how to take action and be in charge


Nothing seems to have done more to shift the narrative and catch the world’s attention on the Syrian refugee crisis than that heart-breaking photograph of a dead child on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the idiom, but it’s worth a whole lot more than that. Many campaigners, civil rights groups, politicians and ordinary citizens had been working to get European governments to respond more quickly and humanely to the refugee crisis, but it wasn’t until that picture had horrified the world that anyone seems willing to listen. The famous Hector Pietersen photograph had a similar effect in the battle against apartheid.

Pictures can show people what is actually going on, thereby cutting through all the hype and the propaganda. They have emotional impact (we’re primarily visual creatures), but they make or break trust, too.

Show, don’t tell

One of the first lessons for aspiring novelists is: show, don’t tell. Don’t go on and on describing something when you can just write what happens in the scene. Paradoxically, the emotional impact upon the reader is stronger if you write what the characters do, rather than how they feel. I think it’s a good lesson for marketers, too.

So much of marketing is describing how wonderful a product is — going on and on about its benefits. At the end of the day, consumers want to see the brand promise; they don’t want to hear it described. A picture of reality will matter much more than whatever your campaign has been saying.

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A few examples

Volkswagen’s reputation is in tatters. After spending millions of dollars on environmental marketing over the last few years — and in particular, the message of “clean-diesel technology” — it has emerged that the car manufacturer fitted cheat deviceson its diesel cars to trick the US Environmental Protection Agency into passing its engines in emissions tests. These devices sense when the car is being subjected to a test, and lower the emissions accordingly. Volkswagen diesel engines actually emit, it turns out, up to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen oxide.

The financial impact of this scandal on VW will be in the billions of euros, and the brand has been hugely damaged precisely because the picture emerging is not the story the company has been telling.

At the other end of the scale, another car manufacturer seems to understand the importance of demonstrating your proposition. Lexus, to demonstrate “amazing in motion” actually went and created a hoverboard. A real, working hoverboard straight out of a science fiction movie. It could have just found a clever way of saying it does amazing in motion. Instead, itdid something extraordinary.

The real world matters

The social media age has led many marketers to devote huge amounts of resources to social media marketing, and rightfully so. But digital media is not a vacuum: people online still need to talk about actual things that are happening in the real world: news, global events, amazing things they have seen for themselves.

You can’t build a successful brand with sexy campaigns alone. The real-world matters much more to your customers. It’s obvious that, if the product doesn’t deliver, consumers won’t be fooled for long. But there are plenty of other real world things that marketers tend to neglect because they’re not as much fun as creating an amazing campaign, but that they need to get right before a campaign can do anything:

  • customer service and experience
  • delivery time
  • queue times, and
  • call centre support.

In sheer volume of pictures taken, you can never hope to compete with every one of your consumers with a smartphone. The picture that shifts the narrative about your brand is probably not going to come from your office, so you need to ensure the world at which your consumers are looking is telling a positive story.

Focus on action

Lexus’s hoverboard captured the world’s attention because it built something unbelievable. Red Bull now regularly amazes the world with jumps from space, globally synched motor races, and extreme sports events. These are brands that are actually doing amazing, not just buying media for words they’ve written.

Soon, even the most inspiring rags-to-riches stories, like the kind we see in beer and whiskey ads, will ring hollow if the brands behind them aren’t actually doing things to help their target markets achieve those aspirations. Hansa’s famous Vuyo campaign inspired entrepreneur Miles Kubheka to start a real-world Vuyo’s business empire. But imagine Hansa had done that before it made the ad?!

Could Bell’s fund or found adult-learning centres for fathers just like this one?

Anyone can take a picture of your business and the world it touches. For marketing to succeed in the future, it has to go well beyond talking about the products and services to ensuring that everything the business touches delights consumers, employees and the general public.

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