Deceit is a Lousy Way to Start Relationships

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, ingeniously disguised as a greeting card.

Was I flattered? Touched? Tickled? Delighted? Impressed by the cleverness? Overwhelmed with good feelings about this witty vendor?

No, I was actually repulsed by the idea that this large company thought 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.

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

These days, I see many companies resorting to deceptive approaches, some more flagrant than others. 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 their missive is some sort of government notice. Once again, it’s just a sales pitch (often, in the form of a fake invoice).

I grasp their strategies. Their assumption is that you’d ignore a piece of mail that was clearly labeled as coming from their offices, or something that made it clear that you were being presented with an offer. They believe you’re more likely to open a mystery envelope. And the truth is, you are. Curiosity and mystery are powerful drivers.

But here’s the thing: when you open that cryptic envelope and discover that the sender was deceiving you, your likely response isn’t going to be “what clever folks … I’d love to send all my business their way.” Nope, I think you’ll react exactly as Ralphie did in “A Christmas Story” when he decoded his long-awaited secret message from Little Orphan Annie: “A crummy commercial?”

Many years ago, I did work for one of the nation’s largest motor clubs, which included writing direct-mail solicitations. The company carefully measured the response to every package created by their stable of vendors, and shared the results with all of us so we could incorporate what had been proven to work in the past. Know what? The more overt the marketing message, the greater the response. The packages that were designed to fool the recipients into thinking they had received a personal message, or hid the fact that they were solicitations? Those were consistently at the very bottom in terms of responses.

The simple truth is that people don’t like to be deceived. We don’t mind a little bit of exaggeration or hyperbole when someone is trying to sell something. We may even chuckle about it. But we never want to do business with someone who is trying to trick us.

Your marketing materials stand in your place when you can’t be there. You don’t have the time or resources to personally approach every prospect for your products or services, so you use direct mail, emails, your website, social media, brochures, ads, and other channels to start conversations with prospects and customers. Your goal is to establish healthy, productive relationships with the recipients by creating 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?

I’ll accept that being upfront and honest may reduce the number of recipients who will open your solicitation. However, those who do will have a healthy curiosity about and genuine interest in what you offer. Opening your envelope is an admission that they’re open to your sales message and could become a customer.

In contrast, nobody you deceive is going to want to do business with you. Sure, they may have opened your offer, but they won’t respond. Even worse, they’ll remember you in a negative way, and will be less likely to pay attention to what you have to say in the future. Honesty really is the best policy.