what has marketing become, and is it time for it to go?

Author: Nick Tucker
Last updated: 15 Nov 2019
Length: 951 words / 4-5 minute read

I have a problem with the word 'marketing'. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like a phrase from a bygone age, an age when the dominant approach to gathering attention for your product or service was to be bold, brash and shout louder than any of your competitors.

If we go back far enough, the content that was delivered didn't even need to be true or backed by evidence. You could just make it up. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays there are various rules and regulations in place to ensure marketing activity is founded in 'fact', at least broadly. But what's now emerging as a quite dominant force is an approach to marketing that's ever more sophisticated in its messaging and targeting. In its manipulation of human behaviour through application of the latest knowledge around human psychology. And I use the word 'manipulation' deliberately.

Because that to me is what marketing has come to embody, what the marketing experience that I receive feels like. Now clearly not every organisation operates in the same way, but when the majority of the marketing content I'm subjected to is the overly polished 'I know what you're thinking, questioning, doubting and I'm going to provide every answer right here and now...plus an amazing deal you're afraid of missing', then I quite rightly begin to see all marketing as tarred by the same brush.

I used to work in marketing communications, but I'd now rather not use those words. I don't want to be associated with what I see as the degeneration of the industry to its lowest common denominator. It's closing the deal at all costs, with little regard to the long-term experience of the receiver.

In the moment they may be convinced, sign up, type in their credit card details and bask momentarily in the glow of post-purchase endorphins. But I suspect (and I know this is true for my own personal experience) that the level of regret which follows is far, far too high. In fact, any post-purchase regret is 'too high'. Because if we're doing our job absolutely perfectly, only those who are an exact match for our offering would be signing up.

There are no excuses, there is no justification (beyond placing a higher priority on income or data capture than on serving the audience), and it needs to stop. Any business model that relies on sales to customers at the margins of offer-audience match is operating unethically. In my opinion. And that opinion may not be popular, but such behaviour has no place in the society I want myself, my children, my grandchildren to grow up in.

If you genuinely believe you're only converting those who are a perfect fit for your offering, why are you only offering a 30 day money-back guarantee? Or a warranty that lasts for a shorter time than the customer expects your product to last? Or no ability to try out the full 'pro' version of the app before entering credit card details?

And that last one is a classic. I can only imagine how high the percentage is of people who forget to cancel soon enough before their free trial has ended and get charged a fee they didn't intend to pay. Is that marketing? It is if the messaging used to get me to sign up includes implication that I can do so for free with no risk, but the intention behind the scenes is to capture additional revenue from those who slip up.

Actions speak louder than words, and if that wasn't the case, then anyone actually cancelling within the first three months of payment should get a full refund. Clearly the app wasn't a good enough fit in the end. Nowadays, when I see 'sign up without credit card details' I know I'm looking at an organisation that's decided on a more honest and ethical relationship with its customers. And I'm much more likely to sign up as a result.

Fortunately, there's a growing number of amazing people and organisations that are showing how it can and should be done. They're delivering incredible, authentic brand experiences that leave customers feeling seen, understood, fulfilled and wanting more...   ...at whatever level they choose to engage. The immediate aim is to create loyal fans, true advocates, and any sale that follows in the future is recompense for the experience received. The fuel that enables even more people to be served.

I've paid for ebooks and courses that I didn't need or intend to use because I'd received so much value from the free content that had been provided. When the opportunity arose for me to support their continued work, I was very willing to do so. There was no doubt, no regret, just the feeling of being part of something bigger than just me meeting my needs. The value in that for a brand is immense.

So my takeaway here is that we should never be marketing to our audiences. We should be finding out who they are, where they are and what they need, and serving those needs to the best of our ability. And we should be letting them know about our offer in a way that is completely clear and accurate and honest. No persuasion, no manipulation, no artificial generation of fear (...the only time we'll ever off it this cheap...!).

What that looks like is a topic for another essay, but for now let me pose three questions: What role does persuasion play in your brand experience? How much fear are you using to drive conversions? And which are you really making your priority, service or sales? I think we know what the answers should be.