Lost in the Land of The Liars

About 12 years ago, the school where I was teaching built a brand new building. We used to visit the construction site several times a week and watch in amazement and anticipation as our future home took shape.

One day in mid-October, after students and teachers had been waiting about 2 weeks for the rain to stop, the big day arrived. The monster dump-truck-crane-thingy came and poured the concrete foundation. We watched in awe as the grey sludge oozed out of the chute and transformed a big dirty hole into a perfectly flat, perfectly smooth surface.

A few days later, when it was dry, we watched in horror as the workers pushed some giant motorized pizza cutters all over the concrete, cracking it in a dozen different places. "What are you doing?" we demanded. "It was perfect before!"

The answer is a powerful marketing lesson…

What Does This Have to Do with Marketing?

The workers were cracking the foundation because it was going to crack anyway, eventually. They wanted to control where and when it cracked.

The concrete might have stayed together for a few months or even years, but at some point the earth below was going to shift and the beautiful foundation was going to crack. When that happened, woe to the building sitting on top of it.

So they cracked the foundation on purpose, before they started building. They let it settle into place, imperfect, yes, but much more stable and predictable than a perfect slab that was going to let them down eventually.

And they cracked it exactly where they wanted to, rather than letting random effects and subtle laws of physics shear off the boys’ bathroom one warm winter’s day.

Nobody Believes Us

Ready for the journey to marketing metaphor-land?

Your marketing foundation is all the good stuff you want people to believe about you. You always return phone calls within 18 minutes. All your clients retired to Sonoma County within two years of hiring you to handle their investments. You’ve never shipped a defective part in your life. One visit to your office and your client’s back pain is cured forever.

We spend a lot of time building this foundation. We work hard to provide the best products and services. We learn about our customers’ needs and adapt and grow to satisfy them. We maintain high standards and stand by our guarantees. And now, we understand, we get to reap the rewards of excellence – we get to tell the world how great we are.

Our prospects look at our marketing, our smooth foundation, and go, "Yeah, right!"

Why They Don’t Believe Us 

1. We’re Biased and Full of It

Of course we want people to believe good things about us. That’s how we get paid.

2. We’re Biased and Deluded

We truly do think we’re great. Take this little test:

A. True or False: I am an above average driver.

B. True or False: I have an above average sense of humor.

C. True or False: I am in better shape than most people my age.

In studies, between 75-90% of respondents choose True for each item. We all live in Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average.

3. Most Marketing is BS


Yes, you heard me right. A marketing man spills the darkest secret of his profession – most of what passes for marketing is meaningless fluff, outright lies, or unsupportable claims.  After all, most of the marketing we experience as consumers – billions and billions of dollars worth each year – is designed to convince us that identical commodity products – soda, diapers, dishwashing liquid – are significantly different from each other.

The Marketing Discount Rate

Every claim you make about your business,  your service, and the results your customers will achieve gets discounted about 90%.

You say: "This air purifier will trap particles as small as one micron in diameter."

Your prospect hears: "My cat could probably get through that thing."

You say: "This is a stunning 10.0 megapixel digital camera that’s all about breathtaking performance and head-turning good looks" (straight from a well-known manufacturer’s press release, I kid you not).

Your prospect hears: "This might take some good pictures until it breaks. I’d better pay an extra $120 for the 3 year extended warranty. Oh, and the included memory chip will hold about 8 pictures. I guess I need to buy a 2 GB high speed memory card for another $200, and while I’m at it I should get the $40 rechargeable battery. Of course, the case isn’t included either…"

Whatever you say goes through the filter of their past experience. Every marketing claim that was ever overblown, untrue, or irrelevant sticks to you and makes them doubt your accuracy and honesty.

And the minute you say something they truly disbelieve, like "Highest quality at the lowest price," the marketing discount rate just reached 100%. You’re a goner.

The Island of the Liars and Truth-tellers

Remember that logic puzzle about the island that’s inhabited by two tribes – the liars and the truth-tellers? It’s impossible to tell them apart by looks. You’re on this island, at a fork in the road, lost and confused, and you want to know which road takes you to the village. You meet a native of the island, and get to ask one question. What question can you ask to find your way to the village?

If you think that puzzle is confusing, think how your prospects feel. They want to know what to do, whom to believe, and whether you are a truth-teller or a liar. The stakes are high – they’re betting money, and in some cases much more, on their ability to get the answer.

How can you help them?

Let’s try this approach. Pretend you’re the truth-teller in the puzzle. The prospect doesn’t know whether to believe you or not. So you say, "I’m a truth-teller, I swear I am."

Does that do it?

Of course not. Because the liar says the exact same thing.

(Answer to the puzzle at very bottom – but don’t skip any good stuff in the middle ;)

Crack Your Own Foundation

The answer to the real-life marketing problem is to crack your own foundation. Make a damaging admission about your business up front. Say something that your prospect doesn’t expect a self-interested, lying, deluded marketing shark to say.

Tell the truth about something that puts you in a less than flattering light.

