Don’t Market to the Mirror

“I don’t watch TV.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard those words from individuals running businesses or company divisions. While the claim is usually a bit of an exaggeration, I generally have no reason to doubt it. I’m not surprised that people who run successful companies have little time (or concern) for much of the mind-numbing programming that passes for entertainment these days.

That said, it would be a mistake for business leaders to conclude that because they don’t watch TV, nobody does. Most Americans don’t get up every morning with the burden of running a company on their shoulders. Most watch a great deal of television—an average of more than four hours per day, according to Nielsen. Any business leader who rejects the prospect of TV advertising (or direct mail, online video, mobile marketing, pay-per-click, or any other form of outreach) simply because of his or her personal preferences is making a mistake.

Yet it happens more often than you might think—particularly at small companies in which the chief executive officer must wear many hats. It’s easy to project your own thoughts, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors on the broader population, particularly people you believe would be good prospective customers. But while you might share some things in common with prospects, based on the industry in which you do business (a love of scuba diving, a belief in solar power, and so forth), there will always be fundamental differences—not least that you know and care much more about your business than even your most ardent fans do. You’re already sold, by definition. Your prospects, by definition, are not.


With that in mind, here are five common ways the “marketing to the mirror” mistake can manifest itself. See how many you have embraced.

The giant logo. Not only do you love your brand, you’re paying for the space and by gosh, you want to see a big, bright logo beaming from it. Your prospective customers, however, are either unfamiliar with your brand or have some incomplete or mistaken impression of its value to them. If they’re accosted by a giant logo before your marketing message has had a chance to get through, they may skip the ad and miss the point entirely.

The overstuffed ad. Have you ever heard a radio commercial in which the words go by so fast that you can’t process anything? Seen an ad in a magazine so riddled with bullet points that you don’t know where to begin? Or driven past a billboard loaded with so much copy that it would take binoculars and three changes of the traffic light to process? In advertising, as in many things in life, less is often more. Additional words do not always translate to better communication. On the contrary, they are likely to hinder it.

The magic slogan. Ah, the slogan: so misunderstood, so overappreciated. You and your team put so much time and effort into creating those three or five little words that they’re overflowing in meaning and packed with power—to you. To the rest of the world, they’re just three or five little words. They may make a nice ribbon to tie around your advertising package, but they’re not the package itself—and certainly not the prize inside. Don’t put more faith in a slogan you came up for your brand than you’d place in some words heralding someone else’s. (See “What’s in a Phrase?”)

The “my” buy. Who listens to jazz radio? Or classical music? Or that easy listening station that drones on in dentist offices and elevators? I don’t. But a lot of people do. If they didn’t, those formats wouldn’t exist. We all gravitate naturally to the radio stations we listen to, the TV programs we watch, the websites we visit, the newspapers and magazines we read, and the social networks in which we participate. There’s nothing wrong with advertising in places you personally frequent, as long as they’re good outlets to reach people you’re targeting. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that because something is of interest to you, it’s of interest to them—or that because it’s irrelevant to you, it’s irrelevant to them.

The one-hit wonder. It’s likely that you find your ads quite convincing: one exposure and you’re sold. Alas, that’s not the way things work in the cluttered and cacophonous world of modern communications. My research among some of the most successful companies in the U.S. shows that those that enjoy the greatest long-term success tend to run campaigns for more than two years at a stretch. If you’re wondering why your new advertising isn’t setting the world on fire, it may be because it’s new. Every fire takes time to spread.

One of the most difficult things to do in marketing is to step out of your own shoes and into those of your customers and prospects. It’s a critical first step in effectively conveying your message. If you can sustain your business by preaching to the choir, go for it. But if you need to expand your customer base, recognize that what you do and how you think is not necessarily reflected in your target audience’s behavior. Look, listen, and feel through their eyes, ears, and hands and you might see more of their feet crossing your threshold.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland and author of When Growth Stalls: How It Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to Do About It. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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