More brands should leave more things unsaid

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This is a guest post by Mark Blackham. It’s a huge pleasure to have Mark as my first ever guest blogger at Upheavals. I first met Mark many years ago, and he has been a regular commenter here on reputational and branding issues. I hope you enjoy his perspectives as much as I do.

Leave more things unsaid

The more I learn about how humans receive information and conceive ideas, the more simplistic most marketing looks.

We’re beginning to understand from brain research that a million different experiences, predispositions and feelings go into each human decision.

Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman talks about a ‘remembering self’ that selects the experiences we use to create and define ourselves. Each one of us has this complex bundle of self-selected memories that influence our decisions.

Yet marketing is often based on one insight thought to be common across all target customers. When you consider the variance of attitudes possible across individuals, that insight has to be a generality to be accurate. And if it’s a generality, it’s likely to be irrelevant to the choice the customer makes (because they’re driven by memories no-one can predict). Moreover, the insight is unlikely to help a brand express a differentiation about the product.

For example, I was once in the market for a home security system. Marketing material from every service provider appealed to the human fear of burglary. That’s an insight that holds true across the target market. But when every customer has the fear, and every provider is reflecting the fear, there is no product differentiation. I chose a provider that expressed non-written cues (images and verbal) about being local and small, which suited my predilections.

It’s testament to the filtering capability of the human brain that people are able to fight their way past irrelevant marketing messages to actually still buy stuff. But on the way to buying stuff they are learning from this broad-insight-based marketing that the options are virtually interchangeable. And so they get impatient with businesses, and want to bargain down the price.

I propose a new approach to marketing which I call the “leave things unsaid” method. It means not saying what is obvious or unnecessary and giving people the evidence to make their own minds up about the suitability of your product. It means you understand what motivates people so well that you never have to put it into words and repeat it back to them. Your understanding of the customer is expressed non-verbally and with subtlety.

Subtlety is not yet widely appreciated nor rewarded in marketing fields, but it will be. Customers are now savvier about marketing, and are socially connected. They laugh together at the blunt instruments of stunts, combine to overcome corporate intransigence, and share information that bypasses the shallow appeals of advertising.

The next generation of marketing professionals will need the confidence to underplay their hand, and let the customer work out what is best.

By way of example, let me cite a television advertisement run by Burger King that said the BK Breakfast burger would help “recover from your big night out”. The insight of this campaign was that many people do a ‘burger run’ the morning after a big party.

Getting burgers following heavy drinking is a known behaviour; an instinctive, physiologically driven thing. It’s also viral; the concept spreads from person to person. In my first PR consultancy job I learned from the older hands of the delights and suitability of the burger breakfast for a hangover.

The post-drinking burger insight is hardly new, but it is important. There’s some action going on here and BK wants its burgers to be chosen for the hang-over burger run. But the insight should inform marketing, not become its subject.

Underlining the mistake, BK attracted criticism that it condoned drinking lots of alcohol. This is society operating at a public level – being seen to do and say the right thing is important. Marketing is not usually about doing the right thing, it’s about doing the real thing. Unless the strategy is to be deliberately provocative or compliant, marketing should be signalling to private and sub-conscious behaviour.

Moreover, making the burger run the subject of marketing corporatises the concept. It takes the habit off the customer and turns it an instruction. It’s often a turn-off for customers when brands adopt the habits (or trends) they originated and owned.

The “leave things unsaid” principle is based on what we’re learning about the brain; that people make up their minds based on what they perceive to be evidence. In 1995, the formative research paper Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story (Schank, Roger C. & Abelson, Robert P) first revealed how we each assemble evidence based on the narrative we generate about ourselves and life. We do not do something new because we are told to do, or because we learn of it. We do it because it suits us.

The job of marketers is to provide the evidence (and the motivation and relevance). If those factors are well chosen, people will use the sum of what they know about themselves to make choices about the brand. Marketers need to know people well, and to know their market, to choose the evidence that will work best. That’s the true core and skill of the marketing discipline.

Here are five suggestions on how you can leave things unsaid:

1. Find an answer that is one step deeper than the insight. BK needed marketing that answered the physiological and behavioural cravings of the burger run phenomenon.

2. Think of the small things. The evidence that appeals to customers is most likely to be small things that feel personal to them.

3. Don’t shout. Shouting has to be short and loud to be heard, which means your message may win awareness, but will otherwise be inconsequential in providing evidence the customer can use.

4. Be self-confident. You’ve got a great product or service. Give it space to speak for itself, and have confidence that people will be attracted.

5. Never repeat the insight or the marketing strategy in language seen by the customers.

Mark Blackham is a founder and director of BlacklandPR, which specialises in getting corporate clients persuasively closer to their public. His regular PR blogs can be found here.

Photo of “BK_061”, taken by rob_rob2001, sourced from Flickr

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