Wandering through the shopping centre the other day, intent on getting out as quickly as possible, I saw from the corner of my eye a couple standing in the home wares shop. The reason they caught my eye was the way they were standing. The gent was clearly bored or agitated—he was not closely involved in whatever was happening in the store. His partner had found a salad bowl that she liked, and, having picked up the salad utensils meant to complement it, was tossing an imaginary salad.
This wouldn’t have warranted a double take if it weren’t for how intent she was on this ephemeral dish. It was clear that the salad held great importance for her.
What was she envisioning as she intently practiced the invisible salad toss? Was she imagining herself hosting a midsummer Sunday lunch, surrounded by friends, bottles of chilled Riesling, with a beautiful Caesar salad in her spectacular new designer bowl? Perhaps she was determined to convince her partner to invest in the hypothetical world in which they owned a beautiful salad receptacle, and the good times that such ownership would entail…
It doesn’t matter—we’ll never know. The point is she was creating a narrative in her head that was fuelled by and hinged on the prospect of a purchase. Something about the utensil had engaged her desire for a story that she felt she could identify with.
They bought the bowl. And the utensils.
This is the power of the narrative. Engage your audience with a story that speaks to their desires, that presents a human element they can identify with and project a part of themselves into. Suddenly, they switch from an indifferent punter to being an emotionally engaged customer. Your customer.
Life can be complicated. So many decisions. Too many choices. Its amazing we can cope. One of the things we do to help us, is to take shortcuts – psychological shortcuts. For instance, when buying a bottle of wine for a dinner party I am more likely to select the more expensive bottle in my range. I am happy to accept, in an area where my knowledge is limited, that there is a price-quality relationship. Whether this is the reality it doesn’t really matter, the fact that it makes me comfortable with my decision is the point.
I was recently in the Barossa Valley with four of my girlfriends, all of whom I have known since I was 6 years old. Straight away we start taking shortcuts with each other. By that I mean we slot straight back into the roles we played when we were at school because that’s exactly what our expectations of each other are.
Our roles are:
- Gemma who is our joker – the story of how she won the trophy on this trip is best left to another blog
- Susan the caregiver – who makes sure we are comfortable, fed and watered and she always jumps in the shower last
- Shane the class monitor – draws the boundaries and makes sure we don’t get into too much trouble
- Nicole the entertainer – takes every opportunity to get up on stage, regardless of whether there’s a stage there or not
- And me the tight rope walker – balancing along the fine line of staying just inside the rules
Not only did we use shortcuts on each other but the Barossa tourist trade used them on us. Susan, our caregiver, had done all the research and worked out the restaurants we should eat at and the vineyards we should visit. On our first night we ordered the maxi taxi to take us to the restaurant she had selected. The trip took about 20 minutes so we talked to the driver and told him about our plans for the next day and the restaurant the next night. He was very helpful and suggested some other places we should visit and reinforced our decision to visit the restaurant we had chosen that night.
The next day we visited the Farmer’s Market and stocked up on heaps of great food (I also had my photo taken with Maggie Beer, thanks to Nicole the entertainer intervening on my behalf) and had a picnic lunch with a few bottles of vino! So we decided to change our plans for dinner and go to a relatively new restaurant called Murdocks. It’s a great Tapas restaurant in a fab new building with large glass windows overlooking the vineyard.
Like the night before, the maxi taxi with the same driver came to pick us up. However we noticed a cooling in his attitude when we told him we had changed our plans and weren’t going to the restaurant we had previously said we would. When we told him where we were going he certainly gave us the feeling we had made a bad choice. Luckily we had stopped off at the restaurant to check it out and make our booking earlier in the day so we were very confident on our choice and refused to be swayed.
After a fantastic dinner, being the last ones left in the restaurant, we spoke to the chef and told him about our taxi driver. It was only then that it dawned on us that we had been taking psychological shortcuts. We had allowed the taxi driver in his position of ‘authority’ ie. his knowledge of the Barossa, to persuade us to visit and purchase at a number of places during our stay. We also started to realize the likely scenario that he was receiving payment for his referrals. We were all a bit miffed actually. We had been quite happy to accept his advice up until the point it became obvious that he wasn’t unbiased.
