"Education" is a sure sign of failed marketing

Back in the ’70s, research revealed something very interesting about entrepreneurs: They regarded the businesses they founded as children of theirs – often as realer and more loved children than their flesh-and-blood ones. So when consumers don’t see a business’ products or services with the same degree of wonderfulness as the business’ founders do, that’s like someone telling them their baby’s ugly. Literally.

My baby? Ugly?

And because the business owner knows deep down inside that the baby can’t be ugly, it’s obviously the audience’s fault, and their misperception needs to be corrected with education. In other words, if the product’s no good, infantilize your audience by talking (down) to them as if they were ignorant children.

This kind of “marketing message” is the sure sign of a failing brand – one that can’t make it in the marketplace on the merits of its own features and benefits. And we’re seeing it big-time in a number of arenas.

Oh, those ignorant consumers!

One is national policy, where we keep hearing that massive opposition to Obamacare in survey after survey results not from any defects in the program, but from failure to successfully communicate its full story to the 310 million yahoos out there who are just too dumb to get it.

Another is a just-published whine from Jacquelyn Ottman, “expert on green marketing to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government,” in www.mediapost.com’s Marketing:Green online newsletter:

Tom’s of Maine can make the toothpaste more natural, but it can’t force consumers to turn the water off when they brush. Coke can make the bottles recyclable, but only consumers can drop them in the blue bin. Sun Chips can make the bags compostable, but only consumers can see that they get to a composting pile instead of a trash can.

Sun Chips solved this problem after it caused a 10% drop in sales by fixing their packaging, but according to Ottman, that’s not the Ecologically Correct solution.  Instead, “Green marketers must now educate consumers on how to use and dispose of their products responsibly.”

Three infantile ideas, one adult one

How do you do this? She has several recommendations, most of which may remind you of elementary school. One is a software app an outfit called OPower sells to electric utilities that sends ratepayers a smiley face (kinda like a gold star) when their consumption is lower than their neighbors’. (This reportedly lowered electricity use by a big 2% in Sacramento, CA.) Another is a smartphone app that “checks a product’s eco-credentials…turning shopping into an educational experience.” A third is a picture chart from Procter & Gamble telling all those consumers who are too ignorant to read words that heating water (for showers, laundry, dishwashing, etc.) actually consumes energy.

A fourth device Ottman cites is different from the rest and works without demeaning its audience. That’s the meter on the dashboard of every Prius driving around Richmond (and the rest of the world) displaying, real-time, what kind of fuel efficiency the driver is getting.

Never forget why they buy your product

What makes that different illustrates an important principle of marketing (as opposed to “education”), and that is that it’s essential to remember why consumers buy your product in the first place. Consumers buy Tom’s of Maine toothpaste not to conserve water, but to brush their teeth with. People buy Coke not to recycle the packaging, but to drink what’s inside it. And when only 30% of consumers do any composting at all, it’s crazy to hang your whole marketing effort on a compostable bag.

Tom’s of Maine’s business is selling toothpaste, not conserving water. Coke’s business is selling soda, not boosting recycling. Sun Chips’ business is selling snacks, and when they thought it was making compost, it cost them millions upon millions of dollars.

What makes the Prius example different from the rest is that while drivers buy Priuses to get around, they also buy Priuses (as opposed to, say, Hondas) to make an ecological statement. So there the ecological impact is directly related to the motivation for buying, not an irrelevancy.

Re-educating masses of people is a major expense and a major effort (just ask the Red Guard, who tried it in the People’s Republic of China) that no local Richmond advertiser can either afford or accomplish. When the audience isn’t buying your product, the problem is the product, not the audience. So fix the former, because there’s no way you can afford to, or will succeed at, changing the latter.