In today’s post, Seth Godin argues that we can be lulled into settling for blah layouts and fonts because (after all) companies like Google, eBay, and Craigslist have treated them as an afterthought, and they’ve been wildly successful.
There’s no question he’s right. Trying to strip every element of marketing down to the bone is a kind of purists’ mentality. And in a world of profit margins, finite consumer mindshare, (or selling B2B “connections and comfort”), there is little room for purists. Apple has proven this in spades.
What’s a purist? There are many kinds. A purist is someone who insists that the world should have stopped in 1982 (remember, the year the disco-had-lost-all-its-charm-for-you). When no recreational cross-country skiers existed who did not have a working knowledge of how to apply the correct wax to a ski. When no race was held using anything other than “classic” technique, since “skating” hadn’t been invented yet. Today, most recreational Nordic skiers (especially those renting them) use waxless skis (as crappy as they may be). Most racers (and not a few novices) prefer to speed along on “skating” skis as opposed to fussing with classic technique. I’m perfectly happy with the 1982 world of cross-country skiing. I like wax. I like classic style. But if I were running a chalet or a retail store, as a purist, I’d be out of business.
But I digress.
“Advertising” may be the cost of creating unremarkable products, as some have said. Then again, it’s a cost many are willing to incur. And do we count basic communications and imagery (storytelling and positioning) as “wasteful” and superfluous or as part of the deal?
If you can ignore the “soft edges” elements of communication and still succeed, chances are you’re doing something very, very well. Or had great timing. But it’s not good advice to ignore them. Think of all the startups who have had meetings where they say “Craigslist was fine with this design, so let’s not think about it.” Where are they now?
Probably the best read on this subject is – yes – by Godin: All Marketers Are Liars (rebranded, ultimately, to the more apt All Marketers Tell Stories). It helped me understand that Starbucks had subtly and steadily painted its own little universe. Something for your mind to wrap around, not unlike a Disneyland of caffeine, while you decided whether to part with $4 for that mocchacino.
Starbucks isn’t just a building you go to to get some brown liquid, served up dutifully by adequate help. It’s a story.
Technology companies create “operating systems”. An operating system can be formally defined in a few ways, roughly as an environment that allows us to complete work and tasks using apps. What an operating system doesn’t have to be is compelling. But if it isn’t compelling, then it must at least become a standard (lest it become too easy to switch). In other words, if you ignore “compelling,” your business must be or become so strong that it becomes a de facto standard! Turns out even the mighty Craigslist never got to that point.
Remember DOS? Remember the Apple TV spots of long ago that made fun of the poor users who had received PC’s as Christmas presents, and were now trying to set it up? “C. Colon. Backslash…,” said the hapless Dad, in a flat voice. No one’s enjoying themselves.
Sure, your products may work. But insofar as you can take them into the realm of a pleasant, social, or forward-looking environment — you create a compelling “place” for your customers to be. Getting out of “C-Colon-Backslash” and into something slightly warmer, something slightly larger. That’s a marketing challenge worth pursuing.
Is there some truth in the opposite insight, too? Certainly there is. Consumers are exposed to more information today, and many stories won’t stand up to scrutiny. They’re more likely to discount brands and try to see through to the raw material behind it. If the quest for some authentic story can’t be pursued right through, that’s lip gloss, not marketing something authentic. That might work in some industries, but not all. Don’t try to sell me ibuprofen with commercials and fancy images — it’s just ibuprofen and I want to get it as cheaply as I can. As Godin has said in speeches: “I solved my pain reliever problem 25 years ago. I use the one in the yellow bottle. The generic!” He’s never wrong.
Related reading: Harry Beckwith, Selling the Invisible