Marketing 909: Selling as Conversation

[July 15, 2012]

In the realm of e-merchandising, there’s constant tug of war. On one hand, the desperate calculus of sales-per-quarter, which is tracked, fretted over and tracked again by nervous sales managers and retail buyers, whose reputations are only as good as this week’s numbers.

And, of course, in this sector of digital space, there’s no metric wiggle-room, no theoretical evocations of click-through or “stickiness.” It’s sale or no sale—a black / white dichotomy only slightly shaded by the nebulous success achieved when a bored user clicks “sign up for product updates and special limited-time offers.”

At the other end of the rope, pulling just as hard, is the brand imperative—the essential and rather elusive attributes we like to call Trust, Advocacy and Word of Mouth. After all, what good is it to offer products no one believes in, no matter how often you shout “LOWEST PRICE, GUARANTEED” in no matter what size font. And how do these attributes accrue to your brand? It’s a gradual process of introduction, seduction and (product) satisfaction. 

As I see it, one brand that has transformed this awkward push-you-pull-me dichotomy into a graceful balancing act is Pottery Barn. By whatever twist of fate potterybarn.com succeeds where many have failed, to produce a merchandising site that captures both the thrill of impulse shopping and the aspirations of its audience in a classic, branded environment. 

To start with, the graphic style on the home page and elsewhere brings Pottery Barn’s wares directly into your field of vision. Your view of the objects in the main marquee is “subjective,” immersive enough to make garden variety product shots feel more like vacation photos taken on the fly in a spirit of fun.

Balancing the equation with value.
But the customer-focused orientation of the site goes way beyond making the wares look good enough to eat. For potterybarn.com is organized, start-to-finish, as a comprehensive tutorial in one kind of interior design. You don’t need to share the brand’s taste or color palette to appreciate the value the site delivers to its audience. While the site also provides links and contact information leading to available offline consultation, the amount of advice available on the site is, for many people, at least as much as they need.

A typical example of what’s on offer is the Living Room section, where users can get a feel for how different household accessories work together. Click a suggested ensemble, then mouse over the main image, where in an elegant touch of DHTML programming, you can magnify sections of the image and click to see more details. The ever-present shopping cart links notwithstanding, you can’t escape the sense that someone is not merely selling, but bothering to explain what you see.

And, refreshingly, there’s none of that “HOW MUCH WOULD YOU EXPECT TO PAY FOR THIS GORGEOUS LIVING ROOM SET? $1000? $1500?” nonsense. 

That the site also offers advice on entertaining guests, is another indication that the brand’s focus is on customers rather than on merchandising. The fact that, of course, Pottery Barn’s suggestions for entertaining, like those for design, decorating and so on, are all linked to products for sale is beside the point.

What the brand has accomplished with this site is a convincing integration of merchandising and branding. That it also transitions seamlessly to social space—by establishing a convincing presence on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Google+ and Twitter—should surprise no one.

Person2Person. Respect.
By striking the delicate balance between selling, branding and delivering value in real time, Pottery Barn’s site exemplifies some of the best in recent marketing trends, an example in woefully short supply, especially in the consumer pharmaceutical marketing arena—where communication strategies, audience segmentation theories and consumer motivation models from the 1970s go home to die.

Yet, we need to look no farther than another major online retailer to find equally egregious hucksterism. As you’ll discover at the Web site of any major airline, the mere presence of a logo and a tagline is all that suffices to distinguish one dollar-grabbing monolith from the other. Could it be that, having trashed its own credibility over the decades with lousy service, over-priced tickets and lost luggage, airlines see no reason to Try Harder? I’ll leave that thought for another day.

At issue here is a simple realization: In 2012, selling is conversation and the conversation is all about the consumer. Pottery Barn understands that. Perhaps it can serve as a model for marketing that puts the consumer first—not merely out of consideration for the real people who deserve your real consideration—but because that’s what sells in a world where customers own the power of the click.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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