As I have feely admitted in many posts, I write about a lot of things as I am figuring them out or that some would say I know nothing about. I write here to capture ideas as I have them, to argue with myself and to force myself to compose my ideas into something clear enough to convey to another human being. If all goes well someone that reads my idea understands it and maybe then even challenges me on it. And popular perception is that by arguing with me they are “hurting” me – they are actually making it better. I learn about the holes in my thinking and learn new ways of looking at the issues.
All that aside, today I am going to write about something I actually know a lot about: marketing. This may be a bit of a “Jerry Maguire” moment (not the ‘show me the money’ moment – the other one that was actually the point of the movie) or it may just be an ongoing part of what my wife has called the ‘strangest mid life crisis in history.’ I guess we’ll find out as the words below these start to appear.
With the exception of some technical support and pre-sales jobs that I had right out of school, I have been in marketing for my entire professional career. I almost ashamed to admit it, but ending up as a marketer for the past 15 years has not been the result of any deliberate plan. That’s not to say that I would change it or that it’s been bad – it’s just that a marketer was never really on my list of things to be when I grow up.
Despite not being a classically trained marketer I’ve been around marketers and attempting to do it myself to have noticed there are two basic kinds of marketers: marketers who genuinely love the products they are marketing and those that are trying to sell you something you don’t need. The “markets as conversations” meme that started with the Cluetrain manifesto and continues in the writings of guys like Seth Godin today embody the ethos of the first group. Late night infomercials and everything that goes on at a typical mall are the tell tale signs of the second group. This distinction is often lost on most people that aren’t in marketing – they either see it all as the former or more usually the latter.
In my estimation there is nothing wrong with marketers that truly believe in the products they have to sell. In all honesty when this kind of marketing is at its best it doesn’t even resemble what most people would call marketing – it’s two people talking about something that interests them both. Of course I like to think I am a member of this group – but feel free to shatter my illusion if you disagree.
It’s the other group that causes problems. The aim of the group of marketers that is trying to sell you something you don’t need is to make you think you need something that you actually just want or even to make you want something that without their influence you wouldn’t want at all. Giving money over for something you need is far easier to rationalize than something you want (or something you don’t want), so the marketer who just wants to sell you something needs to get out of the “no money” zone and into the money zone – the need zone.
Need is physical and rational. Want is emotional and irrational, so the marketer who just wants to sell you something plays on your emotions, usually in an attempt to amplify and/or rationalize them. We need water and food. We want mountain spring water with trace minerals and fine imported baby swiss caviar with quails’ eggs on top. Marketing that is trying to sell you something has become expert in convincing you you need those things. To be clear, I am fine with getting things you want vs only the things you need – as long as you know the difference. Marketers that are trying to sell you things try to confuse you about needs vs wants.
Marketers that just want to sell you something are not a new phenomena – I’m sure they’ve been around as long as there have been markets. But they seem to be doing more damage these days. I think that’s mainly because our immunity to their tactics is lower than its ever been at the same time that their opportunities to use those tactics on use is higher than its ever been. Our white blood cell count is lowest just as the virus’ numbers are peaking.
Immunity to the tactics of marketers that just want to sell you something comes from a strong foundation in language, so that you can know what the words the marketer uses are supposed to mean vs what they are trying to make them mean. Secondly you need an understanding of logic or reason, so that you can evaluate their claims to see if they make sense. On the flip side, the marketers opportunities to use their tactics on us are increasing with every new device that we bring home and plug ourselves into.
So what’s the answer? To use the epidemic analogy just a little while longer, is the answer to eliminate the virus or to increase our immunity? While some may romanticize going back to a pre-technical society, that would only be a partial solution – we would still be at risk to all sorts of other “disease” vectors. And the loss of technology would have as many downsides as positives, in my opinion. No, the only answer in my mind is to build up immunity – to restore the basic understanding of language and basic ability to reason.
As with almost all of my posts, I wasn’t sure where I’d end up when I started. But I think what I’ve just done is explain to myself (remember despite being public, this blog is really all about me) why I have such a strong desire to leave my profession at some point and go into teaching. While I don’t think I have much personal guilt for being a marketer (remember, I think I’m one of the good guys), I suppose I do have some level of collective, professional guilt. So perhaps becoming a teacher is my way of making amends. Whatever the motivation, one thing I will do when I make the transition to teaching is to make sure that every student that leaves my class room has the basics of language and the ability to reason. I’ll apologize in advance to all the marketers that just want to sell you something in advance for making your jobs harder, but, like me, I’m sure you can find something else to do.
The inspiration behind this post: The Lost Tools of Learning