The funny thing about communication is how important it is, relative to how little we understand it. And certainly, ever since communication went digital, the Babel of communication theories has grown to a deafening roar.
Consensus? You must be joking. Yet, in relative terms, we can successfully divide what separates us in that arena into two general categories: Those who favor on-the-nose communication that “speaks for itself” and those who believe your best shot at reaching consumers, is to let your audience draw its own conclusions from the memorable cues you provide.
That’s right, it’s the explicit/implicit divide in communication theory, which two recent TV spots for similar products demonstrate in vivid detail. The first, for ADT home security systems, begins with a typical TV “man and wife,” trying to enjoy a night on the town, but beset by anxiety about whether they forgot to lock the back door.
OK, that’s a plausible premise and, predictably, resolving the protagonists’ anxiety involves nothing more than the flick of a finger on a smartphone app. But along the way, a deeper Marketing Anxiety spoils the impact. Watch the spot and you’ll see Boyfriend’s emotion reflected in an explicit montage of leering burglars zeroing in on his home.
By contrast, the spot produced for AT&T Digital Life grows seamlessly out of direct observation of the human condition. Here, wiser heads know a 20-something’s assurance of responsible behavior is as ephemeral as the will-o’-the-wisp. While the resolution is the same—again, a flick of a thumb across a touch screen—the AT&T spot gets its message across implicitly and more memorably, by integrating the product’s value into our everyday experience of American society.
Hurry! While your attention span lasts!
The same principles apply to digital marketing. In fact, the contrast between explicit and implicit messaging is nowhere more stark. Take for example, the differing approaches taken by two furniture retailers, Raymour & Flanigan, on one hand, and ABC Carpet on the other.
Now, I can already hear someone in the back of the room complaining that I’ve stacked the deck—by comparing a mainstream site to a niche site. I don’t buy that, not least because it suggests that “mainstream” audiences need to be hit over the head with price in order to be motivated.
Sure, as evidenced by the 2:00-am-TV tactics that continue to sell knifes, polishing cloths and hair removal systems, price can be a powerful motivator. Especially, that is, when linked to an impending sense of loss (“Hurry, while supplies last!”). The question is, whether that’s any way to build a lasting, loyal customer base.
As I see it, the answer is no. Establish a relationship with consumers based on “deals” and your brand is only as good as your latest Limited Time Offer. Worse, you’re effectively training consumers to jump from brand to brand as necessary to get the best discount. It’s the very behavior that has bedeviled credit card companies since the Dawn of Plastic.
”Transfer your balance now and get 0% APR for the first X months.”
…goes the refrain of desperate competitors who never stop to think that the most enduring customer relationships begin and end with fair, transparent dealings. I mean, if all you have to offer is an APR shell game leading to 19% finance charges in less than a year, I fail to see the enduring value you deliver.
Connection vs contempt.
So, along with this particularly explicit approach goes an entire mindset about your relationship with your consumers. It extends far beyond the competence of your messaging strategy—then snaps back to sap its effectiveness. For at a global messaging level, if you go that route, you’ve seriously eroded your brand. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a credit card company, furniture wholesaler or a cellphone service, your only message to me will be:
“I want your money right now….What do you mean what do I sell? Give me a minute…Phones, that’s it, phones. Can I have your credit card number?”
That’s very explicit, to be sure, but so is this: The first American cellphone service to offer a coherent, comprehensible and consistent fee-for-service structure that delivers real value—as opposed to— deceptive promotions will have the largest and most loyal customer base the industry has ever seen.
That’s because, even in “the mainstream,” what consumers want more than anything from American business is respect for their status a fellow human beings. No one denies a business the need to earn an honest living. But know this: That same implicit honesty is the one and only voice capable of motivating your audience to come back for more.