By Nancy Drexler
John Martillo was not just my boss; he was my friend. In all my years as a marketing pro, I've never met anyone with his ability to motivate, excite, encourage and delight his employees.
When I worked for John at Cynergy Data, the company he co-founded, I was given free reign to try new things, explore new ideas and create different kinds of marketing communications. When he responded positively to one of my ideas, he made me love my work even more.
But during those wonderful years of working together, John and I often knocked heads over one issue: my criticism of his work. In short, John would propose an idea, and I would punch holes in it.
I would tell him everything that was wrong with his concept and all the ways that it might confuse or fail to attract consumers. John would get frustrated and yell at me, "You're so negative!" I would remind him adamantly, "That is what you pay me for. It is my job to be negative."
John never liked it, but he understood that negativity (or being fiercely critical) is crucial to successful marketing. And that is my lesson for today.
We all remember the childhood taunt, Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. But, through personal experience, we learned how untrue that saying actually is.
Names, which are words, can be lethal. They can cause pain, shame, disdain and even self-loathing. Like anything that wounds, spoken words cannot be taken back. And the wounds they cause can take a long time to heal, often leaving invisible, painful scars.
Written words are just as powerful. Of course, text from a magazine or newspaper ad will probably not cause a reader to feel intense bitterness, remorse or pain.
Nevertheless, every letter, e-mail, direct mail, ad or promotional piece we write, as marketers, has the power to either advance or harm our relationships with prospects and customers.
It is our job to make sure these words do the former for our clients, not the latter. For each marketing project, we must read through every word with a critical, even negative, eye and ask questions. For example:
Even something as small as a typo can make our clients, and us, look incompetent, silly or careless. Our words must advance our clients' goals, not set them back.
And it takes careful troubleshooting, and a negative attitude, to make sure that they do.
Following are examples of advertising copy that seems harmless enough. But, viewing it through a negative lens provides a very different perspective on what the statements may actually mean.
Each example is followed by potential adverse reader reactions to it that come to my mind when I view the copy with a critical eye.
Reaction: My account? I'm an account? Next level of what? Does this mean "take your account and shove it?" Do I really want to keep reading or should I just turn the page?
Example: Don't leave with just a slice; take the entire pie.
Reaction: Leave? Where am I going? Take the entire pie? Not believable. Not even my mother is that generous. And what pie are we talking about? Maybe I should just turn the page.
Example: Company X proudly presents the Dream Team.
Reaction: Yeah, right. Dream on. Next page.
Example: No Gimmicks. No scams. Just what you want.
Reaction: Sounds like a trick to me. "No gimmicks" usually means you don't offer me anything extra. And how, exactly, do you know just what I want? Maybe I should marry you.
Example: Everything you could ask for, and more.
Reaction: What did I ask for? And if you're giving me everything already, what more do I need? Next page, please.
Example: Technology: The ideal employee of the 21st Century.
Reaction: This must strictly be for information technology geeks. I really don't want to do business with a company that values technology more than people.
Note: The last example is a slightly modified magazine-article headline. The article refutes the headline. But people who only read the headline may get a bad first impression.
The bottom line: Readers scan text and visuals.
If you can capture readers' attention, or offer something they are interested in, they may read on. But, except for the final one, these examples are broad, general statements that boast of a company's prowess rather than address the real needs of potential consumers.
Only a fantasy company can deliver the world. And consumers have heard such promises before. They are not inclined to believe them, let alone act on them.
More importantly, these ads are virtually indistinguishable from one another. While you've seen versions of them - probably more than once - I'll bet you have a hard time remembering which companies they represent.
An investment in advertising and communication is intended to build brand recognition: Readers should begin to know you and associate you with a positive mental picture. If your marketing does not do that, you are not doing your job.
A rule of thumb in marketing: Never ask a question you don't want the answer to. Again, here are some headlines followed by potential damaging reader reactions:
Reaction: 100 what? Do I even want to be one out of 100? And, even if I think I do have what it takes to be one out of 100 whatevers, I still see no reason to read more on this page. I don't care if I'm in that particular group.
Question: You think you know Company X? Forget it.
Reaction: If I know something about the company, it looks like I'm wrong. But if I don't know them, why would I want to? I can forget about it anyway. I think I'll turn the page.
Question: Who is to say you can't reinvent the wheel?
Reaction: I say, that's who. Besides, you can't reinvent the wheel. Why would I even want to?
Once again, when you use a negative lens and ask hard questions, you come up with answers that might make you reconsider your marketing strategy.
Asking hard, critical questions can be difficult and time consuming. But don't see this as a detriment. Instead, look at it as a way to guard against weak advertising and a benefit to your ultimate goal: attracting customers.
"Us versus them" ads can be extremely effective if they clearly and quickly demonstrate the difference between your product and your rival's offering.
Campbell's Soup Co., for instance, used two pictures: a bowl of Campbell's chicken soup filled to the brim with noodles next to a competitor's bowl containing just a few meager noodles.
If you can quickly establish a meaningful difference between your brand and your competitor's, the comparison approach has merit. But look at these attempts at this technique, followed by potential adverse reactions.
Reaction: Company X accuses other processors of making big promises; then it goes on to make a very big promise of its own. Seems dubious to me.
Example: Don't trust the jokers in the deck.
Reaction: So, this outfit thinks its competition is pulling my leg. But how can I be sure this company isn't doing exactly that itself?
Example: Going nowhere with your one-way ISO?
Reaction: What does it mean to be "going nowhere" with my ISO? What's a one-way ISO? What does this company offer that mine doesn't? I'm turning the page.
Example: Take the road less traveled.
Reaction: Why would I want to take the road less traveled? This is business. If everyone else is traveling the same road, it's probably because they are making money on that road.
When evaluating your written communications, ask yourself these questions:
When all your answers are positive, you've appropriately used the negative. And that's the best way to do your job.
Nancy Drexler is the President of Marketing Moguls and its division, PIMPS (Processing Industry Marketing and Promotion Services). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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