I recently met up with a university friend who has become a marketing professional. Since he has been in Canada for the last 5 years we had plenty of catching up to do. He was the massive oarsman who used to sit in front of me in a rowing boat day in day out, so I've always felt we were pretty well in sync and I was very interested to learn what insights he has gleaned over the last few years.
Rolf is a fantastic communicator. He has worked extensively with Native American communities in British Columbia, helping maintain their traditions and develop and share the narratives that embody their culture. In fact, narrative was a central theme of Rolf's conversation as he described how we make sense of the world around us by storytelling. My last blog post was on the subject of storytelling, so I was quick to agree.
I've recently been studying several businesses that could be described as "good". They major on providing excellent value for clients while applying waste-eliminating techniques to traditional processes. All these businesses (in financial services, healthcare and renewable energy) have a common feature: they improve on traditional business models and pass most of the benefit on to their customers.
How to tell an ethical story?
I mentioned this to Rolf and asked his advice as a marketing expert. How could these businesses engage with their customers without increasing their prices to the point where they were no longer competitive with traditional incumbent alternatives? Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is in financial services where traditional banks are widely reviled, yet organisations like Zopa which match borrowers to lenders and reduce the spread retained by traditional banks struggle to be noticed. Their ability to advertise is limited by the modest fees they charge. In contrast in particular with payday lenders, some of which charge APRs of more than 4,000%, the media profile of Zopa, Ratesetter and others is tiny.
Good isn't good enough
Having myself built a business with a strong ethical message - maximising the impact of donations to charity - I have wrestled with this challenge for years. As Rolf points out, it's not always the ethical marketeers who win - he cites the US food market as an example in which obese consumers harm themselves while encouraged by barely regulated marketeers.
So the challenge is to avoid the trap of thinking that one is marketing to homo economicus, the mythical hyper-rational consumer beloved by traditional economists. Instead, we need to tune our messages to real people, taking note of behavioural economics - the irrationality and short-termism that characterises consumer behaviour. No amount of rigorous mathematics can overcome the primal decision drivers that really shape consumer choices.
Sex sells - almost anything
Rolf expresses it very simply: "Worthy isn't enough - the message has to be sexy." Whatever you are marketing, it's vital to appeal to the base of the brain. Transparency and economic justification are nice-to-have, and indeed they are essential in justifying the ethical business tag, but they are not sufficient on their own. The marketeer's magic is in adding a frisson of excitement to the subject which really turns customers on.
Rolf is living the message - as marketing director of a company that makes concrete additives, he has a far greater challenge than selling fast cars or designer clothes. Yet take a look at his marketing material with its beautiful images of towering structures and verdant scenery and it's clear that this is a man who can make concrete seem sexy!