Forget About Marketing Ethics – Let’s Start with Truth-based Messaging

If marketing professionals seek to conduct business ethically by promoting goods and services beneficial to a customer’s well being, they must first start with truth-based messaging. Regardless of the product or service, if marketers can’t speak honestly when describing features and benefits, then forget about thinking marketers could possibly be ethical, as James Stephenson postulates in his article, “Is Marketing Ethics an Oxymoron?”

Having been a marketer for the past couple of decades, I am quite familiar with the pressure to stretch the truth about product attributes, features or benefits, all in the name of trying to increase sales. My experience in marketing and business communications has been concentrated in the high tech field, including network security and software. With such ambiguous products that are impossible to “touch and feel,” marketing communications tend to fall into broad benefits categories, such as to reduce costs, increase productivity or eliminate potential threats, where the temptation to inflate product benefits definitely exists.

Underlying each of my messages, however, has been a story based in truth. Calculating actual benefits can be tricky. It might be necessary to make assumptions about a prospective buyer’s usage of your product, how your software performs at your client’s company, and so forth. As part of this process, I build a reasonable “story,” backed up by case studies, customer feedback or observations from the field to support my messaging claims.

I am now concerned in the direction of recent corporate marketing communications. A new level of deception now appears to be status quo, as highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “AT&T Relabels Networks as 4G.” AT&T’s marketing department decided they needed a “4G” product to stay competitive, so they decided to simply rename their existing “3G” network as “4G.” Justification was based on comments issued by the International Telecommunications Union, a wireless industry standards body, which indicated that they have not yet set a firm 4G definition. In AT&T’s view, this was a wide open door to apply the 4G term to their “advanced” 3G technologies – look for a future announcement.

This decision goes way beyond a question of ethics, representing an outright deception and lie to prospective customers. Apparently, truth-based messaging is not a requirement at AT&T.

The sad part is that the wireless industry is not acting alone, but is simply following the current direction of the automotive industry.

It used to an accepted truth that automobile model numbers designated meaningful data. For example, Mercedes Benz used to have a strict numbering convention, which made it very easy to understand model and engine size.

If you see a Mercedes Benz SL 55, it denoted an SL body with a 5.5 liter engine. Today, if you buy a SL 63, you get one with a 6.2 liter engine. Rumor has it that the next replacement model will have a 5.5 liter engine, yet be called a SL 63.

I see no truth-based messaging or communications in Mercedes’ decision to change their model number methodology. What I see is deception, which will cause consumers to question the company’s communications, leading to a lack of trust in future messaging.

If you go down the road of deception about product specifications, you are setting yourself up for customer dissatisfaction, opening up an opportunity for your competitors. Your sales team will suffer reduced effectiveness, customer satisfaction will decline and, in the end, brand integrity will suffer. Compounding matters further, the Wall Street bonus philosophy exists here too … those involved in making these messaging decisions will have already been rewarded for their actions with promotions, bonuses or new job offers, prior to when the proverbial “shit” hits the fan.

I propose that a new, higher level of ethics is sorely needed, to be self-imposed by marketing professionals, such that a company’s marketing collateral and business communications can at least be truth-based, rather than outright fabrications. Perhaps I am expecting too much – maybe a better course of action is to institutionalize some sort of “whistle blower” program, such as what the SEC has implemented? Do I sound unreasonable? How far can this messaging strategy continue before the public has had enough? Let me know your thoughts.

Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Another Evolving Social Behavior to Consider in Your Marketing Communications

Words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup;
They slither while they pass; They slip away across the universe.

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney

The words and way we communicate today is obviously very different than in the past. In fact, over the past 5 years, the increasing usage of Twitter and texting has been nothing short of spectacular. Twitter reported that more than two billion tweets were sent just last month. Wow!

What is interesting is that as a new communication medium is launched, we keep compressing the time frame to contact someone and expect a response. Back in the 1960s when the Beatles were writing their legendary songs, the only way to talk to your girl was on a rotary dial up phone – an answering machine didn’t exist. If you had to reach someone, you simply kept calling until they were home. Then, along came the answering machine. Now you could leave a message and probably get a call back later that day or the next. By the early 2000s, email broke through the next threshold where a response could be expected within 24 hours.

