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The Lamp of Truth – Marketing’s duty if it is to grow and retain customers

February 18, 2013
Acceptable marketing? Can marketing today really be truthful or has it lost its way in a sea of vanity?

Acceptable marketing? Can marketing today really be truthful or has it lost its way in a sea of vanity?

Truth and manifest integrity today are more important than ever to businesses seeking to remain competitive and relevant in customers’ minds. Without truth – demonstrably defined by self-evident fact – businesses and brands will die. But what is “truth”? What is “the truth”? 

In his “Seven Lamps of Architecture” written in 1849, the artist, philanthropist and social commentator John Ruskin attempted to define the aesthetics of architectural honesty by deconstructing the forces which lay behind it. Among these seven lamps, the lamp of truth serves to guide us, as marketers, even today.Let us reflect upon his writing for a moment.

He suggests: “How difficult must the maintenance of that authority (truth) be, which, while it has to restrain the hostility of the worst principles of man, has also to restrain the disorders of the best – which is continually assaulted by the one and betrayed by the other, which regards with the same severity the lightest and boldest violations of its law!

What, indeed is truth? In commerce, we cannot be sure. This is indicative of the forces which act upon the marketer: at once a desire to sell a product yet also to create an image of it in the customer’s mind which may indeed be deceitful. No object means the same thing to every man or woman. Yet marketing messages and products are often tailored to the generic whole.

This must imply a level of deceit, irrespective of whether the marketer believes in an acceptable truth, because a general message to appeal to all must be inefficient in its application to the individual. The technique applied therefore is that “the truth” is defined by the fact that only some of what he or she says must in some part be acceptable to the recipient. Can we accept this way of thinking?

Do we today, through the acknowledged depravity of the world in which we live, advocate partial truth as acceptable – more acceptable than total truth? Total truth, after all, is more likely to be less relevant, commercially, than generic truth by dint of the fact that a refined truth is more likely to be acceptable to a smaller number of people. And therefore – unless we operate in a purist value-based pricing universe – less profitable.

Is there a compromise which can render our approach acceptable to ourselves if not to our customers? Some may argue that at point of purchase or renewal a customer is not wise to the truth: he/she decides to purchase based on the sum of all the facts available. Consequently, truth is defined in its majesty by the inherent limits of the customer’s indolence.

This may indeed show us how we can refine a truth if not be comfortable with it. In judging a product or service, customers are prey to numerous forces: neighbourhood pricing; issues of volume; perception of quality; perceived substitutes; unique attributes etc. So a marketer – using appropriate segmentation techniques – can be reasonably comfortable with the manner of his/her persuasion.

Yet many marketers fail – and many sales people also. Driven by sales targets to move stock, truth often falls at the wayside of necessity. Partial truths to generate a sale replace inherent truths – what some call brand integrity. The indolence of customer perception is replaced by the idleness of persuasive capability.

The use of marketing under pressure results in post-purchase cognitive dissonance (PPCD). This marketing expression should leave all of us – at least those with a conscience – cold. Because it means a customer believes that he/she has been lied to – they are uncomfortable with their purchase. If customers perceive deception – a narcissistic legerdemain – then marketing has failed.

It could be argued that marketers and sales people guilty of inciting PPCD should be seen as dangerous and treacherous threats to a business. The damage to brand perception, emotion, warmth and credible promise wrought by PPCD is – particularly today in a social media environment – one of the greatest risks businesses can be exposed to.

As Ruskin writes: “Nobody wants ornaments in this world, but everybody wants integrity. All the fair devices that ever were fancied, are not worth a lie. Leave your walls as bear as a planed board, or build them of baked mud and chopped straw, if need be; but do not rough-case them with falsehood”.

Falsehood, the deception of inefficient and indolent marketing, is a canker on the branches of commerce which must be cut out. Demonstrable truth, as we have argued before on A Brand Day Out, is the beacon which will guide prosperity through the darkness of uncertainty.

As Ruskin concludes when he cites the destruction of earlier architectural aesthetics and the decadence brought about by architectural affectation developed out of simpler and more pure design methodology:

It was not the robber, not the fanatic, not the blasphemer, who sealed the destruction they had wrought; the war, the wrath, the terror, might have worked their worst, and the strong walls would  have risen, and the slight pillars would have started again, from under the hand of the destroyer. But they could not rise out of the ruins of their own violated truth.

Ruskin wrote these words about architecture. We might argue that our own listless vacuity be seen as equally abhorrent in a world where marketing views its success more in terms of what it sees in the mirror than how it affects and relates with the customer.

Honi soit qui mal y pense?

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