Hard Sell/Soft Sell: Smashing the Ideological Grid

[July 6, 2010]

A peculiar feature of the human psyche is the insatiable craving for knowing “the way it is.” While the need forclosure, psychologists agree, varies by person and situation, Americans tend to reject any train of thought that can’t assuage our national hunger for definitive, either/or decisions.

To the rescue comes ideological determinism, in an astonishing variety of species, rivaling the adaptive virtuosity of the orchid itself. It’s easy to see determinism’s appeal. When ambiguity threatens, the ideological mind is comforted by a graceful network of preconceived values that drapes itself over thought, perception, memory and motivation.

“Ahh: The Answer,” says the deluded ideologue, “now I know what to do.”

And from that hallucinogenic experience emerge the false dichotomies that tie us up in global conflict and even rock the tiny world of advertising, sales and marketing. Like “copy/art,” “traditional/digital,” or “concept/execution,” the “hard sell/soft sell” dichotomy is a perfect example of reductive thinking elevated to the status of a worldview.

Consider a key tenet of the hard sell philosophy: People are swayed by the evidence. Recent events challenge that notion. If the BP disaster isn’t evidence enough to sell people on sustainable energy solutions, it seems “evidence” has little sales value. Or does it? Doesn’t it depend on how well we package the evidence as discrete, end-user benefits?

Oh look, I’ve gone and tripped the ambiguity alarm.

When your tactics break down…
I suppose it all comes down to fear of the unknown. If we subscribe to rigid dichotomies, there’s no ambiguity, and nothing to fear. Ironically, people with the courage to embrace ambiguity, also have nothing to fear. In this case, embracing ambiguity means learning how to adjust your sales pitch to your consumer’s ever-fluctuating state of mind.

Again, consider the proposition that people are swayed by the evidence. You wanna sell? You gotta show a sharp knife cutting metal. Or show a cloth that “Holds 12x Its Weight in Liquids.”

Hard sell ideologues believe you need such brutally concrete images to “break down resistance.” But what if your customer is every bit as stubborn as you?

I remember once shopping for a camera and encountering a salesperson whose main sales tool was the (fictionalized) experience of his family members. “My mother has this one. She loves it,” or “I sold this camera to my sister. She says it’s the best.”

He almost never stopped talking. In answer to my technical questions his answer was invariably “They’re all the same.” Finally, in desperation, he told me, “I love this camera, I want you to have it!”

…redefine the meaning of “sale.”
Now maybe this qualifies as a “bad” hard sell tactic. But I’d just started looking and my goal at the moment was to find a store I could trust. I couldn’t be sold with words—“this is a great price”—or pictures—“my brother-in-law is a professional photographer…”

Had the sales person bothered to discover my mindset, he might have taken a different approach. Granted, the meter was running. But in a fraction of the time he’d taken to pressure me today, he could have earned my trust and won himself a sale tomorrow. In my case, he’d failed to realize that the first thing he needed to sell was himself.

That’s not to say the soft sell approach has no limitations. Play your cards wrong and you’ll fail to give people the encouragement they need to make a decision. But that’s just the ambiguity you need to embrace if you want to make the most of your contact with consumers. Instead of simply opting for one approach or the other, you need to grasp your customer’s mindset on a moment-to-moment basis.

While that’s easier to gauge one-on-one, with careful planning, a media campaign can also encompass multiple states of mind. Instead of taking an ideological stance, why not create a stream of communications, each one addressing the different emotional states your target moves through as a natural part of the buying process?

Now, I understand what a tough sell that might be, especially when clients demand dollar-for-digit “metrics.” But in today’s reality, success can only come to those who stop pushing consumers’ buttons, and start giving consumers the buttons to push for themselves. The process begins when you smash through the grid of either/or thinking and directly address the ambiguity lying at the core of human motivation.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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