For example:

"This air purifier filters down to 1 micron. It will keep your air incredibly pure.  The problem is, because the filter is so tight, the fan has to work extra hard. It’s a little noisier than some of the cheaper units out there."
 "This digital camera will take better pictures than just about any other camera.  You see, we spent a lot of time developing software that interprets what the lens captures. Most other manufacturers just slap their regular lenses on digital cameras and don’t focus as much on the software. The trade-off is that professional photographers may not like the fact that our camera does all the work. We’ve created it to be point and shoot – the photographer doesn’t get to control as many settings as other cameras."

"I help my clients build considerable wealth, but my system requires consistent disciplined investment over time. I don’t do well with clients who want to give me all the responsibility over their money. Realistically, there’s only so much I can do if they’re not going to budget and save on a regular basis."

This marketing tactic has two very powerful effects.

1. Cracking Your Own Foundation pre-empts doubt

Remember the marketing discount rate? That 90% is an average. If you make an outrageous claim, you kick it to 100%. But if you say something negative, problematic, or unflattering about your business, you can lower the marketing discount rate to almost zero.

If you’d tell the truth about this, your prospect reasons, you’re probably telling the truth about the good stuff too.

Just like the construction workers at Princeton Friends School, you crack it early before forces outside of your control crack it for you. You don’t want to build a long sales cycle on a foundation that hasn’t cracked yet.

2. Cracking Your Own Foundation focuses your prospect on the negative you choose to highlight

Notice that the negatives I gave as examples weren’t entirely negative. In fact, some prospects may actually be attracted by them.

  • "The fan is noisier because the air purifier is more effective. That means quieter models must not be as effective."
  • "I’m not a professional photographer. I’m tired of taking pictures of people with red eyes and no feet. I don’t need to be able to twiddle the settings."
  • "I don’t want to just give my money to someone and be done with it. Of course I want to keep saving and investing over time."

When you make a damaging admission, make sure it’s not truly damaging in the eyes of your best customers.  I’d avoid the following:

  • "My product is cheaper because it is made by children’s slave labor."
  • "Because I never actually went to law school, opposing counsel finds my tactics unpredictable."
  • "Statistically, most cars never get involved in fatal collisions. So we skipped the crash tests and installed reconditioned seat belts, and passed the savings on to you."

Think of the damaging admission as a tool that helps your prospects qualify themselves. You’re saying, "Because of this problem, my product or service isn’t for everyone. You have to be willing to accept this tradeoff in order to be happy with it."

Everything’s a Tradeoff 

The essence of the damaging admission is the concept of "tradeoff." The problem with so much marketing is that it contradicts what we know to be true about the world – everything is a compromise.

Faster means lower quality. More personalized attention means higher cost. Better sound systems take up more room. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

What you’re really doing in your marketing is explaining the tradeoffs so as to attract the people who get the most value from your big benefit while suffering the least from the tradeoff.

And your marketing tradeoff is – give up a little Benefit to gain a lot of Believability.

A Few Quotes to Keep You Awake

Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.
– Janis Joplin

Real life is, to most men, a long second-best, a perpetual compromise between the ideal and the possible.
– Bertrand Russell

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.
– Andre Gide

Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof.
– James Russell Lowell

If one cannot catch a bird of paradise, better take a wet hen.
– Nikita Khrushchev

There are two ways to slide easily through life: to believe everything or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking.
– Alfred Korzybski

How to Crack Your Foundation

1. Make a list of all the features of your product and service. Next to each one, write an advantage and disadvantage of that feature. Which disadvantages make the biggest advantages more believable? Where are the logical tradeoffs you can highlight?

2. Look for ads that don’t crack their foundation in any way. How do you respond? On a scale of 1-10, how much do you believe them?

3. Whom do you believe the most in your life? Whom do you trust the most? What makes you believe them above all others? How can you bring some of that credibility to your marketing?

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Bonus Quotes

No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.
– Lily Tomlin

When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.
– Henny Youngman

The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it.
– Joan Rivers

I hate housework. You make the beds, you wash the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.
– Joan Rivers

Why ruin a good story with the truth?
– Woody Allen

Solution to the Liars Puzzle:

You ask, "If I asked a member of the other tribe which road led to the village, what would they say?"

Whatever they say, you do the opposite.

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6 Comments. Leave a comment or send a Trackback.
  1. #1 • Brian said on February 3 2009:

    Howie, this was one of your best articles. Great content and your celebrity quotes were both dead-on accurate and very funny.

  2. #2 • Kevin said on February 3 2009:

    Great topic, Howie. Knowing and being honest about what your brand is (and isn’t) is the key.

  3. #3 • Kim said on February 3 2009:

    This was so true; I know I am in the 90%, lol. Still plowing through your great “AdWords for Dummies”; get distracted by your sense of humor every few minutes!

  4. #4 • Jordan said on February 3 2009:

    Great advice on how to start succeeding. Been looking for something like this.

  5. #5 • Howie Jacobson said on February 4 2009:

    Brian, Kevin, Kim, Jordan:

    Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate the validation :)

    The longer I’m in business, the clearer it’s becoming to me that spin and posturing are a huge expenditure of psychic energy, and in most cases, completely unnecessary.

  6. #6 • Wing Chueng said on February 10 2009:

    Quite enjoyable and easy to read :)