You’re Welcome. Maybe Not.

Probably the most obvious “rule” of retail marketing is to be friendly. If you want to sell something — particularly something that people don’t truly need, or for which there are many competing options — you have to make people well-disposed toward you before they will consent to give you their money. Sounds simple. Probably everyone who owns a tourist-oriented store in downtown Camden would agree in principle. And yet many of them ignore it in practice.

This kind of sign is all too common:

Don't Do Anything signDon’t do this. Don’t do that. They seem to like dogs, who will inevitably do doggy-type stuff, more than they like people doing people-kinds-of-things.

Here’s another:

No photography sign

No “welcome,” or “please come in.” Instead, right at eye level on the entry door, they’re telling me that I shouldn’t share their precious fucking photons.

These messages are all too common along Main St. in Camden. But right across the street from those two, I came across this one:

Welcoming sign on store

Ah, someone gets it. “You are welcome,” along with whatever you happen to have in your hands at the time.

Let’s think about two scenarios:

A. You have an open-store policy with no food or drink restrictions. 100 people carrying ice creams or soda enter your store. How many of them will: i) mess up a single piece of merchandise; AND ii) refuse to pay for it? What’s the wholesale value of the merchandise you can no longer sell?

B. You have a no-food-or-drinks policy. 100 people who are carrying ice creams or sodas see the sign and don’t come in because you made it inconvenient for them (they’d have to either ditch the snack, gobble it down on the sidewalk before they can enter, or come back later), or because you made them feel unwelcome. How much stuff would those 100 customers have bought had they come in the store, and what is its retail value?

 I venture to guess that the number in Scenario B is considerably higher than Scenario A — in other words, that the value of sales lost by a closed policy is far greater than the value of merchandise lost with an open policy.

Bottom line: don’t be so damn fussy and possessive. Minimize restrictions, and be welcoming to customers.

“Tactical” Marketing

Words have meanings. As a marketing writer, I’m constantly under pressure to ignore that apparently obvious dictum. Some clients are convinced that hyperbole is the only way to get through to an audience supersaturated with marketing messages.

Wear this "tactical" watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

Wear this “tactical” watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

They may be right, but still I rebel. Still I believe that honest communication is the best way to address the audience. Maybe the audience really IS stupid enough to believe that your insignificantly evolutionary product detail is “a whole new ballgame – a revelation in (your product category here) design and function” if you tell them it is. But maybe you’d earn the audience’s respect if you treat them as if they had a whit of intelligence – if you leveled with them for a change.

In any case, I won’t bullshit the audience, even if it would and does sell more widgets. If you believe the bullshit about how capitalism maintains self-policing structures to ensure that capitalists don’t abuse consumers, then ethics surely play a part. I don’t believe that premise, and I don’t view morality as a pragmatic issue, but if that’s what it takes for you to act morally in business, go for it. I won’t do it because it’s wrong. Full stop.

All this is prelude to a pretty trivial issue: the use (misuse) of “tactical” in marketing and merchandising. Google “tactical” + (any product you can think of), and you’ll likely get some valid hits. There are tactical knives and holsters (no surprise), but there are also tactical backpacks, fanny packs, computer bags, tents, wrist watches, flashlights, pens, notebooks, bacon (!), shoes, shirts and underwear.

tacticalunderwear

Gregory Peck’s drawers from The Guns of Navarone. Manly, yes. But I like it too!

Tactical fucking underwear.

Used thus, the word has literally no meaning. While a certain pair of skivvies might indeed wick sweat from your crotch more effectively than others, and might on that account be a good choice for conducting some dangerous undercover “op,” there is nothing “tactical” about it – or indeed, about any physical object that is not designed to accomplish a specific military tactic. An automatic rifle is not tactical: it’s a weapon that is used in the pursuit of a tactic, which might be something like gaining the high ground or protecting a city. Small nuclear weapons can be tactical, in the sense that they can be used as the primary tool to win a battle – as distinct from strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed to achieve strategic ends such as annihilating an entire enemy population.

For want of a nail, a kingdom may have been lost, but that was a butterfly’s wing effect. That nail wasn’t strategic, and it wasn’t tactical: it was just a nail. Same goes for your tighty whities.

