Marketing Choices: Truth vs. Manipulation

You make dozens of choices as a marketer on every campaign.  All pulled by the natural tension between truth and manipulation.  How innovative should we call our newest feature?  How easy should we make our new user interface seem?  And so on and so on.  Fundamentally, how big should our promises be?

The easy choice: don’t be at the extremes-

Monk-like truth: We’re ABC printing company, brand new, inexperienced and desperate for our first customer, so, we’re under-pricing our product to get our first few customers!

Predator-like manipulation: We’re ABC printing company, brand new, you’ll love our experience, we have the lowest price in town, guaranteed, and if you aren’t happy with your job, we’ll give you your money back.

But if the extremes are bad, where in the middle is good?

I bump up against these two concepts every day, and for a long time, since my IBM selling days.  If you were caught disparaging a competitor you got fired.  That was as much a part of our culture as our white shirts.  Excuse me, as our starched white shirts.

With IBM, is was simple because they took the choice away; cross the line and you’d be fired.  But it isn’t that easy for you or for me today because we have temptations choices, lots of them.  So, how do you decide?  Simple, you say, be honest.  Of course, I say, we’re good, honest people.  Yet, the monk might shake his head at some of your sales copy and the predator will likely sometimes think you’re a pansy for using such limp-wristed nursery rhythms.

How do you decide?  Usually, you write it, read it and do a gut check.  Does it over-promise, do you feel uncomfortable, does it portray your company the way you want to be seen?  This works.

But let me suggest two additional ways to decide where along the monk – predator continuum to strive for.

Merlin Mann characterizes this natural tension by comparing our attempts to communicate along a continuum: connecting with shared truth (the monk); or pushing people toward forgetting who they are (the predator).  His prescription for success is sending a message that connects with the truth you share with your audience in the context of what you are selling, as opposed to creating discord (pushing people to forget who they are so that the solution you offer solves the discord).

I say: find out what is important to your customer, today, in the context of what you are selling, and connect that to your product or service in a positive, authentic manner.  If you don’t understand what is important to your customer and how what you sell fits into that equation, what do you do?  You simply pull the old manipulative tricks out of the bag.  It’s lazy.  It’s wrong.  And it simply isn’t as effective as authenticity.

Beefy stuff!  But dammit, this is important.  When I wake up at night, and it’s just me and my thoughts, nothing else, I want that grumbling in my stomach to be hunger, not guilt.  Plus, I believe positive authenticity, what Mann characterizes as connecting to the shared truth, creates more sales in the mid- and long-term.  You are creating relationships, not just sales, and relationships are the most difficult barriers to entry into a market there are.  Here is a talk he gave (long!) where he makes these points along with about a million others (that’s part of the package).  I urge you to watch/listen to it and if it resonates with you, to follow his posts.

No, this is not a kumbaya moment.  No, I wouldn’t secretly rather be a minister or save poor people.  It’s the ethical thing to do and it’s also more effective.

8 thoughts on “Marketing Choices: Truth vs. Manipulation

  1. Alan

    In reference to the guarantee only, I think the money-back guarantee is an ethical way of backing up your product or service.

    How about the if/then/else guarantee? Is this too manipulative?


    “IF you buy our pain reliever,
    THEN your muscle pain will go away
    or ELSE we will refund the full purchase price.


  2. hamilton Post author

    A guarantee is one of the more interesting concepts in this context. In the wrong hands, it’s a tool to manipulate. A fundamental goal of all marketers must be to take as much risk as possible out of the equation of buying. A guarantee, a price-match, both take risk away. Unfortunately, the bad guys know this.

    The reality today of the guarantee: much of its power and impact are gone from overuse. In situations where you would expect a money-back guarantee, everybody has one. When everybody has one, the leverage is gone. What if a doctor offered a money-back guarantee? Or, heaven forbid, marketing consultants?!

    The good news is the consumer gets smarter every day. Information (the internet) helps consumers make better choices. It doesn’t take too long for word to spread about a company’s “real colors” on the internet.

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation Alan.

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  4. Tammy @ printing company

    There is no real good or evil in it, just what you and others around you perceive to be. A business has an objective that must be realized, most of the time that is making money, but there can be smaller objectives that are productive and seen as “good”, such as recycling.

  5. hamilton Post author

    I disagree. There are manipulative arguments — efforts with the intention of deceive — that have nothing to do with perception. They are what they are. I simply believe manipulation is wrong and, as the internet continues to place more control in the hands of consumers, less effective than truth.

  6. Silvia Larrave

    I agree with Hamilton, nothing is in the furthest of the companies interests than to decieve in any form. In a context in which we can agree to be connected it is of no use to persue sales in anything other than a win-win way. If I decive you then that makes it a louse-win. that allways generetes resentment and it is allways cunterproductive in the long rage of things.
    I really admire and respect he who understands the ethics an practically of marketig at the same time! thanks for the article!

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