How to sell stuff without being completely horrible: a proposition

I’ve been wanting to write something for awhile about why and how I do what I do. For those of you who don’t know, I wear a variety of hats in the brand/content/marketing/digital spaces depending on what my clients need. As I generally consult direct-to-client for SMEs, no two projects ever look the same, and I’m often working across multiple disciplines in the course of addressing the problem I’ve been brought in to solve. As such, I don’t have one method or approach that I apply to all of my work.

I do, however, try to have an ethos.

But before I get there, I want to take a step back, and talk about definitions for a minute. Because of misuse, overuse, intentional obfuscation, buzzwordification, whatever, at least two of the words I used above when describing what I do are not only misunderstood, but actively reviled by many correct-thinking people. They are, or should be, simple words with straightforward meanings, but over time, they’ve become overloaded with bad context. For me, arriving at my current work via a circuitous path, coming to terms with both of these words was a huge part of feeling like I could do what I do with any degree of honesty and integrity. In my perfect world, everyone would use the following definitions:

Marketing — the process of offering a product or service to people, and creating awareness of that product or service in a manner that distinguishes it from other, similar products and services.

Brand — A collection of perceptions and opinions that people have about a company, product, or service, based in part on how a company presents itself and its products/services, and in part on peoples’ experiences of such.

That’s it. Marketing is what you offer and how you talk about it, and brand is what people think and how they feel about you. Anything beyond these basic definitions is bullshit and noise, most often propagated by people who want to make these disciplines seem rarefied or esoteric.

Which brings me back to ethos. Honestly, there’s very little science to all of this. For all of the tools that we have at our disposal, all of the data we can gather, and all of the bright minds that we can put to work, there’s no surefire process or formula when it comes to consistently convincing people to give your product or service a chance, then retain enough of them as customers to make your business viable. That being said, there is one thing you can do to give yourself the greatest shot at success.

You have to tell the truth.

Always, and without exception.

The biggest reason that so many people hate marketing, and hate feeling like they’re being “sold to” is that they equate marketing, and especially advertising, with lies, deception, and manipulation. People are cynical, and they should be. There’s a reason why public trust in institutions — political, cultural, economic — is at a record low. The world is pretty fucked at the moment, and most of the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of those selfsame institutions.

Marketers, especially, have a lot to answer for, because for decades, their mouths have written cheques that their asses can’t cash. No product is going to get you laid, or enduringly make you feel better about yourself, or earn the love and admiration of your ungrateful brats. Nothing that anyone can sell you will fill that gaping, black chasm in your soul.

So how do you go about the business of selling anything in this world without either befouling your own conscience or alienating the people who you’re counting on to keep a roof over your head?

You have to tell the truth.

Always, and without exception.

Marketing people like to talk about core brand values, or value propositions. You can Google either of these concepts and get buried under an avalanche of bullshit. And once again, beyond all of the buzzwords and obfuscation, these are both very straightforward concepts. What do we do, how do we do it, and what promises are we making to people? Are we making commitments about affordability, about the quality of the product, about providing good service? In a world where a million fucking companies make widgets, what makes our fucking widgets worth buying?

Seems simple, right? Read most corporate values and mission statements, and you’ll realise that in most cases, they’re either full of lies, or use a lot of words to say nothing.

You have to tell the truth.

Always, and without exception.

Be genuine.

Be sincere.

Be transparent.

Say only the things you can back up.

You have to tell the truth.

Remember earlier, when I talked about the tools, the data, and the bright minds? There are ways that you can use these things to help you tell the truth. Or, more precisely, to help you figure out which truths to emphasise, and how to get them across. Once you figure out all of the true statements you can make about your company, product, or service, the things that you could swear on your grandmother’s grave over, you need to figure out which of these things will resonate with people, and which of these things truly makes your widget different than the others. This is where the art comes in, and the nuance, the expertise, and the informed guesswork.

But none of it means anything without truth. You can’t build a house on shitty foundations. And you can’t build a brand on trying to get one over on people.