If “tactical” has no literal meaning when used for marketing products, what IS it doing there? Its purpose is purely evocative. Even if you don’t know what a tactic is, you almost certainly do know that the word is associated with military stuff. So it’s dangerous. It’s macho. And every real man is supposed to want to be that. So a guy who needs a flashlight or an undershirt gets to think of himself as a bad dude if he buys the tactical version.

If his wife knew what it was called, she’d understand that he’s still playing army “at his age” and she’d laugh at him.

If I, as a marketing communicator, knew you were buying my client’s flashlight for that reason, I’d laugh at you. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hold the people whom I communicate with in disrespect, nor will I hold them up to the disrespect of my clients who want to sell them stuff. So I’m going to talk to you straight. I’ll explain the benefits of the product and depend on your good sense to decide if those benefits make this product the right one for your needs.

Level with the customer. Treat him with honesty and respect. That’s a tactical approach to marketing communications, and you do it because it’s effective and it’s right.

Don’t Tell ‘Em Too Much

Notice anything about these two campaign signs by competing candidates?

campaign sign

Notice anything missing? Like, everything?

They both tell you virtually nothing. Name and office sought, nothing more. Not a word about their legislative priorities and no indication of political party.

This is typical in campaign signs. Two years ago, among the dozens of candidate signs that I saw around the Midcoast for local, state and national offices, just one indicated the candidate’s political party. That was Eliot Cutler, the gubernatorial candidate whose affiliation was proudly stated as “Independent.”

Obviously, candidates for political office don’t want to clutter your mind with picayune details like “Republican” and “Democrat,” much less brief position statements (For the Working Man; Keeping America Strong) Campaign signs have only one purpose: to make people extremely familiar with the candidate’s name. So that when Joe Voter enters the booth (You know Joe: he’s the only voter candidates care about: the undecided voter who thinks he’s performing a civic duty, even though he doesn’t understand squat about politics or policy.) he votes for the name he recognizes, or for the one whose negative attributes he remembers less clearly than the other guy’s. Political parties? Unaffiliated voters view both of them as negatives, so leave it out.

It’s a despicable approach to democracy, but elections aren’t much about democracy in the USA anymore: they’re all about marketing and which side can afford more of it. (Thanks, Supreme Court!) And the smart money says you don’t want to give the rubes too much information.

That’s sound policy for a lot of nonpolitical marketing too. Few ads or other marketing vehicles should talk price, unless price is your unassailable Unique Selling Proposition. It’s too easy for consumers to compare, and all money is money that people would rather not spend, so best not talk about it. Don’t want to field email inquiries? Don’t push your email address. Is your business one of those “rent-to-own” operations? Highlight the “own” part and never mind that pesky “rent” thing.

Make the message as simple as possible. Focus on just one positive attribute that appeals to the consumer or solves his problem. In many cases, the only other thing you need is a call to action (CTA): i.e., tell the consumer explicitly what you want him to do: buy, call, visit, click, “like,” “share,” or whatever.

And even a CTA is superfluous sometimes. Campaign signs don’t use it because until the polls open, the consumer can’t take action. They’re all about familiarity. That principle applies to many national brands too — think fast food and sugary fizzy beverages especially. Many of those ads don’t try to make you buy right now. They just want to fill a certain part of your brain so that they’re the first thing you think of when you’re hungry or thirsty.

Responding (or not) to Social Media

Social media marketing is a two-edged sword. (That’s a ridiculous metaphor, when you come to think of it. Two-edged swords are about as dangerous to their owners as single-edged swords. A two-ended sword, were there such a thing, might be more to the…um…point.) By enabling a company to engage its audience in real two-way discussions, social media marketing leads the audience to believe that the company cares about them and they, in response, come to care about the company or its product or service.

That’s fine when customer feedback is of the “Hey, love your product” variety, and your company responds with “Thanks Biff! Wait till you taste our new coconut crunch flavor, coming out next July!” It even works when Biff asks nicely for things you can’t or won’t do, and you can respond “Thanks for the input. We never considered a salmon-flavored soft drink before, but we’ll put the idea into the hopper.” Biff comes away thinking that at least you’re listening and that his opinion matters to you. A positive relationship has been established.

But things can get tricky when Biff has an agenda, or if Biff is a troll. Then, nothing but your acceptance or approval of his standpoint will satisfy him, and your reasoned objections to his opinion will elicit only bile:

“Hey, you guys have to stop selling your product in Communist China, because FREEDOM!”

