Marketing isn’t war on your customers.

Most marketing metaphors seem so violent. Many of these metaphors are directed at competitors- you need to outwit, outflank, outsmart the enemy. It’s a bit macho for me, but I get it. You want to beat the other guy.

I’m mostly bothered by the warlike analogies directed at customers, as if we are trying to fight, capture, abduct or otherwise force people to buy from us. As part of the marketing lexicon we have:

  • Email blasts – Hit prospects with enough firepower, and surely we’ll get a few casualties, uh I mean customers.
  • Targeting customers – Hit the bullseye, win a customer. Just hope he survives the blood loss.
  • Capturing eyeballs – Possibly the creepiest analogy. For me, it conjures up images of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Launching campaigns – This analogy is the most pervasive in marketing-speak, but it comes from military campaigns. Don’t attack until you see the whites of their eyes (see above).
  • Captive audiences – Once we’ve got them where we want them, they’ll have no chance but to pay attention! I believe this is the rationale for advertising placed above urinals.
  • Guerilla marketing – In case you thought marketing warfare was only for big companies. Now small businesses can get in on the assault. You may not be able to buy enough ad space to “cut through the clutter,” but you can certainly launch surprise attacks.

All this talk of conquering makes marketers lose sight of their customers’ humanity. After all, we are marketing to actual people. And actual people aren’t coerced into their purchasing decisions and won’t be swayed by “blasts” of advertising copy. They will just ignore you.

For marketing to be effective, it has to honor the true relationship between business and customer. Marketing parlance describes an outdated model of marketing when companies felt like they were in control. That illusion has been shattered. Now customers have many options, research tools and alternatives available to them. In reality, the customers call the shots, and they are in control.

But we need metaphors and analogies. It makes marketing efforts easier to visualize and share. These descriptions need to be accurate and enforce how people actually buy. A bad analogy is like a calloused rhinocerous (and the same can be said for bad similes, eh?). Let’s try to use realistic metaphors, ones that actually depict the relationship between business and customer. Some are already in circulation, such as the following:

  • Brand story – Instead of campaigns, develop a shared story between you and your customers. Think of advertising, PR and other communication methods as ways to move the story along.
  • Relationship marketing – Brand stories build relationships. With war marketing, you capture dollars. With relationship marketing, you develop a relationship that leads to sustainable business.
  • Seek permission – Get customers’ permission before starting up a conversation with them. Don’t waste time communicating with people who will never be your customer.
  • Engage customers – It’s your responsibility to find out what interests customers and engage them.
  • Build community – Engaged customers who are in a relationship with you will be eager to share that sense of community with others. A loyal community is the perfect referral network.
  • Email broadcast – No need to blast customers. Once you’ve sought permission, update them with content you wouldn’t mind getting in your own inbox.

Interestingly, some of these terms don’t have to be metaphors. We can have real relationships with our customers. Do you have more metaphors for my list? Email me at

Let’s look at some success stories (it’s too easy to find failures). Here are four companies successfully putting these attitudes into practice.

Old Spice

Old Spice took their “Smell Like a Man, Man” story from a few clever commercials to an Internet phenomenon. They interacted with followers on Twitter, responding to questions with YouTube videos by the Old Spice Man himself. Hilarious? Certainly. And the business results were nothing to scoff at: the Old Spice line of products has skyrocketed in sales, rising by 107% in June.

But why did it work? Companies create funny ads all the time without such dramatic results. The key to this effort was acknowleding the power of the customer. Old Spice made their spokesman into a celebrity then shared him with the world. They encouraged their customers to be part of the joke.

Etsy – Buy and Sell Handmade

Etsy’s Facebook marketing is tailored for those who wish to buy or sell handmade and vintgage objects. They adopt a breezy, conversational style while recommending their sellers’ products. Here’s an example, where 57 people enjoyed reading about bird scupltures:

Author Guy Kawasaki

Apple veteran Guy Kawasaki’s Twitter strategy is unique and encourages curiosity. Imagine my surprise when I saw Guy Kawasaki was following people I know. It was flattering, but I found upon investigation that he is following 286,644 people. It’s very egalitarian of him to eschew the general rule that you shouldn’t follow more people than follow you. And, for me, seeing he follows people I know created a greater interest to learn more about him and his company. Like, did you know you can hire Guy for speaking engagements?

Wal-Mart (yes Wal-Mart!)

The retailing supergiant has avoided brute force marketing lately. Their Save Money, Live Better brand story tries to connect with customers, and they are building a community of “Savers.” Here is an excerpt from their website that shows their implementation:

The story extends to public relations as well- recently Wal-Mart donated 6,000 articles of professional clothing to Dress for Success, a group that helps unemployed women get ready for the workplace. Finding a job seems like a great way to Save Money, Live Better.

Small businesses are especially poised to take advantage of this empowering, personalized kind of marketing. Who could possibly be better at creating stories and growing relationships with their customers? How can you start putting these concepts to work for your business today?

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