Today you can text or twitter someone, and if they don’t reply back within a few minutes, some might be offended. Worse, they might think you lost your phone or are in trouble! The time required to reach out and talk with someone anywhere in the world has been compressed from days to minutes with texting and twittering. And, not only has the length of time for response been compressed, the actual content of the message has been shortened from having a 30 minute phone call to sending a 140 character tweet.

twitter-logoAs with other technology advances (see “Evolving Social Behaviors Necessitate a Change in Marketing Communications“), a new social behavior has also evolved with this communications transformation. The concept of where and when to meet someone for dinner, a movie, etc. has changed. Now, it is acceptable to simply suggest a general area and time for your social interaction … details can follow later. And, if you are running late, no sweat; texting has made it socially acceptable to be late, as long as you communicate your delay to the affected party.

But, as a marketer, it is highly unlikely that your target audience will be as forgiving.

If you approach your marketing communications in the same way, you might not be very effective. To start, if you are meeting with a client, you are the one that is expected to be prompt and on time; if your prospect is late, then that isn’t a problem. The same holds true if you are advertising your product’s availability or a promotion. Even if it is a 20 minute special, your decision to text your prospects about your current offer might not be seen as relevant or appropriate in their minds, causing frustration on their part from your message.

Or, it might be just fine. Let me explain. A twitter user or company that sends out a 140 character message that is perceived to have significant value to a recipient will be welcomed, such as a tweet announcing free concert tickets to the first 100 people that arrive at a certain location. But, the line between what is appropriate and what is not is a fine line, with the potential of alienating your target audience if you get it wrong. Best to choose those 140 characters very carefully!

Personally, I am offended at every one of the marketing or sales texts that I have received, such as to call now to refi my home mortgage. Seriously, is this a message that I need to drop everything regardless of where I am and immediately start a refinance process? This is an excellent example of an evolving social behavior that must be addressed by marketers, and not abused. It may be totally inappropriate to expect an instant response from your prospect, even though today’s technology could support it.

It is critical that we, as marketers, choose a medium and expected time frame for response that matches our offer if we are to avoid alienating our prospects. For example, if I am offering a service targeted at residential real estate agents, then an email might be most appropriate for matching the time to reply to the offer, especially considering that most real estate agents now carry smart phones capable of reading and responding to emails. A text, however, sent to an agent out in the field while showing a prospect an open house might be disruptive, annoying and ill timed. Be careful when exploring these new communications mediums. Given the ease of today’s mass communications, a poorly executed marketing communications can go viral in an instant, causing potential long term damage to your brand or company.

Texts and tweets now fly out like endless rain while they slip away across the cyber universe … best to be sure your message is relevant and time appropriate when trying to reach out across your universe.



Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

The Power of the Digital Written Word

The expression that the pen is mightier than the sword may soon need to be updated … if the recent news about the Oxford English dictionary foreshadows the future.

In this recent news article, it was reported that the next edition of the world’s most definitive work on the English language will never be printed again, due to the impact of the Internet on book sales.

The power of the “written” word obviously still exists today … just look at all of the blog postings, comments and feedback that is typical on any given day. However, it is now becoming increasingly obvious that the Kindles, iPads and future book readers of the world will indeed replace the printed book, as well as the daily newspapers and monthly magazines. This transition will likely take an entire generation to be completed, but, the transition has already begun and will continue.

As a marketing communications professional, if the future of your business model or lead generation campaign is based on collecting leads from ads in a paper newspaper or magazine, now might be a good time for an overhaul (either strategically for your business, or time for a new career). More importantly, if you are a publisher of paper books (ex: Random House, HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster), you face a challenge no different than what Blockbuster and Hollywood Video faced … and failed miserably. Having a vision of what the future holds isn’t a panacea to identifying a replacement business strategy.

One challenge why an incumbent provider in a “dying” industry is seldom the next leader in the transformed industry is the fact that the incumbent has significant psychological and physical investment in the way things used to get done. Think about the physical infrastructure that today’s leading book publishers have made investments in – it would be very difficult to simply “chuck” their existing equipment, facilities and employees.