Well crafted content that uses shortcuts to decision making will persuade customers and prospects to act in a way that can benefit your business. But a note of caution – if you are going to use authority to persuade them, make sure you are unbiased or at least declare your interest upfront. If you don’t, you’re likely to get found out and suffer a backlash.
In the Barossa, we did the only thing we could do – found another maxi taxi driver and asserted our own authority.
I heard a great story on talkback that I would like to share.
Picture a busy underground metro station in Washington DC. People rushing about their business, hurrying to get to get to where they need to get to. Against a pillar stands a busker. From a shiny black case he produces a beautiful violin. He tunes the instrument, and begins to play. Minutes pass and not one person has stopped to listen. Eventually a woman has throws a couple of dollars into his case, without pause. A child stops to listen, mesmerised by the sound, only to be pulled along by his mother. Finally the busker counts his change: $32.17.
The busker was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest and award-winning classical violinists. He was playing his Stradivarius violin valued at $2,000,000. People pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to see him perform at one of his sell out shows.
Moral of the story? Joshua Bell shouldn’t give up his day-job? The moral of this story is obvious – if you do zero marketing with even the best products and services in the world you will reap the rewards of this – sweet f-all.
As marketers we’ve all heard about social proof, “Jean lost 10 kilos in just 3 days, you can do it too!” or even as simple as “100,000 satisfied customers”. The reason that social proof can work so well is because we look to others in uncertain situations to see what their behaviour is and then we follow their lead. We do this because we like to make life as simple as possible for ourselves. With the majority of our actions we rely on fixed behavioural patterns and often respond in a ‘mechanical’ way rather than create a new response.
What is really interesting though is when a group of people are confronted by something they have never experienced before. How should they react? What should they do? Social proof does come into play, but in a way most marketers are unfamiliar with. Rather than motivating people into action, it reinforces inaction. As noone has experience in that particular situation, noone knows how to act and predictably they don’t. Everyone stands around watching each other do nothing, which in turn reinforces that doing nothing is the appropriate behaviour.
This phenomenon is called ‘pluralistic ignorance’ and has been most noted in emergency situations. There are a number of documented cases where crowds of strangers take no action as someone lies suffering in front of them.
I thought about this the other morning when I turned up to my bus stop to find that the trees surrounding it, the garbage bin and the seat had been wrapped in fabric. Progressively, as people turned up at the bus stop they did nothing out of the ordinary, everyone just stood around like every other morning (admittedly they did look bemusedly at the scene, and I took a photo!).
It started me thinking that maybe we marketers had it all wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to motivate people into action. Maybe in this fast paced world of hyper connectivity we should be using our brands to actually give consumers the luxury not to act.
Is this what the fabric wielding guerrillas had in mind? Let the busy commuters stop, do nothing and enjoy a smile looking at the gum tree wrapped in purple, plush fabric. They clearly understood human behaviour and knew that noone would act to remove the fabric, in fact two weeks later even the council hasn’t removed it.
So next time someone asks you to get your customers or prospects to act, stop, maybe giving them the opportunity not to act is the answer.
I had a fantastic long lunch celebrating a girlfriend’s birthday at a restaurant cum winebar. The decor is eclectic and the crowd is a nice mix of funky and tourist given the restaurant’s location. As all good Sunday lunches do it started at about 1pm and continued through the lunch crowd, outlasted the pre-dinner drinkers and skirted past the entrees of the evening diners.
The birthday girl selected the wine for us so I didn’t even look at the wine list. However I was definately left with the impression that this venue is really into their wine. Was it the decor which had an obvious ‘grapey’ kinda feel? Was it the fact there were racks and racks of wines around the walls? Well yes that was part of it, but the thing that had the biggest impact on my opinion was the toilets!
This wasn’t one of those high tech toilet experiences that new venues are into now – you know the ones, where you can’t figure out how to flush the toilet or get the water running from the taps. This was your old fashioned simple toilet with the plastic pump pack of handwash. But it was memorable!
In each cubicle, someone with a nice hand had used a black marker to scribe unattributed quotes about wine. Mostly they were funny and I gather from the ones I viewed in the female toilets also took the opportunity to have a dig at the opposite sex. These quotes got us talking at our table, as well as taking our phones to take photos every time we went to the toilet!
