Marketing deceit is a lousy relationship-building tool

It’s been a couple centuries since Walter Scott penned “Marmion’s” well-remembered lines: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!” But Sir Walter’s admonition to avoid deceit remains valid, and it’s sound advice for marketers.

A greeting-card envelope appeared in this week’s mail. No return address, no stamp, just a colorful envelope. Curious, I slit it open and discovered an internet provider’s latest pitch disguised as a greeting card. Was I flattered? Touched? Delighted? Impressed by the cleverness? No, I actually repulsed by the idea that this large company believed that tricking someone into believing they had received a personal message from a friend or loved one was the best way to sell their latest package.

Other companies take similar approaches. They mail businesslike letters with no return addresses, leading the recipient to wonder what’s inside, only to discover that it’s yet another pitch. Or they use type and imagery that implies some sort of government notice. Once again, it’s just a sales pitch (often, in the form of a fake invoice).

I get their strategy. Their assumption is that you’d ignore a piece of mail that was clearly labeled as coming from their offices or in which it was obvious that you were being presented with an offer. They believe you’re more likely to open a mystery envelope. And you are. But here’s the thing: when you discover that they were deceiving you, your likely response isn’t going to be “what clever folks … I’d love to do business with them.” Instead, you’re going to react the way Ralphie did when he decoded his secret message from Little Orphan Annie: “A crummy commercial?”

Your marketing materials stand in your place. You can’t be everywhere, so you use direct mail, emails, your website, brochures — all those things to start a conversation with a prospect or customer. You want to create the right impression of your company and what it has to offer. Do you really want that first impression to be that you’re a deceptive liar?

Yes, being upfront and honest may reduce the number of people who open your envelope, but those who do will have a genuine interest or healthy curiosity. In contrast, nobody you deceive is going to want to do business with you. They may open the envelope, but not only will they not respond … they’ll remember you in a negative way. Honesty really continues to be the best policy.