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Lying as a Marketing Strategy (Spoiler: Don't Do It)

December 20th 2019 | by Ron Zayas

Is “marketing” a synonym for “lying”? Well, no, but we understand your confusion.

The thin line between exaggerating and downright lying seems to get a little thinner every year. The water gets even more muddied when you consider that many major companies (as well as world leaders and corporate executives) lie so often in their public messaging that we have become immune to even the most outlandish fictions (“Yes, the picture shows a half-empty stadium, but it was sold out. Trust me!”).

So do we all have license to Pinocchio our way to more customers and bigger sales? Does it even work?

Good questions! Let's take them one at a time and hopefully provide some information on why lying is such a big part of sales and marketing, and why you should avoid fibbing as much as possible.

Yes, lying works.

It does, and I would be lying if I argued otherwise. At least, it works in the short term and in very specific situations. Of course it is wrong, but if it didn't work people would stop doing it.

Take for instance AT&T. A few years ago, faced with instability and reliability issues that were painfully evident to anyone trying to make a call while using their network, the company did what only big companies can do: they launched a marketing campaign focused on their stability and reliability. Their chutzpah was such that even their spokesperson was sometimes drowned out by the clanking of brass as he walked.

Were they crucified for their lies? No. Did they go out of business? No. They were ridiculed, of course, but they grew enough to buy time and improve their network performance.

Why did it work for AT&T? Because they are huge. Because their market is relatively small (your choices in mobile service are few and getting fewer). They had contracts to lock you in, and they added arbitration clauses to stop you from joining forces with other users to get satisfaction. They even lobbied their way to the Supreme Court to get these very consumer-unfriendly practices codified into law. In short, they reinforced their lies with limited options for the consumer and were able to get the government to limit their exposure to the ramifications of their lies.

This option works under those specific circumstances and has been used effectively by airlines (lots of room and a great experience!) cable and mobile companies ($40 a month internet with no data caps!), Facebook (control your privacy options!) payday loan companies (quick loans you can actually pay back without selling a kidney!) and other large, low-competition markets.

But this is hardly an option for most small and mid-sized companies (or for anyone with a soul, a belief in karma or who needs a fully-functioning reflection to shave in the morning).

It is also bad for business.

When you lie in marketing, you poison the relationship before it starts. That will likely result in disappointed clients and high-maintenance accounts.

You are also creating negative word-of-mouth advertising that may be more powerful than your own marketing efforts. In other words, you spend $5 to spread your lie, and your unhappy customers reach $10 worth of prospects within their network of friends, family members and social media contacts by telling them your company is garbage. It just isn't worth it.

So how do you ethically put some lipstick on that pig?

Let's face it: no company is perfect. We all have issues with customer service at some point, or deliver a product or service that is less than ideal on version 1.0. So do we just tell everyone that we suck and go out of business? No – if you genuinely have value and a quality product, you can offer truth in advertising and still exist.

Fix the problem. Duh.

First, if you have a quality issue, rather than sitting down with advertising and marketing staff to decide how to message against it, how about spending the same amount of time and effort trying to fix the issue? Genius! You can even improve your marketing and your business by sharing the pain (and expense) with your customers. Extend your warranty and service policies to cover the issues and give yourself an incentive to reduce problems (and support costs), while giving your clients a reason to trust you.

My company does this. One of the main reasons that some large companies and governmental agencies did not want to go with the open source software we use as the foundation for our websites was because of concerns over lack of support (versus proprietary products from much larger competitors). They weren't wrong, really. So we decided to offer free, unlimited support and training for life. It alleviated a concern for them and gave us motivation to build the easiest-to-use solutions that would require less support. Win-win. It increased our sales significantly, and allowed us to spend more money refining our offering while addressing a valid weakness for some of our clients.

Find your niche.

Another strategy is to embrace that you are less than perfect, and price and market accordingly. Recently, while searching for a place to get my car painted, I came across a local company that had an interesting pitch: if you want a showroom-quality paint job, we are not the ones for you; but if you want an attractive, affordable body repair and paint job that will make your car look almost new, we are the place to go. That’s not what I wanted for my custom British roadster, but for an older Camry before I gave it to my daughter? Probably. In fact, when I visited their showroom (to ask them how this line of marketing was working for them) it was packed. More importantly, the people picking up their cars were happy and had the right expectations for the cost. For them, it was high-value, even if not perfect. That's not a bad business model if there are enough people to support your niche.

Offer different levels of service.

When I take in my Nissan Leaf for service, the dealer experience is very different than what I get for my Tesla. There is nothing wrong with offering better service for clients who are willing to pay more. Many small and mid-sized companies are finding ways to increase sales, profits and customer satisfaction by offering different levels of service. The trick is to truly offer more for more; if you charge more for the same level of service that you used to provide, or you offer improvements that are dubious at best, you're back to lying. Your mom is not going to be happy (we're looking at you, major airlines).

Try before you lie.

Lying is a lazy, ineffective way of marketing for the vast majority of companies that don't have the money and resources to victimize their clients and prospects and buy out their competitors. Lying also causes so many problems downstream it rarely pays off. So why do it?

Need helping making your marketing effective and honest?

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