary by single degrees.

In the mass of noise that is today’s market, it takes more than budget to be heard. It takes audacity, clarity and plain-spokenness. It takes a willingness to first be what you claim to be, and then a willingness to step outside of the comfort of your industry.

This does not mean being careless or crass. It does not mean pursuing ad concepts that rely on shock (the conceptual equivalent to click bait).

Boldness in marketing today means being smart. It means talking to your prospects instead of your executive team. It means showing how you make your customers’ lives better, easier, more entertaining, less painful, less fearful. It means losing everything inessential.

If fear is the sickness infecting most marketing today, gratitude is the cure. That’s not naiveté. More businesses should be grateful for the customers they have; in gratitude we naturally banish the mentality that any one customer is a commodity. We see them as unique and treat them that way. We should be grateful to the people who come to our web site, and by consequence give them something worth their time. And they in turn will give us their business because the choice between their options will be abundantly clear.

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