Marketing Is Not About Your Company’s Values

It’s about your customer’s values — and aspirations

Marketing is really about how customer values translate into aspirations, insecurities, fears and motivations.

Twenty years ago, in 1997, Steve Jobs told us,

“Marketing is about values”

He was right, of course. He was right about a lot of things, and marketing in particular was where he ruled. He was right in that the way to talk about a brand is “not to talk about speeds and fees” or “bits and mega-hertz” or “why we are better than windows.” He was right that marketing is about benefits, not features. And he was right when he said,

“Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it that we stand for?”

All true.

But what he didn’t explicitly say is that customers only want to know “what a company stands for” as it relates back to them.

Marketing, at the end of the day, is not just about a company’s values — it’s about understanding what these mean to a customer, and getting that meaning to be felt strongly enough that they buy.

Now, the real mastery of Jobs is that he almost certainly knew this, consciously or subconsciously. He almost certainly knew full well that people care more about themselves than Apple — and he also almost certainly knew full well that that speech he gave was not talking about marketing. It was marketing.

Which is why he said things like:

“Apple at the core — it’s core value — is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better.”

And,

“The people who believe they can change the world are the ones who do.”

When he said this, he almost certainly knew:

He wasn’t talking about Apple. And he wasn’t even talking about the customers.

He was talking to them.

People don’t care about you — people care about themselves

And they care about you only to the extent that you fulfill their wants and needs.

Look, it’s not cynical — it’s a fact. People not do business with you as an act of charity, or to get in on some of that sweet, sweet value set you got going on. They do business with you because they believe you are adding value to their lives — and how that sweet value set of yours aligns with their own.

People don’t come into the whiskey bar just because it’s cool — they come in because they want to feel cool. They don’t drink whiskey just because it’s “manly” or “strong” — they drink it so they feel manly and strong.

People didn’t buy Apple because they liked that Apple “believed people with passion can change the world” (like “oh, now isn’t that nice!”) No. People bought Apple because they wanted to see themselves as one of those people.

And the success of a business — and its marketing message — is partially figuring out what people want. And partially the promise of fulfilling it.

People care about the way you make them feel

There are a number of companies popping up that sell clothing with elephants on it and donate part of the proceeds to “saving the elephants.”

They’re popular. And they’re popular not because donating makes people feel good, but because elephants make people feel good.

It’s not accidental. These companies aren’t donating to, say, endangered Amazonian spiders or rock moss.

No. It’s elephants.

Why? It’s simple. You want to sell some fast-fashion casual clothing? Look at who’s buying it. Once you know who’s buying it (and we all know who it is: early 20’s to early 30’s women), then look at why they’re buying it — their values, their insecurities, their wants and aspirations and motivations.

What do they value? What are they insecure about? How do they want to feel? How can we remind them of these things?

Cue the elephants.

Elephants are sociable. They’re cute. They’re smart. They’re just exotic enough to seem special but not exotic enough to be unfamiliar. They’re family-oriented. They’re strong. But they’re safe, not scary. Elephants are on trend.

And if you think this is reading too much into it, recall that we’ve been using motifs such as this since the beginning of time. Almost every smoker wanted to be the Marlboro Man, and at the end of the day you have to understand that, when it comes to inspiring feelings, an elephant isn’t that far off from a cowboy.

And marketing is about figuring out who your customers are, what they value, and most importantly how this manifests in insecurities and aspirations. And then it’s showing them the solutions in your brand.

This story is published in The Startup, where 258,400+ people come together to read Medium’s leading stories on entrepreneurship.

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