I bet you can finish this sentence: “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”

Such was most every parent’s warning to keep your blooming mouth shut, look on the bright side and eat your vegetables. Or something like that.

I have been equally torn that this is either a Zen-like way of focusing on the positive or an ostrich’s version of suppressed self-expression. 

In marketing terms, when media was the guarded domain of advertisers and newscasters, we — the ‘we’ known as consumers — had no voice. No expression, save for a complaint window mostly designed for you to neatly rearrange the letters into “compliant.” Accept their policy, their protocol, their flaming hoops for you to jump through if you wanted an inkling of recompense.

Not anymore.

The camera, microphone, lights and keyboards are all very much in the hands of consumers, making for a multidirectional dialogue. The one-way marketing monologue is over. Sadly, too many advertisers either didn’t get the memo or don’t understand the implications, blithely continuing to extol their products’ virtues in a “we’re great” kind of way that is totally outdated and painfully expensive.

Advertising messages that rely on this very dated, self-absorbed approach are buying into an ego that increasingly distances them from consumers, but binds them ever closer to blending in with the competition. Several rather negative consequences result.

The following bits of advice are unpopular — and almost unheard of from anyone trying to sell you ads. It’s too uncomfortable to say — too risky, and possibly offensive. To me, hiding this from you is what’s offensive, as it is an anchor weighing down your results.

The market has changed. The message must change with it. Here’s why your message isn’t connecting with today’s buyers.


Your message isn’t differentiated

To me, the best marketing investment you can make is to answer this question: Why would a consumer pick you — your company, your service — out of the crowded lineup?

If you say, “Because we’re better,” remember that’s the identical answer others would give. “Because we’re faster.” Strike two. And Heaven help us all if you say you’re cheaper. I hope you are not cheaper, since it’s become my misspent mission to tell contractor clients that cheapest is a horribly ineffective differentiator.

Nope. Your differentiator is the position you take in the consumer’s mind, defined largely by one to three constantly recurring themes. These themes become your brand. They do not waver, nor change with the season, nor get constantly tweaked because someone who has not studied consumer behavior and marketing proclaims “they didn’t work.” (More about this in a moment.)

Many contractors choose images as differentiators — dogs, cartoon characters, a cute grandchild — but those are only extensions of logo and impart minimal meaning beyond identification. There’s no emotional bond.

Differentiation comes after you truly ask yourself what you are promising your consumer that is different, better, faster, more convenient or more reliable, overcoming a commonly repeated ‘reason’ people call you now. The repetition of this in your messages becomes a magnet to other like-minded consumers that recognize that you “get” them, understand needs and have risen above the competitive landscape.


Your message isn’t consistent

It is commonplace for a contractor to express in consultations the things they’ve tried in this media or that, changing from one offer to another, from one vendor to the next, saying, “They didn’t work.” A couple of points to make here.

First, how do you define what “work” means? About 90% of the time, it means it generated no or very few leads relative to ROI. Hear me on this: Not all ads are for leads. The following will be unpopular with many of you, but please remember that I am a direct-response copywriter who is overpaid to generate leads and who should be in favor of nothing but lead-gen ads.

However, if every ad is for leads, it means you have become the salesman who never listens. You’re the insurance dude who leaps out of a crowd every time he sees you to tell you about your impending mortality, likelihood to crash your car, eventual disability and how you’re set up to disappoint your woefully unprotected loved ones.

Do you want to be around that guy? Do you feel they have a grain’s interest in you? Of course not. Thus, not all ads must “work” in this extremely narrow definition.

Think strategy, not ads.

Secondly, a constantly wavering message never takes root. No one can figure out who you’re trying to be, and if you require “figuring out,” most will deem that too much trouble and put you in the “same as everybody else” stack. Apple is about innovation. Porsche is about engineered performance. GEICO wants to save you 15% in 15 seconds or less. What are you about?

If you find you’re about one thing in your Facebook posts, another in your radio ads, another on your billboards, another on your website and another in your direct mail, you are — sorry to say — doomed. This is exactly what happens when multiple non-collaborative vendors are “doing your marketing.” Get consistent, be repetitive, and drop the “more leads every time” requirement.


Your message is accidentally selfish

There’s another reason my email inbox and dialogue with manufacturers is occasionally strained. I started this article talking about this prevalent obsession with self in most marketing, but now I’ll give you a second look at the undercurrent behind its ineffectiveness: Consumers are self-absorbed now more than ever in history.

Facebook is about them, YouTube is about them, the trophy is theirs for showing up, and the word ‘selfie’ didn’t even exist until 2013. So, there they are, the hero of their story with the media power to profess the same, then you show up in their world vying for the exact same title. Instant conflict, instant ignoring. They want a supporter, not a challenger.

You either include them in your marketing message or they exclude you. Pretty clear.

The reason manufacturers summarily hate my stance on this is pretty clear too: Their marketing departments come up with the ads, brag about features meaningless to consumers and showcase their product with a big-time mirror on “us, we, and our.”

Let’s put in a glamour shot of that condensing unit — that most consumers build fences to hide — and tell dealers, “We’ll co-op this for you.” Great. So you’ll “let” dealers run the emperor’s ineffective ads?

Put the consumer in the role of hero, not the product. Put the contractor in the role of wizened guide to getting the consumer what they want, and watch people respond.

Change your message focus from “us,” the geniuses who paid for the ad, to “you,” the reason we are in business in the first place. Easy example: Instead of “We’ve been in business for 40 years,” your selling point becomes, “You get 40 years of caring experience with every call.” See the difference?

Make these message changes in your marketing and watch your results change accordingly. Take a small step of faith to differentiate from the “safe” place of traditional marketing, whose practitioners almost comically relate that theirs too “isn’t working.”

It’s not the market, it’s not the media, and it’s not your products — it’s the message. Make yours magnetic.


This article was originally titled “The 3 marketing shifts nobody wants to talk about” in the April 2018 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.