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There is a perception in business, born out of real cases, that marketing and advertising are there to lie. Provided that the product or service being sold is of real value the assumption then is that consumers are incapable of making any decisions based on facts which means that in order for them to decide to access a service or buy a product they need to be told exactly what they want to hear about it rather than the truth.

There is a real basis to this approach of using advertising and marketing. For much of the 20th century adverts presented a picture of services and products which did not quite match to their reality. Marketing back then was all about the hype, relying for success on what I call the ‘cattle herd response’ where the moment something reaches critical mass it becomes instantly desirable irrespective of its real merits. Do three million people own a yellow umbrella? The ubiquitous nature of the product and the fact that it has been purchased so many times give it instant credibility. There is no question whether a yellow umbrella is better than a black one when it comes to looking good or keeping you dry from the rain. It simply has to be bought.

Hype, however, while it may deliver some success and it may indeed kick-start a ‘cattle herd response’ will only get you so far. This, in the past, led to inevitable fads whereby some kind of sense kicked in at a later date or the product finally lost its lustre as the cold, hard truth of its ordinariness finally seeped in or, even more simply, it was replaced by the ‘next hot thing’ to hit the advertising and marketing horizons.

In some ways nothing has changed. As consumers we are still inundated by adverts and hype and a lot of effort, ingenuity and money goes into creating the next fad, simply because there is a lot of money to be made in this. Some things however are different.

What’s changed in the marketing and advertising horizons?

If you are part of a large company the first sign that things are different will lie in the fact that your return-on-investment (ROI) analysis will have been showing for the last ten years a diminishing return on your advertising buck. Simply put, in the 21st century you get a lot less in sales for the amount of money you spend in traditional advertising and marketing.

If you are running your own bootstrap business where you end up wearing most of the hats you will have noticed the same thing in a different way: you need to spend more and more cash just to make an impact in a marketplace that is teeming with competitors, one where consumer attention is now distracted by millions of voices.

Both perspectives beg the same question: what should be done to actually get a more positive result in sales? The answer to both the corporate exec struggling to find a solution and the lone internet entrepreneur looking to make his online business standout is the same: tell the truth. This is not as radical as it sounds, still, I know I need to explain it further.

Truth marketing is the only option

In order for truth marketing to work for you there are a few assumptions we must make which really should be a given in any business:

First – your business model is rock solid. You have a clear idea of what you are selling, how and to whom.

Second – the quality of what you are selling is commoditized. That means that you have reached, at the very least, the minimum acceptable standard and have improved on it and you never drop below that mark (though you should always find ways to rise above it).

Third – There is a real need for what you are selling. This has to be true even if the product is so new that it does not yet have a clear-cut market. If there is no real need for your product then you really are sunk before you even got started.

Fourth – You have a clear development strategy for your business. Even the best product in the world has a finite lifecycle which is modelled on the Bell Curve of diminishing demand. If there is no model available to take your company forward through innovation or the introduction of new products you will then be doomed to fail even if you have done everything right.

Provided these four are in place then closing the pide between you and your potential audience requires a step whereby you tell the truth about what you are doing or what your product does and why. Contrary to popular belief consumers are not idiots. Nor are they ‘cattle’. In the 21st century the cottage-industry empowerment granted by the web and the ability to work online has created a new class of consumer.

The person you are targeting today is aware of the effort and energy which goes into bringing a product to the market. They are also aware of and resistant, to hype. They understand the need to market and are looking for information which is engaging, non-condescending and actually gives them everything they need in order to make an honest decision.

This does not mean that you cannot or should not use hype in your marketing in order to create an entertaining experience. The Old Spice Man adverts, after all, are pure entertaining hype created to bring focus back to a brand that had almost reached its sell-by date.

If you see the video below you will notice that while Procter & Gamble’s advert is completely devoid of truth (it is used to achieve what we will cover shortly), it does actually sell a product which delivers on all four of the points we looked at earlier.

So, what do consumers really want?

I have used the Old Spice advert as an example on purpose. It has been a wildly successful viral video campaign for P & G, it won awards, it became the talking point for millions of online viewers, it changed the purchasing habits of female consumers and it increased sales of Old Spice. It also highlighted the fact that in the 21st century you really need to engage your customers in a partnership which allows them to invest themselves in your product and its marketing.

The Old Spice adverts achieved exactly that. The quality of the product was always beyond question. What it lacked was street cred and the adverts supplied that in spades. This brings us to the question of what consumers really want.

