Tone matters — and marketers still establish it, not consumers
Are you a lover or a fighter? If you work in marketing, you might have to choose. This became very clear to me as I simultaneously encountered two very divergent ways of thinking.
I recently saw the HBO documentary “Gasland Part 2,” about the increase in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The movie reveals that during a 2011 energy industry Media & Stakeholder Relations conference, one executive suggested that PR representatives should download the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual because, as he stated, “we are dealing with an insurgency.” The “insurgents” in this case being residents, concerned citizens, and community officials. And another communications professional stated that to win over public opinion and elected officials, former military PSYOPS experts are being used. Clearly, some PR people have a little bit of battle fatigue because they think we’re at war in Pennsylvania.
Ironically, I watched the movie as a copy of “Loveworks” was sitting on my living room coffee table. The book is a follow-up to “Lovemarks,” an extended discussion of Saatchi and Saatchi’s marketing ethos. In “Loveworks,” author Brian Sheehan concludes that, “Brands could foster mystery, sensuality and intimacy to move from being respected to being loved.”
These two examples show that we can tackle advertising, marketing, and PR issues using different approaches. So which one’s right? When we plan our strategies, should we be thinking about love or war? Are they simply two sides of the same communication coin?
It’s easy to see why marketing and advertising people, like businesspeople in general, gravitate towards one or the other. All marketing and advertising is designed to change something: sales, awareness, perceptions, etc. And in order to achieve some movement, persuasion is needed. Most creative briefs have some description of the target audience’s mindset. You know, in sections like “What They Currently Think” and “What We Would Like Them To Think.” In between those two statements lies the key to change.
All clients are under pressure to deliver results. How they achieve those results differs. Some truly believe that business is war. Others believe in a more inclusive approach to acquiring customers and promoting a brand. Whether we’re suggesting people show affection for inanimate products or faceless corporations, or whether we’re in a battle for hearts and minds, we have some very sophisticated tactics at our disposal.
Was it always this way in our business? With the exception of some things like WWII-era posters, marketing seemed more innocuous a long time ago. At some point, it became more than merely selling products. It became a matter of life and death, love and conflict.
And in any business category, different companies and brands use different techniques. Whatever we believe in, we have to be cognizant of what others doing. The folks preaching love and inclusiveness as a way to gain customers and market share need to watch out. Some folks are conducting a battle — and using battlefield ethics to make decisions.
What effect does this have on society? A big one, if you ask me. Most consumers don’t relate to our efforts (or engage with them) on a deep level. We’re way more interested in our marketing and advertising than they are. So it makes them vulnerable to messages suggesting they could benefit from the love or fear we sell to them. (It could also be a combination of both: butter up a customer to like your brand or service, then intimidate them into needing it.)
In marketing, the goal is always “more” something: More sales, more awareness, more attention, more engagement. I’d imagine marketers who prefer love and attraction to their brands think there’s infinite room to expand their markets, while the practitioners of marketing-as-war view it as a zero-sum game.
But these differing attitudes will only become more marked over time. Politics, and issue advocacy like that in the fracking debate, are as much marketing as anything else. And issues compete for attention the same way diaper makers do. As competition for attention and money increases, the attempts to use marketing as love or war will only get more extreme.
I’m a writer. To me, words matter. Tonality matters. So I’m wary of anyone who treats customers like “insurgents” in a war. I’m also skeptical of any ad agency who insists they can make someone "love" a product or service the way I love my family. Throw those phrases around too often in a marketing context and they lose their effectiveness.
If we’re going to declare war, let’s do it on these kind of over-the-top, hyperbolic approaches to selling products and services. I’d love that battle.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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