Practicalities of responsible marketing – hold richer conversations with customers

Responsible marketing is about building trust through good conversations. Richer and smarter conversations means being ‘real’ – in both language and the channels we use to reach our customers. Using down-to-earth language that is more familiar to people.

People want to hear a language they can relate to. One that reduces issues down to simple platforms which pack substance, not just style (let’s not expect strap-lines or slogans to do the job); and makes what we promise clear – so people get it, trust it, and want to be part of it.

A cautionary word about language. It is easy to get drawn into the Tower of Babel around CSR and sustainability. Or even into marketing and sales speak. Our customers have no interest in our jargon. Too much of it distorts communication, creates misunderstandings and misinterpretations. In its milder form, jargon slows down reactions as people take time to process the information. If it goes the way of Chinese whispers, what they hear and pass on may bear no resemblance to what you say. In worst cases, it can be seen as akin to verbal camouflage, making people feel manipulated, frustrated and ultimately cynical. All of which leads to a lack of trust.

Being smart also extends to the communications products we use.  Only a fraction of customers will bother to read the dry and impersonal text found in most annual financial, CSR or sustainability reports, press releases and briefings, or the website (especially if they need several clicks to navigate to the CSR page or have to scroll down to the bottom of the home page to find it!). Instead, we should combine our technical know-how and business assets ( marketing skills,  media and technologies at our disposal ) with our creative know-how and social assets (ideas, activities and experiences of our employees and customers)  to tell simple, compelling, human stories.

Authentic stories can be a powerful tool in articulating our brand credentials. Every brand is a living story. Every company has a story about its heritage, culture, its successes, even its failures (and how they learn from them). Its people and its markets generate stories every day. And yet these stories are often not captured, played back, passed on.

The value of stories lies in the fact they provide a personal angle people can relate to. Stories generate stories, encouraging people to share information. Stories can help break down complexity and fill in gaps. Stories are memorable. We will probably remember a story much longer than pie charts, tables or graphs in the reports we produce. Stories entertain.

Marketers have to become better storytellers. And accept that customers as storytellers can be our allies. Customers don’t believe what we might say about our products unless it matches what they and their friends experience. So when they get a good-to-great experience,  why not let them tell the story?

In terms of practicalities, it is possible to put in place a simple process for collecting, using and sharing stories. Make it easy for our teams to be alert to and capture good story material. Employees can be a great informal source. Customer service particularly offers a rich source of information on customer experience – not always negative. Externally, listening to the chatter on our products and companies on blogs, product review sites, social networks  and the media, could  lead to good stories.

When we base stories on authentic experiences and insights drawn from a diverse source (customers, employees, suppliers, distributors, retailers etc), they can support the provenance of our claims around responsibility. We can avoid the risk of puffery, ‘green-washing’ or overstepping any social, cultural or legal norms which a marketing campaign might slide into. We have seen adverts which were clever, creative and challenging art forms but were yet deemed irresponsible because they failed a cultural or social sensitivity or a standards test. We may have also flinched at some artificial viral marketing intervention – pretend unbiased customer testimonials on YouTube or overly infatuated ones on Facebook; or seemingly excited customers from rent-a-crowd queuing up for the launch of a new product.

I am not advocating that as responsible markets we should settle for safe and dull and never push the boundaries. The pace at which the world is changing and connecting will not allow us to do that. We have the capacity to adapt. We can uphold values. We can use our insights to be creative and authentic. We can see where the opportunities lie and where the pitfalls might be. And then bring all of that skill together in a cohesive and coherent way to shape and share  ‘ownership’  for responsible marketing.  In the next blog, I will dive deeper into this notion of sharing.

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