Te be effective content doesn’t need to be long winded nor expensive, it just needs to be relevant, memorable and ideally have a captive audience – like the one you find in a toilet cubicle!
Personal blogs are a kind of personal diary, but what about business blogs like this one? Should you tell personal stories? And how personal is too personal? At the risk of crossing the line and in the interests of issuing a fair warning, this post is about a) the passing of my father and funerals, b) his church and organised religion and, c) how the latter uses the former to sell their brands.
You wouldn’t think that funerals would be some kind of competitive sale opportunity but that’s basically what happened just two weeks ago. My dad sadly passed away after a long illness and the funeral was being held in his home town of Santa Cruz in Jamaica, West Indies. As the eldest son it fell to me to make the arrangements and I was surprised to discover that my dad had in the final months of his life become born again. His rediscovery of his faith had apparently given him great comfort and happiness in the late stages of his illness. Dad never did things by halves, and being a man that was very social it amused me that his ability to nurture many simultaneous connections had resulted in no less than two churches and four ministers competing for top billing on his funeral program.
At the funeral the competitive motivation became clearer. Jamaicans are by their nature quite religious and a high percentage of the population of 3 million are regular churchgoers. Dominated by the Protestant brand of Christianity, many people migrate freely from church to church based on whims and personal preferences. It might be the quality of the singing or the strength of the sermonising, but acquisition and churn are firmly in the minds of ministers who rely on donations and legacies for their personal and evangelical survival. Like most communities, there’s also a plentiful supply of lapsed Christians and lifelong heathens from which to draw fresh converts, many of whom only visit churches on such occasions.
Jamaican funerals are highly charged affairs with joyous singing, flowing tributes, scripture readings and thundering sermons. While I still feel up and down most days, I can honestly say that funeral was the most comforting thing I have ever experienced. It was simultaneously a celebration of his life and a promise he was already in a much happier place.
That we could join him in later – if we came to this church too.
Mid way through the funeral it dawned on me that this occasion was not for the grieving family’s comfort alone. The four ministers were out to use the occasion to recruit as many people as possible. Dad was a popular man. He was also loved and respected by his community and over 300 people had crowded into and outside the church to pay their respects. It was this fact and his recent conversion that the ministers seized on. Want people to respect you? Want people to come to your funeral and say nice things? Want to be comfortable with your mortality? Then follow this bloke’s example. The links were clear and shameless.
The use of scripture and allegory would put my best efforts of brand story telling to shame. My dad’s story and the parables of old and new testament, letter to Corinthians and poetic Psalm were woven together perfectly to create a brand experience that was authentic and completely relevant to the captive target sub-audience of elderly attendees. People suggest that the Michelin Guide was the earliest and most successful form of branded content given it’s worth over A$4billion but the Bible beats it hands down. No other single package of content so influences brand behaviour or consumer attitudes better.
Was I being cynical at my own father’s funeral? Right at the end of the sermon the minister asked “those who have not been to this church but who also want to be saved” to raise their hands. A deliberate and impeccably timed call to action, whose follow up began the moment proceedings had ended. I wasn’t cynical, I was impressed.
But didn’t this blatant use of my dad’s funeral upset me? Given my choice of profession perhaps it would be hypocritical if it did. We as marketers take full advantage of births and marriages and other key life stages to sell products and services. The death of an elderly parent who lived a full life, who died peacefully and happily — while a deeply saddening event — is an important life stage we all relate to. And the way the ministers told the story was true, apt and comforting to me so I couldn’t begrudge them.
When I sermonise in my business, haven’t I always preached that as long as you are transparent and honest, and put the needs of the audience first, it’s okay for brands to sell using real stories? My dad was proud of the work I do and the way my company goes about its business. He loved his church and he loved his family so I think he would have been happy the two benefitted from the same occasion. His funereal also reminded me that what I do is nothing new and there are always people I can meet who can show me how to do it better.
Thanks Dad. God bless
Out one night I had an amazing series of coincidences. I went to the local surf club fundraiser to see a party band whose motto is ‘no shame no gain’. In short if you didn’t get into their purpose-built cage or up onto the stage to shake your booty, you just weren’t trying hard enough.
