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Great Marketing Requires Discipline (and Discrimination).

What are you doing? Why are you here? Didn’t my headline ask you to ignore whatever message I have to share? You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?

Of course not. Because that’s not how we’re wired. Most human beings are at least mildly curious and moderately social. Tell us not to go there, and we can’t resist taking a peek. Tell us we’re not included, and we can’t help feeling a little hurt. Even if we weren’t interested in the first place.

In the right amounts, that natural curiosity and desire for social connection can be powerful, positive attributes. In fact, I’d posit that they’re the driving force behind most of the greatest thoughts, inventions and societies in human history. The Magna Carta and the Roman Empire. Electric power and the Internet. All of these and a thousand other inventions were the offspring of our need to ask, “what if?” and build a bigger tribe.

But just like aspirin, gun powder and the internal combustion engine, too much of a good thing can also kill you.

Man biting into enormous sandwich

This is particularly true for new brands and the entrepreneurs who define them.

The first step in successfully marketing any product or service has long been to define your target market; to identify the heavy user of your product or service and then put the full force of your efforts against that relevant, addressable audience.

But, by default, defining everyone who fits the profile of our most likely customer also requires us to identify everyone who’s unlikely to ever use our product, everyone we can’t possibly afford to serve – and then ignore them.

This is usually where good market strategy starts to go bad. Ask many entrepreneurs to define their target market and they’ll quickly tell you “anybody.” Anybody could use their product or service. It’s the best. There’s nothing else like it. And that may be true. But just because anybody could use their product or service doesn’t mean everybody actually would. Especially if their message is directed at everyone.

But our natural desire for inclusion and innate fear of rejection won’t let us recognize and capitalize on what I’ll call “the power of parameters.”

Store front sign with text "Fine Goods – Not For Everyone

Companies are not required to provide products or services for everyone who might ever hear about them.

It’s certainly not necessary to succeed. They’re not even required to pretend they’re for everyone. It’s just not possible. Great marketing requires discipline and discrimination. But our pride won’t let us accept those limitations and our imagination leads us to believe we can change anyone’s mind.

Let’s pretend for a minute that you make and market widgets. Let’s also pretend they’re the best widgets ever made. Cool. If you’ve done your homework, you know there are already a ton of people – maybe even a majority of the population – who like and buy widgets all the time. Go get ‘em. That’s you’re target market.

Now imagine that I’m not one of those people. For whatever reason, I’ve decided I don’t like widgets. Maybe I don’t care for the way they taste or feel or look. Maybe I just don’t have any need for widgets and my lifestyle dictates that I never will. You could always take a “we know you don’t like widgets but ours are different” approach. Plenty of other companies have tried. But why would you? There’s a much larger audience of consumers who’ve already raised their hands to try your widget – at a much lower acquisition cost.

You cannot debate your way into the heart of the consumer. It’s not an argument, it’s a conversation; one that, thanks to the proliferation of social media, is often shared in whispers among consumers you don’t even know are there. Once you’ve captured an unfair share of those who are already interested in what you offer, you can always gamble a small portion of your marketing budget against those who’ve said they’re not. But that only works if your widget is somehow different from every other one out there. Not better. Different. From everyone’s.

I know what you’re thinking: “What if we offer a new alternative to widgets?” In that case, my answer would be “It depends.” As long as we’re pretending, let’s pretend I really wish I could enjoy widgets, but have an allergy or other condition that prevents me from using or consuming them. If you’re the first substitute to hit the market, you probably have a decent chance of capturing a decent share of that consumer base. But keep in mind, it’s an alternative market and, by definition, one still significantly smaller than the population of those who want the real thing.

Six runners on track with five in a row and one falling behind

If you’re not the first widget substitute, my advice is to think twice. Your competitors already have a head start on being different, so your only option is to position yourself as being somehow better. Which rarely matters. Everyone remembers the first guy to fly solo across the Atlantic. But who was the second? No one knows. Even though he may have been a much better pilot.

More importantly, if I really wish I could enjoy widgets and you’re not the first to offer a widget-like alternative, I’ve already found my replacement. So, we’re back to debating the attributes of yours versus what is now mine. And that’s the toughest argument of all.

Because we’re not just trying to change minds. We’re trying to change habits. It’s difficult (and expensive) to change perceptions, even more challenging to change minds, and nearly impossible to change habits.

Is there a smoker alive who doesn’t know it’s eventually going to kill them? Not likely. But once those products have insinuated themselves into our system (and our lives), they’re incredibly difficult to replace. It’s not just the physical addiction that prevents us from dropping our habit, it’s also the mental energy and emotional adjustment of changing our lifestyle.

Obviously, my choice of widget substitute isn’t as physically addictive as tobacco, but the intellectual and emotional investment behind it is basically the same. I’ve already gone to all the trouble of finding the alternative I have in hand – i.e., I’m invested – so unless your alternative is likely to cure cancer, I’m unlikely to change my buying habits. Of course, you’re welcome to try – as long as your alternative product is branded and marketed differently from your primary product.

If you read my last blog for Modern Impact, You’re Not Bacon, I hope you’ll recall the primary point I sought to make as this: If you want to be more successful in building your markets, you don’t need to reach everyone. You just have to reach everyone who cares about the same thing you do with a message that’s crystal clear and personally relevant. It’s much easier (and more profitable) to win over 50% of all the people who are passionate about your product category than it is to chase 0.5% of everyone else.

But what do I know? Maybe you’re the exception. Maybe you have a product so amazing it really will appeal to “anybody” and everybody will eventually buy it. The fact that you’ve read this post all the way to the end is practical proof that I’ve been both right and wrong. I may be right about the power of producing content that engages just the right audience, but was obviously wrong when I wrote my headline. Apparently, this stuff really is for you.

Robert Paul

Author Robert Paul

As a seasoned veteran with three first names, RAP (as we call him) brings 30+ years of brand strategy expertise to the clients of Modern Impact. Having lived on all three sides of the agency-media-client equation, he provides a unique, universal perspective on the branding process. His talent for building strong brands spans Real Estate, Insurance, Health and Fitness, CPG, Automotive, Travel and several other categories. That radio voice and razor-sharp tongue mean there’s never a dull moment with RAP in the room. Then you realize you’re walking out smarter (or at least more sarcastic) than when you walked in. Read RAP’s blog posts and you’ll see what we mean.

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