Facts don’t influence customer buying decisions. So, what does?
I interviewed Seth Godin twice on the Everyone Hates Marketers podcast: once in 2017 and once three years later after the release of his book This Is Marketing.
My very first question was about Ron Johnson (the inventor of the Apple Store and Steve Jobs’ protege) who joined JCPenney and proceeded to kill the company.
I’m going to let Seth tell the story:
"JCPenney was one of the original discounters. The guy who started it, his name was actually Penney, his middle name was Cash.
Their whole model was you could get pretty decent stuff for much less money. They differentiated themselves from companies like Sears by constantly having coupons, percentage sales, saving sales, and clearance sales. Shopping at JCPenney was more like a sport.
Ron Johnson comes in and gets rid of all the discounts.
He said, ‘This is disrespectful. We're going to give you the dignity of knowing that when you shop at JCPenney, the price is the price. You don't have to worry that the price is going to be cheaper tomorrow. I'm treating you with respect.’
Within a year, he had destroyed the entire chain, and it will never recover. People stopped shopping at JCPenney.
Their stock went to almost as low as it can go. In the middle of the retail apocalypse, to lose that much momentum all at once, it's over.
The typical JCPenney shopper has a household income of $20,000 to $50,000, at the bottom end of the American household income scale. We know that these are not people who are showing up at the Metropolitan Museum Gala. They are scraping by.
But!, and it's a big but, shopping at JCPenney represented a chance to beat the system, to put in the thing you have time, to get the thing you don't have, which is status.
If you won, you would get something that was in short supply in your life was that feeling of superiority over the system."
Retail superstar Ron Johnson made two fundamental mistakes:
Mistake #1: He assumed JCPenney’s customers were shopping there for the same reasons they were shopping at Apple.
Mistake #2: He thought he could influence the buying decisions of his millions of customers by changing their minds.
You’re under pressure to sell something, but you’re faced with objections from folks who don’t believe it’s going to help them.
They may have preconceived notions, they may be using something else they’re happy with, or they may just not care enough to do anything about it.
If only they understood what you could do for them!
If only they knew what they’re missing out on!
If only you could change their minds!
What do we naturally do in this situation?
We channel our inner Ron Johnson.
We present beautifully designed 130-page sales decks. We share spreadsheets full of data with 15 different tabs. We run marketing campaigns to convince them our product is far superior and they should try it instead of whatever else they’re using.
But it doesn’t seem to work.
So we grow even more frustrated.
How are we supposed to stand out if no one seems to get it?
Enter confirmation bias, the invisible force that makes it almost impossible to change people’s minds.
I’m going to let Richard Shotton, a behavioral psychologist and author of The Choice Factory, define it further:
"It's the idea that people are very good at maintaining their existing point of view.
If you dislike a brand and hear a message from them, your brain can generate counter-argument after counter-argument, which maintains its existing point of view. It just doesn't agree with the new information."
Even worse, the more you confront someone else's point of view, the more likely they are to feel threatened because they feel you’re trying to take away their choices and free will (that psychological phenomenon is called reactance).
You can’t change people’s minds with data (at least not in the short-term).
So, what can you do?
What’s their worldview? What’s the game they’re playing when they’re buying from you? What do they want the most? What do they fear the most? Talk to your customer-facing staff, run customer interviews yourself, use your intuition… Do whatever it takes to avoid making the same mistake as Ron Johnson.
We are so desperate to sell to as many people as possible that we forget a crucial point: there are some people out there who already want to play your game. JCPenney could have spent most of its efforts to attract more Americans who wanted to beat the system. My sole focus with Everyone Hates Marketers is to find people who are already sick of marketing bullshit.
They don't necessarily believe what you believe, but they also don't disagree with it. For example, a CMO who wants to grow its customer base by 20% in 6 months might be open to multiple ways to get there.
This tactic won’t yield results in the next few months, but if you have the resources to play the long game, it might be a powerful way to grow your market share. Use the power of subtle cues to win the hearts and minds of your harshest critics.
When British Airways were struggling with their brand image, the marketing department invested in TV ad campaigns featuring classical music that people traditionally associate with luxury. Have a listen:
It's the antidote to marketing bullshit.
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