I was surprised when I came across three people I knew. Firstly, there was my son’s schoolteacher. She is as you would expect, professional, courteous and a no nonsense type. I am totally comfortable that she is managing the education of my son this year.
Secondly there was the landlord who owns our office space. He’s a fairly quiet and unassuming type of guy, who it turns out has been swimming laps in the lane next to mine for months.
Lastly there’s my podiatrist. He’s gregarious, an expert in his field and regularly speaks at seminars to maintain his profile and benefit his practice. He’s the one who told me my ankle was a ‘train smash’.
So how do these three seemingly different and unconnected people turn up at the same event? Yes geography plays a part, but there was something stronger at play here – affinity. Affinity is hugely powerful and you can experience it in any interest or sporting group anywhere around Australia. It’s the power of a common cause or interest.
But more interestingly, its the power that is generated when you actually give someone something to do ie. make them commit to you or an action. Be it turning up for surf patrol once a month, providing your opinion on a new music release or turning up for church every Sunday.
Social psychologists have found that if you can get somebody to take a stand (or even just go on record) and commit to something, then there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are consistent with that stand. Consider how this could work for your brand or product. If a consumer even verbally commits to your brand then they are more likely to continue to purchase it.
Commitment can come in various forms, maybe its being a member of a research panel providing regular feedback on your brand, maybe its as simple as getting a beer drinker to tell his mates he’s a VB bloke. Give customers a way to commit and they’ll reward you with their affinity.
Oh yeah, and the crowd surfing mamma – that was me!
After a wonderful weekend in the Hunter Valley, I feel I have to tell you about one particular winery I visited. Actually as a result of a recommendation from a friend I put the Gartelmann winery on my list of vineyards to try out. A little further out of the Hunter Valley away from the larger more commercial wineries, Gartelmann resides in the Lovedale area. A beautiful new, high ceiling cabin sits at the end of a winding tree lined driveway surrounded by natural gardens and a clear lake. On entering the cabin I felt like I was walking into someone’s front room, it was warm and friendly. The log fire was sizzling away in the corner with the farm dog keeping toasty beside it. A smiling older lady who offered us chairs by the fireplace and glasses for the wine tasting instantly met us.
Scrumptious wines and liqueurs were lined up and poured whilst we indulged in quite a lot of tasting. Not only was the wine fantastic, we were able to learn so much about the making process and tasting through the knowledge of the couple serving us, who clearly owned Gartelmann. I mention this place because I was touched by the couple’s attentiveness to the visitors; obviously this is all part of the charming sales process. But what struck me more was the passion this couple had for what they did, they clearly lived and breathed wine making and were happy together doing it. What a fabulous way to make a living by creating a business around your passion and even better sharing that with the person you love. Can a business succeed on passion alone? Alternatively do you have to have that passion for a business to succeed? I suspect that the answers to both questions are no, but I also imagine that your business and life will be more fulfilling and rewarding with that passion present.
Yesterday I took my boys to Primo Italiano in Darlinghurst in Sydney, it’s a festival to celebrate the Italian heritage in the area. As you would imagine there was lots of coffee, pizza, past and vino. Whilst we were there my boys tried their hands at making Gnocchi (its in the freezer waiting for our special date night) and then entered a City of Sydney Quiz to receive a free recycled bag.
I was originally under the impression that it was a bag to put our recyclables in. In fact the bag itself had been made out of recycled material – used advertising banners that had hung throughout the streets of Sydney promoting events and celebrations. A small tag identified that the bag was from the City Of Sydney and each bag was different from the next.
Every time we use those bags we’re going to remember the great day we had at Primo Italiano, how a couple got married, how we ate too much pizza and gelato and how I danced in the street (much to the disgust of my eldest son!) But more importantly I’m going to remember positively the City Of Sydney and their imagination to turn a discarded piece of advertising into something you don’t want to throw out!
Is your company discarding something that could be turned into a great story?