“Biff, UltraCorp believes that the Chinese people deserve the benefits of CyberCrunchies too. They’re an inexpensive source of Vitamin X, they secretly implant pro-capitalist microchips under the skin of consumers, and they generate $2 billion in revenues for our Idaho-based company, helping reduce the US trade deficit with China.”

“Freedom isn’t free you f***face. You think my daddy left his legs on Omaha Beach so that we could trade with Commies?”

Since there’s not no winning this “argument,” there’s no sense in continuing it. Literally nothing you say or do will satisfy Biff, unless you agree to exactly what he wants. At this point, you can delete the offensive conversation from the media. Biff will see this as confirmation that he’s right, and he’ll say so, unless you ban him entirely. Especially if you ban him, he’ll likely spread the conversation across other social media that you don’t control, where it’ll arouse the ire of other Biff-minded individuals who previously had nothing against your company.

A better response may be none at all, leaving Biff’s absurd reply as the last word on the subject. This is a difficult choice for a few reasons. It’s intellectually offensive to allow such nonsense to go unanswered. Absurd as it may be, Biff’s argument will be persuasive to some (hopefully small) fraction of the audience who, like Biff, will be convinced that your lack of a reply is equivalent to consent. At it can be an ego blow: declining to answer, when you know you’re right and he’s wrong, feels like losing the argument.

The advantage of this approach, however, is threefold. By allowing him the last word on the subject, Biff thinks he’s won, and he’ll be less likely to cross-post the conversation to other media. For those in the audience who are not already fanatical supporters of Biff’s agenda, the absurdity of Biff’s response condemns itself, and that condemnation then becomes the last word on the subject. Your marketing ego has to be mature enough to understand that.

The most important reason not to respond, however, is simply to allow the subject to die. The shorter the conversation, the fewer people in your audience who will notice, much less be engaged by it or share it. The day after Biff’s last, unanswered response, the conversation will have dropped off the first page of your wall and it will have been forgotten by every reader except Biff. It’s become a blip, not a controversy.

Merry Christmas from the King of Lies

“Captain Atheismo, give me your report on the War on Christmas.”

Yes, Your Eternal Nastiness. This Powerpoint shows highlights of this season’s initiatives:

  • The Yiddish Brigade successfully decoupled Hannukah from December, drawing an estimated 100,000,000 American Jews out of the festivities.
  • Our Moslem allies have so well established Sharia as the law of the land that Allah has become more popular than Jesus in 39 states and the District of Columbia by an average of 14.5 percentage points nationwide.
  • The Fox Shock Troops have instilled fear throughout all remaining true Christians. In a recent survey, 92% cited “fear of retribution by neighbors” as the primary reason for no longer openly celebrating or acknowledging their so-called faith.
Moslems at prayer in a mosque

Hundreds of millions of American former Christians flocked to mosques in December to affirm their conversions and protest the holiday season

Additional results are most gratifying:

  • Christmas music is not heard in any stores catering to the general public
  • Gift buying, Christmas card sales, and UPS deliveries are all down to Depression-era levels
  • Vast forests of Christmas trees remain uncut this year
  • Churches and homes have been successfully prevented from applying both interior and exterior decorations.

In sum, Your Holy Terrorship, Operation Kill Christmas has nearly entirely suppressed the holiday in 2013. Next year should be a simple mopping-up operation.

“Excellent report, Captain. You’ve done your work well. Eggnog?”

Pay for the Photography and Photoshop, Dammit

In an article on web marketing that I wrote recently for MaineBiz, webmaster Al Arthur advised that small business owners cough up the cash for professional web design — advice that I heartily support. But due to space constraints, the article had to leave out Al’s follow-on comment about the comparable importance of paying for decent photography. To that, I’d add professional photo editing, and design for print too. When things don’t look good…they don’t look good. And if customers don’t have a professional’s eye for design, they are at least subliminally influenced by quality when it appears, or doesn’t appear, in any graphic context associated with your company.

Two full-page, four-color ads in the current issue of the Camden Herald (and, I presume, its local sister publications) are good object lessons in how not to do it.

PETA ad shows bad Photoshop and a dead lobster masquerading as a live one.

