Whether we're talking to our 90-year-old grandmothers or our 3-year-old children, we all subscribe to a simple theory: if they can't seem to hear us, we need to talk louder. Nursing homes and preschools across the nation are plagued by well-meaning shouters who are dying to be heard.
Sadly, our retail spaces and marketing outlets suffer the same fate. Companies assume if consumers aren't responding to their messages, it's simply because they haven't heard them yet. But yelling louder isn't necessarily going to bring customers in the door.
The Quiet Storm
Retailers think their messages are hitting their targets until the obvious, impossible-to-ignore sign is staring them in the face: sales are slumping. To an outsider, it seems ridiculously clear the messaging is off if no one's buying. But companies can easily dissuade themselves from believing it's true.
The simplest way they do this is by failing to ask the consumer for her opinion. By crafting a message around blanket statements about a demographic group, businesses believe they're talking to their audience. These assumptions have painful repercussions; very quickly, companies become disconnected from consumers and don't take action to remedy the situation.
The Safety Net
If all these businesses need to do is talk to people, why wouldn't they just do that? A lot of it has to do with the culture at these companies: if they downplay the importance of innovation and creativity, they find themselves incapable of arriving at novel solutions. They become paralyzed by the fear of failure and shortchange themselves on the resources needed to actually test new concepts, thereby handcuffing their ability to do anything about it.
Those who insist they're doing things right are the ones who tend to yell. Their stubborn belief in their messaging leads them to turn up the volume. They fail to realize that yelling quickly becomes noise, and consumers are selective listeners. Do you think the chore of listening to these companies is doing their sales figures any favors? They make themselves too easy to tune out.
"OK, Mark," you say. "That's nice in theory, but we're maintaining our messaging to keep up with the competition." Nice try.
Your competition is a good measuring stick, but you can't assume your competition knows what they're doing, either. You need context. If the leader in your market is always bustling around a full parking lot and an expanding chain of stores, that company is likely doing something right. You can learn from that, without a doubt.
But you're forgetting that you must change in order to lead. In the mattress industry, a market leader debuted a free box spring promotion; after seeing how much that boosted business, another company joined in the promotion the next holiday. The following holiday, every mattress maker was on the free box spring bandwagon. Sure, it looked like the subsequent companies were keeping up with their brethren, but they also looked exactly alike.
In this example, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you don't participate in the big promotion, your competitors have an edge going into a massive sales weekend. If you do participate, you blend in, sacrifice originality, and end up with no separation from the rest of the market.
Roy H. Williams, the author of "The Wizard of Ads," told me about working with a jewelry store in California - a very competitive market - that sought to set itself apart. Area jewelers were advertising similar products. To create a distinction, Roy convinced the store to transform itself into the world's largest engagement ring store.
This store put itself into a category that didn't exist - the store invented it. This allowed the company to make a claim no one else could. It widened its engagement ring assortment, specializing in a high-volume category. The brand stopped promoting the same things everyone else was and got better results by pinning down one thing to differentiate with.
To get your company out of this dangerous cycle, you need to do one simple thing: talk to the people whose attention you want. Those conversations aren't one-size-fits-all, so consider these options:
Your grandma doesn't like to be yelled at, and your customers don't either. Rather than assume Nana's hearing aid is failing her again, change your approach and ask her to talk. It doesn't matter how strong, loud, or long your message is - it's all about how relevant you are to your audience. Turn the volume down and tune them in.
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Mark Quinn is a Segment VP of Marketing with Leggett & Platt and has more than two decades of experience. Quinn writes a bedding industry and marketing blog called Q's Views.
March 19, 2014