Marketing is more than just the facts, ma’am

It seems many marketing decision-makers received part of their education from the old “Dragnet” TV show.

If you’re too young to remember the program (or the comedic movie remake), “Dragnet” featured Sgt. Joe Friday, a Los Angeles detective who said very little and spoke in a near-monotone.

Unlike today’s “Law & Order” or “NCIS” detectives, Joe never displayed much emotion or expertly play-acted roles when questioning witnesses and suspects. He’d simply remark, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and the kindly senior would note that the awful young man who stole her purse was wearing a red jacket and had long hair. Joe would record that fact in his notebook, nod, and head to wherever the long-haired delinquents were that day.

What does Joe Friday have to do with marketing decisions? Plenty. Too many companies approach their marketing efforts with Sgt. Joe’s attitude. “If we just give them the facts about our product or service,” they say, “they’ll make their own decision to do business with us.”

It’s particularly common in businesses that are managed by engineers or financial professionals, and it comes as no surprise. Their careers are focused on developing a thorough grasp of straightforward data, and then shaping that data to achieve the desired result — whether that’s investment advice or a mechanical action. No wonder they think everyone else approaches decisions the same way.

We like to think of ourselves as rational animals who make rational decisions based on evaluations and comparisons of rational facts. But as any successful marketer, sales rep, or psychologist could tell you, people are anything but rational, and that applies equally whether you’re talking about romance or office automation.

The simple truth is that we make most of our choices on an emotional basis. Only then do we support those choices with rational justifications. It happens when we buy cars, it happens when we buy clothes — and it happens when we make business purchases.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that those decisions are impulsive. Few of us are impulsive enough to drive by a car dealership and decide to pick up a new SUV on a whim. When we’re in the market for a new vehicle, most of us start looking around long before we set foot in the dealership. We notice cars as they drive by, pay closer attention to TV commercials and magazine ads, and start conversations with friends and co-workers who recently bought their own vehicles.

From there, we mentally narrow our choices and zero in on a model or two. Each time that type of car or truck passes us on the way to work, it reinforces our interest. We start to notice details and imagine ourselves behind the wheel. We look for information that fortifies our decision. That’s when we get serious enough to set foot in the dealership.

(That said, I’m sure there is a small percentage of people who make their car-buying decisions solely because of an attraction to a giant inflatable gorilla on the dealer’s roof, or because a particular dealer yells more persuasively in his commercials. Of course, those are also emotional appeals.)

If people really were motivated solely or primarily by rational facts, advertising and website design would be delightfully simple. Everything would look like the disclaimers that follow ads for new prescriptions or the privacy notices that your bank sends you each year. There would be no need for different colors or sizes; no value in having any images besides those that illustrate a fact.

But because we’re emotional animals, we connect better with products and services that satisfy some emotional need. We buy a home security system not because of local crime statistics, but because it makes us feel safer. We choose one set of curtains over another not because of the superiority of the stitching, but because they make the window feel homier. We buy a particular computer because it makes us feel more confident that we’ll achieve our business goals with it. And we chose the eyeglass frames we wear not because of their ophthalmological integrity, but because we thought they made us look more attractive.

Can you define safety, hominess, confidence, or attraction in purely rational terms? You might be able to apply polling that says homeowners with security systems feel 72 percent safer than those without, but the underlying sense of safety and the other factors are purely emotional reactions.

While it’s true that today’s consumers prefer facts to the kind of puffery that Madison Avenue churned out in decades past, that doesn’t make them immune to messages focused on their emotions. Instead of appreciating empty hype like “Acme toilet bowl cleaner made me the happiest woman in the world,” they’ll respond to emotional approaches like “Acme toilet bowl cleaner helps me keep my family healthier and more comfortable.” The more authentic and genuine the message, the better it will connect.

And yes, emotional messages are just as important in business-to-business marketing as in what’s aimed at consumers. Decision-makers respond to the same emotional triggers. Does your product reduce their worries? Make them happier? Let them feel more successful? Give their business a better image? Let them know (and then provide the facts that support your emotional claims.)

Yes, you always need to provide the information your customers need to make purchase decisions, but if you provide it while making an emotional connection, your efforts will be far more powerful and effective. So while offering up “just the facts” may have pleased Joe Friday, you’ll need to offer a lot more to succeed in today’s marketplace.