Ok I’ll admit it, I’m not backwards about coming forwards around celebrities, after all they’re just people right? But even I was surprised to find myself sat opposite Richard Branson in the Upper Class luxury bar of VA1 last Friday, unkempt and dishevelled after a broken night’s sleep (in Economy) having a bizarrely normal conversation about family, travel and launching businesses in recessions. With my giggling baby firmly in his grip.
I’d been travelling to LA en-route to a family get together in Jamaica with my wife and five-month old son. I’d punted on V Australia just six weeks earlier, attracted in equal part by reasonable fares and the prospect of helping to break the Qantas/United duopoly on the Kangaroo route.
The inaugural flight was never going to be ordinary. I’d suspected there’d be hoopla awaiting us when I saw the countdown to launch ads in the media. Sure enough on arrival at Kingsford Smith, V Australia was hard to miss in the departures hall. A taped-down red carpet led to a rock-star-in-LA themed check in area thronged by media, personalities and suitably impressed punters. Branson’s team has press event pizzazz down to a fine art now and these kind of product launches are their stock in trade. There was no daredevil wing walk (that was the press flight two weeks ago) but the combination of nubile promo staff (some on roller skates), Australian flag waving and ‘V’ signs amid a sea of red t-shirts created a tangible sense of excitement.
Once on board we settled in to tackle out first flight with a baby in tow. Thankfully the brand new aircraft, accommodation and entertainment lived up to its billing and we were able to function as parents with relative ease. The constant to-ing and fro-ing of press and personnel would have been irritating had it not been counterbalanced by the hilarious comedy double act parodying other airlines (think drag versions of Magada Szubanski and Joanna Lumley) that kept us entertained and frequent announcements that built up a real sense of occasion.
So how did Branson end up stealing my baby? Not being backwards about coming forwards (I already mentioned that didn’t I?), I decided a photo-op with the big fella and my little ‘un was too good a chance to pass up. So when a bright-eyed Branson swept through the cabin for a final tour as we began our approach to LAX, I caught his eye and asked if he wouldn’t mind channelling his inner politician. Now I need to point out right now that there isn’t many times a five-month old gives you a competitive advantage, but if you want VIP treatment at airports (thank you Sydney Airport), priority boarding and photos with billionaires they’re pretty hard to beat.
However once baby was ensconced in his arms, our silver haired host turned baby-thief, and ducked through the curtain to the next cabin leaving my wife and I staring perplexed at one another. A full ten seconds must have passed before I set off in pursuit, much to the amusement of the other passengers. I found Sir Richard at the far end of the plane in the Upper Class bar, sat smiling with Marcia Hines, Brett Godfrey (CEO Virgin Blue Group) and a glamorous assistant (thankfully some forms of ‘smoking’ are still permitted onboard!). Now I’d like to say that Branson and I chewed the fat and discussed brands and advertising, but to be honest he was much more interested in my son who was tugging at his beard, so most of my conversation was directed at the rest of the ensemble.
The Branson brand story is undeniably famous and has been sliced and diced a thousand times by bigger brains than mine, so as I absorbed this scene I suddenly wondered how this fascination has taken hold. Is it just the money, glitz and glamour, sex and stunts; or something else? Does the showmanship explain the affection people have for the brand?
The key to any brand story is its authenticity and Virgin’s core claims are caring about their staff and customers, giving permission to have fun and breaking the occasional rule. On one journey I was fortunate to sample the entire brand experience from start to finish and look for holes in the story. Product, service, PR and the personality himself were all on display at close quarters for many hours and despite what they say in Hollywood, you can’t fake sincerity.
Now it might be baby brain, but unless you’re a total cynic it became clear that Branson is genuine and has heart. Of course he also understands that he is the core connection between the Virgin story and its customers, and its vital chief storyteller. Given his companies are designed to be a reflection of himself and his values, to tell the story all he really needs to do is be himself and encourage people to tell their own stories about him.
The lesson for the rest of us is that true stories are more powerful than spin and advertising. Stories can create resonance, reputation and in some cases spawn a legend. Stories survive the retelling too providing lasting value. If you don’t have a Branson on board giving you guaranteed exposure, how can your company/brand share it’s values through the stories they tell? You could start by looking at all the channels available to you and asking what stories you can tell in them. Failing that, you could start stealing babies.
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