This has never been an easy question to answer. Pre-21st century we had to rely on market research and the informal polls taken by the sales department to give us an inkling of what they want. Today the web itself gives us much of the valuable data we have in hand.

The GAP logo fiasco and the recent web activity surrounding the change of the Starbucks logo show that there is a powerful paradigm shift which has taken place in the 21st century which can no longer be ignored. Consumers now are an integral part of a brand’s and a product’s life cycle and development. In other words the customers you most want to attract need to not be marketed at, like in the past, but marketed to with a view to recruiting them as brand and product advocates.

Believe it or not consumers want to believe in the products they buy. After all they invest heavily themselves through money, emotional investment (the purchasing response) and the image they project through its use. What they need is a product (or brand) which actually allows this degree of participation.

For a company used to micro-managing everything from the text which goes in its print ads to the way its product is shown this takes a huge leap of faith and a handing over of control from its marketing and PR departments to its customers.

Small businesses have less to lose, they are likely to be a lot less controlling at any rate and for them the opportunity to tap into viral marketing is more attractive than the possibility it may rebound on them. You will, quite rightly, ask me here, ‘ok, say I take this leap of faith and hand control of my product over to my customers, what do I stand to gain and what do I stand to lose?’

The gains of truth marketing

Truth marketing is a conceptual leap. If you have a small business and met me down at your local watering hole I have little doubt that in less than a minute you would have been able to convince me to become your customer. This is because, at a personal level with one-to-one contact you would be engaging, honest, possibly witty and certainly would have been interested in me becoming your customer to my mutual benefit.

On paper every company marketing today wants the same thing. However in the transition from aim to practice, marketing lore intercedes and something is always lost in translation. Truth marketing is about getting that ‘lost’ element back. How? The answer is actually simpler than you may think.

What usually happens when a product goes live and its marketing begins is that the marketing department does not talk to sales and sales never really get much involved with marketing. Incredibly enough I have seen the same pide in a one-man outfit where the marketing message seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with the sales info. Whether this was a case of an inpidual who simply managed to wear different hats with a 100% success or a perfect example of the pide between marketing and sales, I was not really able to determine, but it did serve to highlight the issue for me.

So start off with a piece of paper and simply list what your product (and the approach can work for a service also) does. What does it do better, what does it do worse (and why) and why is it different from everyone else’s (or if it isn’t then at least list why it would make sense to buy it from you and not your competitors).

The moment you have all this you also have your truth marketing formula. Yes, you can then dress it up with whimsy, wit, imagery or anything else you like. You can chunk it up and parse it out in a dozen informational ads, if you so wish. In its entirety though what you do should always be subject to what your product is and what it does and why you are the perfect choice to buy it from.

One perfect example of Truth Marketing was the original Goodyear tires advert which marketed their tires as ‘all-weather tires’. Many saw this as simply clever sloganeering but in essence this was an early, and very successful, form of Truth Marketing. Goodyear tires were all-weather. Of course, all tires are all-weather, but Goodyear was the first company to stress this for their own tires and managed to get the phrase associated with them as a result.

Truth Marketing works because it appeals to consumers’ common sense and, as such, usually presents a winning proposition. It works even when applied in a traditional, controlling, top-down method of communicating. It certainly works when you grasp the courage of your own convictions and throw the reputation of what you sell at the mercy of the social network crowd. Scary? You bet! But the rewards, as we shall see, are enormous:

1. Viral marketing – engage your customers fully and, like the Old Spice advert, you will get a loyal, unpaid, marketing force eager to spread the good news about your brand.

2. Market penetration – explain why buying from you makes sense and you have established an irrefutable selling point which will help you gain more customers.

3. Brand quality – your products and brand name will be associated, in the minds of those who purchase from you, with a sense of lasting value and quality.

4. Increased sales – this is, always, the Holy Grail of marketing. With Truth Marketing you generate a higher word-of-mouth buzz which leads to higher sales.

So are there any pitfalls?

Like any kind of marketing Truth Marketing also has its pitfalls. Because it relies on giving control of your marketing over to your customers you are never sure just how well it may be working for you. By the time you see problems the chances are that some damage will have been done.

The other issue with Truth Marketing you need to be aware of is that it leaves you little room for ‘adjustment’. Things are what they are, if a product really does not appeal you have no room to change its image or alter its marketing message without appearing to do the opposite of what Truth Marketing really is.

In my book the benefits far outweigh the potential pitfalls and the challenge, always, in business is to create lasting relationships with your customers based on mutual gain and understanding.