We really shouldn’t come down too hard on the designer. She lives in Idaho and television ads for Red Lobster constitute her entire familiarity with the species.

This ad by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals purports to show a live lobster being cruelly rent asunder by an uncaring “slaughterhouse” worker. As any Mainer would immediately recognize, its bright red color signals that this is no live lobster. Or as Mr. Praline might say:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This lobster is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-LOBSTER!!

So those two hands that are meant to be so roughly treating this poor crustacean are, in fact, only about to start enjoying supper.

Except: those two hungry hands never really touched said cooked lobster. It may not show very well in my photo (and I apologize for that: my scanner’s bed isn’t big enough to take the full page ad), but those hands have been obviously Photoshopped in with all the finesse that you’d expect from an organization that throws blood at people as a means of political discourse.

Walmart ad shows prescription bottles with bad info on labels

Opposite the PETA ad was this one from Walmart, which opened its new store in Thomaston a day or two ago.

The problem here is subtler. Look below at the labels on the prescription bottles.

What’s that? The fictitious prescription holder lives in Anytown, Arkansas. And her refill order expired in two thousand and frickin’ nine!

Now come on, Walmart! You’re one of the world’s biggest companies; you could fund PETA’s operations for a century on last quarter’s profit. You think that just maybe you could pay for 15 minutes worth of Photoshop to update the labels to make the customer a Maine resident of the current decade?

prescription bottle label shows inappropriate content

No way we’re gonna fill this prescription for you, Jane. We stopped selling fen-phen years ago.

Slightly off-topic, but back to the PETA ad: at the bottom, the call to action reads: “To learn how you can help stop this suffering, visit PETA.org.” Go to that (home) page, however, and you’ll find nothing about Linda Bean and her red, dead lobsters. Perhaps if you dug deeper into the website you might find something relevant, but an advertisement has to: a) make things as easy as possible on the audience, and b) include a meaningful call to action. There’s no indication of what the reader is actually supposed to do to help “stop this suffering.” Call Linda Bean? Sign a petition? Send money? Throw blood on someone? If the information is somewhere on the website, the URL should lead directly to it. A QR code wouldn’t hurt. But the ad shouldn’t require the reader to go to the website in the first place: it should tell me, right there on the page, what it wants me to do.

Indirect Messaging in Ads

Advertising is not the practice of the obvious. The best ads are often not the ones that address the subject directly. Indeed, an ad that spells out exactly what the seller wants you to buy can be among the worst. Back in the Soviet days, a huge Moscow billboard carried this (translated) message:

DRINK TEA

That was the whole text of the ad. It said exactly what the state-run tea importing and processing company had in mind, but it was hardly persuasive. Every Russian was already aware of the option — indeed, tea drinking was as essential element in Russian culture as it was in Victorian England — but they were drinking something else (water, vodka… I don’t know) and “drink tea” certainly wasn’t going to do much to make them change. Perhaps it just needed a little tweak: the addition of an incentive, like this one:

DRINK TEA

…OR WE’LL SHIP YOU TO THE GULAG

In contrast, this Geico ad takes an indirect approach.

Geico isn’t trying to sell you insurance — at least not here in this ad. No one buys insurance because an ad makes it sound appealing. You buy insurance when you find you need it: when you buy a new car, or when your current carrier raises your premiums and you decide to look for a better price.

Geico (or its ad agency) understands this, and they build their ads not to sell insurance, but to make you remember Geico in a positive light. They’ve created a whole campaign of ads that are  funny, well-produced, and based on startling (but not disturbing) visual images (e.g., a camel in an office). So that when you find you need insurance, Geico comes to mind: they’re the guys with the funny ads! Remember the camel in the office? Remember the gecko with glasses who looks like Warren Buffet? Of course you do. And there’s a damn good chance that they’re who you’ll call, rather than some more straightlaced company that preaches to you about protecting your family or your investment and whose name you don’t immediately recall.

The indirect sell isn’t right for all products in all advertising environments. If you’re pitching an engineering product in a trade journal ad, for example, you might need to appeal to the engineer’s specific application requirement: our bearings last 33% longer in agricultural applications; our marine pollution spill response service is available for immediate deployment worldwide. But for consumer products, making the consumer love you is often the way to their wallets.