Yet, a new crop of businesses will emerge without the financial “baggage” of the incumbents, helping them to be more nimble and willing to experiment with new approaches and untested methods or strategies. This highly dynamic nature of start ups is a powerful force, one that will ultimately result in a new market leader in how this industry evolves into one that is not based on paper, but the power of the digital word.

One business strategy that has worked in the past is for an existing player to set up completely new division, one that is not encumbered with financial, political and other constraints of the parent company. The smart car is a good example, which began as an idea by the Swatch watch company, and became a reality with an investment by Mercedes Benz. The car is clearly not a luxury product, so Mercedes thoughtfully financed its launch it to address the growing sub-compact car market, which it correctly predicted. This strategy enables the new entity to be given a truly “free reign” on trying a new business strategy without diluting the parent company’s brand.

As a marketer, it helps to keep an extremely open mind on how to find the next lead, as well as what industry you choose to work in. Content is still king, but it will increasingly be a digital king, and not a paper one. When naming my blog, I am sure glad “Making Every Word Count” works in both paper and digital format, helping to avoid future obsolescence, at least the foreseeable future, which is all I can reasonably expect in today’s highly fluid business climate!

Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Applying Humor to Your Business Communications

“Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

When considering the question of “How do I improve my business communications?”, humor may be the answer. The decision should be based on what type of communications you seek. There are several roles humor can take … to grab attention, to make a lasting impression or to build a longer term relationship with your readers. Alternatively, a more serious and “professional” sounding message may be better suited to a more formal communications, in which case humor may not be appropriate.

Let me explain. It might not be the best idea to use humor when talking about a financial institution’s lending practices, or the way that a customer’s money is managed.

When we write or speak to an audience, often we are really trying to build a relationship with our audience in order to convey a thought, a message or a suggestion to purchase a product r service. As part of establishing that message and gaining credibility, it can be quite effective if you are communicating more as a friend or advisor. In that case, humor can definitely play a role in helping to build the relationship, earn trust and communicate on a more personal level.

South West Airlines (SWA) is an excellent example. They have effectively used humor in their verbal communications. Each flight attendant was clearly encouraged by their peers and supervisors to include humor as part of their pre-take off, FAA required announcements at the beginning of every flight.

In today’s YouTube age, there is another incentive: to become the next big hit.  Watch this video for an example of a video that has gone viral, with nearly 1 million hits so far. Interestingly, SWA’s practice began before the age of the Internet. Now these videos are actually a form of advertising, helping to increase brand awareness – and might even generate a ticket sale or two. Clearly, humor can lend itself to social networking marketing quite nicely.

While SWA’s topic is serious, the message has been effectively conveyed in a joyful, playful manner, with short one-liner jokes intermingled with information on what to do in an evacuation, and how the seat cushions also works as a life vest. In the end, passengers felt more relaxed and at ease, trusting that SWA had things under control in the passenger’s best interest while helping to pass the time during the boring announcements that business travelers all know by heart.

TD Ameritrade is an example of when a more serious communications was best. Their selection of Sam Waterston as a spokesperson conveys a serious message that TD Ameritrade is a secure institution you can trust, based on our associating him as being a District Attorney for Law and Order, even though it is just a character he plays on a television show. But don’t expect Sam to crack a joke during his endorsement during the ad.

Similarly, if you are writing a business plan to demonstrate intimate knowledge of your industry or market opportunity, it is trust that you are trying to build. As you might not have the opportunity to build a relationship over time with multiple interactions of your readers and prospective investors, you might only have one chance to make a first impression. In this case, your tone should probably be authoritative and professional, demonstrating you are serious about your business plan and the investment funds you are requesting. Probably not a good place for humor in your communications.

Each of these examples offers best-in-class leveraging of humor – or a lack of it – to accentuate and exemplify business communications. Deciding whether or not to use humor, however, is harder and riskier. Your message must indeed BE funny, or else the opposite effect will occur, possibly even alienating you from your target audience, and clearly hurting your communications objectives.  As it is more riskier to use humor, the choice is often to simply avoid it.

Next time you ask yourself whether humor might be appropriate in your next business communications, the answer won’t come from a computer.  It should be based on your subjective decision, half-based on theory and half-based on a gut feel if it really is appropriate.

Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.