What is the most important marketing principle?
If someone asked you this question, regardless of whether or not you are affiliated in marketing, what would be your answer?
Loyalty? Focus? Customer Service? Unique Selling?
Most likely, asking ten different people might evoke ten different and equally compelling answers. It is one of those abstract ideas that don’t seem to have a one-size-fits-all answer.
However, I’ve always felt that William Bernbach, the head of the famous advertising company that handled Volkswagen’s marketing in the 60s and 70s, said it best—“The most powerful element in advertising is truth.”
Shocking. When the average person thinks about marketing and a salesman in general, the truth is far from their minds. Accompanied with whatever they offer, I always think: What’s the catch? If it sounds too good to be true, then it usually is. In a much vulgar analogy, strippers aren’t talking to you because they think you are interesting.
In a world where every burger place claims to have “the world’s best pastrami” and all images are photoshopped to the point of impractical perfection, reality is skewed, making the truth that much more refreshing and rare.
In the 1960’s, when every car company was advertising that their car was the newest, shiniest, and fastest car around, Volkswagen sold the Beetle simply with the catch phrase, “Think Small.”
Most advertisements were bright, colorful, and boasted more things than it could possibly offer. Volkswagen Ads, on the other hand, presented their car in black and white with a modest caption that reasonably talked about stuff like the economic benefits, being able to squeeze into small parking spots, and so on. It was the first post-modern ad.
Of course, the car did have its flaws, and you may think that telling the truth would have ruined the pitch. For instance, Volkswagen was originally commissioned by the Nazi’s to ensure that their people had an affordable car. Volkswagen actually translates to the “people’ car.” In a mere 20 years, they were able to become one of the most successful car companies. See how advertising can change a company’s image?
Using the truth for advertising is a type of spin. However, spin is a terrible word. It is usually associated with crooked politicians and billionaires. What we, as marketers with a conscious, are looking to do is provide optimistic truth.
We sell cups that are always half-full and never half empty. The truth is that the cup is half-full—nothing more, nothing less. Customers will respect that.
While watching an episode of Top Gear (UK), in an episode where James and Jeremy are forced to make a VW ad, I stumbled upon Volkswagen’s marketing principles that they still use today. Here is a rough summary of what I gathered:
- Look at the product or service you provide.
- Truly look at it. If what you offer is worthwhile, it will have many different aspects that you can mention. Do not make up things up.
- Never exaggerate. If you are selling a car that gets 50 MPG for one person and 20 for someone else, then sell the average—35 MPG. Do not offer more. I personally hate it when stores have signs that say “Up to 70% off” when only one product is 70% off and the rest fall around the 20% range. Grinds my gears!
- Don’t use double talk. Using fancy names or complicated jargon is unnecessary. Deceptive speech is an attempt to hide a bad product.
- Speak to the reader or listener with sense. They are human beings, so treat them as so.
All in all, the truth is the most powerful tool. It is the guiding force between the principles listed. It only takes one good advertising campaign to change a company’s image. As marketers and as Bernbach might say,” [Your] job is to bring the dead facts to life.”
Every product has natural truths that make it marketable, as well as remarkable. It is your job to find it. However, if you are scared that the “truth” will expose your product, then you have far bigger problems beyond marketing.
And to respond to that, I’ll finish with a cliché quote, “ You can’t handle the truth!”