Your customers seek your talent; building your popularity is up to you.

The TV show “American Idol” - or since it induces epidemic levels of inactivity could be more suitably renamed “Idling Americans” - teaches many marketing lessons.

I separate it from the realm of sheer “reality” TV. “American Idol” actually has a premise far beyond the chair-throwing, gender-swapping god-awfulness that pervades the vile voyeurism that is an embarrassing entertainment mainstay. At the core of AI is talent, pure and simple.

Just below that is a desire from the viewers (let’s call them what they really are: “customers”) to “align” with that talent in three ways: identify with “their” contestant; agree/disagree with the judges as the arbiters of good taste (always a hot topic); and the ability to vote, play a part, stay involved, be “counted.”

While being handily entertained, we are simultaneously brainwashed into buying a Ford, drinking a Coke, borrowing from Lending Tree and wearing our dialing fingers to a nub (remember: normal text messaging rates apply).

So the above is a great lesson in entertainment, but what is there in the marketing?

Same things exactly. Not one element has changed. It works in every major fan club, it works for NASCAR, it works for television mega-successes, it works for your company.

Your customers seek your talent, first and foremost. They ain’t picking you for your looks. They’re in need, distress or desire. Once they’ve landed on you, the groundswell of resurgent popularity is up to you to build - or let erode. (Many do nothing, which is the same as option No. 2.) The other option is the winners’ course.

1. “Identify” with the company.At the level of AI’s feverish fan support, it’s less about the talent and more about the personality. The most costly NASCAR spokesperson is the most popular,notthe most talented. (Dale Earnhardt. Don’t spew your hydrocarbons at me; he hasn’t won a major race since 2004. We still love him.) The talented jerks are still talented, still jerks and commensurately supported. As a human trait, we applaud their demise when no one is looking.

Your strategy:Make your company a “personality” that peoplewantto identify with. You think I get kicks out of telling you how much your ads stink when they say stupid stuff like, “We’re The Best Plumber In Town!”? Would you want to evenknowsomeone who said that about themselves? And I don’t mean literally, but figuratively in all the braggart-prone comments about your superiority. Your personality has to be true, real, honest, authentic, empathetic and delivered in an air of assumed excellence. That is your “positioning.”

2. Agree/disagree with judges.People love to have someone else challenge the authority in an area where they may be lacking the, um, ballistic nature to do so. The most popular swayers of opinion have done this for centuries. So, do you wonder why my direct mail letters “pick on” the government? Manufacturers? Or why I “defend” small business in the face of overwhelming odds? It’s because everyone loves the slightly acidic but well-justified opinion as a supporterora detractor.

It’s the mamby-pamby “middle” that no one likes or can remember. People love to “hate” Simon, but he’s the most remembered, best known and most highly compensated. His praise nor his rates are cheap. (And he’s leaving his $34 million salary after this year.)

Your strategy:Develop a firm stance in your marketing aimed squarely at your most desired targets. I’ve contended for years that if you advertise cheap prices “to get more calls,” you’ll get more calls but mostly from price shoppers. Thus, if youactexclusive you’ll get exclusive prices; if youactmore professional and corporate, you’ll attract more customers of that ilk; if youactas if you want and appreciate referrals, you’ll get more referrals. Yes, I realize that’s simple, but why aren’t you doing it?

Conversely, if youpromotemaintenance agreements as the key to life, your staff had all better have them or you’re an opportunistic liar. Customers will align stance and action. Build the one most attractive to your desired customers, then let the chaff fall away. Sorry, that’s part of it.

3. The ability to be counted.This is huge. The now overused feel-good query is “Name the three richest people (or the three best Nobel winners, the three best actors or whatever).” No one can do this. The punch line is, “Now name the three people who’ve meant the most to you.”

Okay, wipe back the tears. I’m talking about you. AI does its best to give customers a voice; so does Disney, Coke, Amazon, NASCAR, you name it. There’s a component of “you matter” firmly interlinked and entrenched in the culture. Overlook this at your peril.

Your strategy:Prove to customers that you know they breathe, eat, sleep, evolve, live, work and have worries (just like actual human beings) bystaying in touch with them. So simple, yet so overwhelmingly disregarded. Seems once the invoice is handed over, most contractors merely wait for the next drain to clog, the next pipe to burst, the next basement to flood.

Great strategy. I think the Egyptians tried that by focusing on the afterlife, which oddly gave them all the audience with the dead and buried they ever wanted. A rather lonely future.

Your business is a living ministry. And unless I have failed to grasp this correctly, you’re also in the “service” business, which does not confine itself to “fix and forget.” Whoever started that nasty rumor either didn’t run a business, didn’t have friends or both. I didn’t say go play Pictionary with all your customers; I said, “Stay in touch.” There are no relationships that flourish through noncontact.  

Thank-you notes, newsletters, agreement programs, birthday gifts, holiday cards, celebration or customer-only specials, referral prizes, survey cards, follow-up calls, reminder calls, anniversary of service/product, company contests, feedback forums, reactivation cards, price change/product change alerts - I’m tired of writing but I think that is 16 examples that prove you give a rip.

Plan your recontact as a system, not happenstance. Put it on a schedule, not a whim. Let it be a program, not an event.

Those three elements are not only key to “American Idol”’s success, but to your very own as well. Look around, the examples abound; among them somewhere, your path is found. Have fun with your marketing.