Unique, believable and true: Mantras for good marketing

There is nothing like going through an interview process to help crystallize your thinking about the practice of a profession. Especially if you have to look at it through the lenses of eight different people.

Recently, I went through an intense day of interviews for a strategic marketing executive position. The company is well established and known, so this was not a case where I had to provide Marketing 101 instruction. However, being grilled about your thinking by more than a half dozen intelligent pros, each with their own perspective, makes you realize the guiding principles by which you’ve worked aren’t necessarily thought about or communicated the same way by everyone.

I don’t write much about marketing—I prefer to analyze technology trends—but it’s been no secret that for most of the last three decades I’ve been primarily a marketing and business strategy exec or consultant.

So after a day of pop quizzes, here’s how I concentrate a handful of five essential marketing concepts into catch phrases to help explain them concisely to co-workers and clients.

There’s no trendy wording (I’m looking at you, “growth marketing”) or suddenly fashionable tactics masquerading as strategy (I’m looking in the mirror, co-author of the turn-of-the-century’s Internet Marketing for Dummies). But these are shorthand for what I think is good marketing that is both ethical and effective.

Good marketing is unique, believable and true.

If you want to have a positive, lasting impact, your marketing approach and messages need to have three qualities: be unique, believable and true.

Unique, in that you’re positioned in a meaningful way to customers in the marketplace and against your key competitors. Believable, in that what you claim is, or easily can be, backed up by convincing proof points. And true, in that what you say about yourself and others is factually true. This last is more than a critical ethical consideration: If you want repeat business, you can’t mislead customers.

You don’t get to choose one or two out of three. Unique and true don’t work well if what you claim as unique can’t be believed. Believable and true in combination can be replicated by competitors. Unique and believable alone… well, they underlie many scams.

Unique, believable and true. Use them as touchstones as you develop marketing strategies and messaging.

Marketing is applied psychology.

This often gets overlooked by quants fixated on manipulating data. Marketing is a human activity. It is about convincing thinking beings to make a choice that you, representing the organization, would like them to make.

Yes, data can steer you to the preferences of groups as a whole. But taking the next step in a process in your firm’s direction requires a decision on the part of a human being. Marketing can’t just herd. It must persuade.

Marketing is not a democracy.

Some are startled when I say this; others knowingly smile. Inside a company, good marketing decisions are not made by broad consensus or by focus groups or by an internal poll. As a whole, non-marketers tend to approve of approaches that are similar to what they already know, or what they subconsciously feel is “safe.”

Put another way: Just because everyone has appreciated a good ad doesn’t mean they understand the background and tradeoffs it took to create it. It’s similar to the fiction that just because everyone has gone to school, they know how to “fix” education problems.

I’ve seen companies pick internally popular taglines or product names so close to those of competitors that they’ve had to change them later—or deal with a legal challenge. In other cases, the result is a game of follow-the-leader, in which the company winds up mimicking a competitor who originated a brilliant idea. The follower will always be in the leader’s shadow.

Yes, a marketing executive absolutely should solicit and listen to input from a wide variety of internal and external sources, depending on the issue. We all have blind spots. Then that leader, or a very small team of knowledgeable execs, needs to make the final decision. But vote? It almost ensures marketing mediocrity.

Marketing is not a single tactic.

One of my pet peeves is the startup that claims, “We’re really successful and we do no marketing.” Wrong. You do marketing. What it usually means is that you do no paid advertising.

Marketing isn’t a single arrow. It’s a quiver. I often get into conversations, even with other marketers, in which it’s clear “marketing” is only defined by what the other knows. Paid display or search engine ads. Direct mail or email. Public relations. Social media outreach. Trade shows and events. Brochures and flyers.

Not all arrows are appropriate for every company’s target. But if someone claims they are successful and do no marketing, I first ask if—at a minimum—they encourage word of mouth recommendations from their customers to then promote to prospects. That, and any other tactic to influence purchase behavior, is indeed marketing.

By the time you’re bored, customers are finally aware.

Good marketing, especially good branding, requires consistency and persistence. You want to ensure efforts across types of tactics leverage each other, and are in place long enough that they break into prospect consciousness.

However, that takes time and discipline. If you’re inside a company you’ve likely heard a new slogan or seen a campaign so often that you’ve tired of it. I’ve repeatedly seen execs who want to “freshen” marketing approaches which aren’t old. They’re just overexposed to them internally. Unneeded changes are then made, and the campaign doesn’t work because the customer awareness timer has been reset to zero.

When I was a chief marketing officer, a commonly accepted metric within an organization of my peers was that company or product rebranding takes about two years for customers to finally “get.” I got that.

Why? Because, very early in my career, I was a Top 40 radio disc jockey and we had to play the current number one song at least once per hour. By the time we were sick of hearing it in heavy rotation, our listeners began to call in and request it nonstop. (This was especially a problem if you were a young DJ when “Disco Duck” was a hit. I was.)

This doesn’t mean a bad marketing or branding effort shouldn’t be killed if it isn’t working. But organizations shouldn’t confuse internal over-familiarity with external failure. Customers are busy and bombarded with other messages. Often, they just need a reasonable amount of time to catch up and latch on.

So these five are my handful of interview insights. The day-long exercise reinforced, for me, that good marketing is accurate information about a product or service presented in such a way (yes: unique, believable and true) that it gets a potential customer to take action.

Of course if something is crap, none of this will help. Because heavy promotion followed by lots of negative word of mouth from dissatisfied customers can bulldoze any marketing tactic the company thinks it might control. As an executive of an early client of mine observed, “Nothing will kill a bad product faster than good marketing.”

And that is a marketing mantra that will outlive all others.