Why (and How) You Should be Vulnerable in Your Marketing

Lots of people claim they hate marketing or advertising. They think it’s obtrusive, annoying, or deceptive. We know that that’s not true — what people hate is bad marketing. It’s just like music, really. There’s music out there that speaks from the heart and says something valuable about the world, and there’s music that’s pandering to a fanbase to make a quick buck. You want to be playing the former.

“When it comes to marketing, that means you need to be authentic, human, and vulnerable. Your company is not a monolith, cranking out products and cashing checks — it’s a group of people genuinely trying to solve problems and make a positive contribution to the world.”

If your customers and potential customers can see that, they’ll reward you with their business.

Think about a company like Patagonia, for example. They make expensive outdoor clothing and turn a profit doing so, but no one begrudges them that because they’re so much more than just selling jackets. By taking a stand, showing a human face, and showing that they care about something, they’ve opened themselves up, and people love them for it. Here’s why (and how) you should be doing the same.

Customers are Sick of the Old Marketing

The average person is exposed to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of marketing messages every day. Most modern consumers have developed what we call “banner blindness” — they see so many ads that they don’t even notice them anymore. You need to cut through all that fluff and make a real impression, and genuine emotion is the best way to do that.

The average person is also sick of being lied to by advertising. They can tell when you’re fudging your numbers or using sneaky language to make claims you can’t back up. They know when you’re faking an investment in their lives or communities, and they’re cynical about trusting you.

Finally, they’re careful about where they spend their money. More and more consumers are thinking twice before they throw their paychecks at the cheapest option that can get the job done. They want to know that the product was produced ethically, that the materials are sustainable, that your employees make a living wage and good benefits, that you’re environmentally conscious, and dozens of other potential priorities. You need to show them that you care about the same things they do.

Take a Deep Dive Into Your Values

If you’re going to be authentic and vulnerable about the things that you care about, you need to know what those things are. Why does your business exist? (And no, “turning a profit” doesn’t count as an answer.) What problem are you trying to solve? What aspect of people’s lives are you trying to improve?

This doesn’t have to be a profound question, as long as the answer is true. Chipotle isn’t changing the world, they’re making burritos with ethically sourced, environmentally conscious ingredients, and they own that purpose on every piece of packaging and signage in their stores. Whatever your purpose is, embrace it.

Be Transparent

The best way to show people that you’re practicing what you preach is to pull back the curtains on how you do things. There are three places to focus:

  • Your products: if you make a physical product, show people the factories where they’re made. Let people know where the materials come from, how they’re transported, and how they’re sourced. Give them an insight into the people doing the work.
  • Your team: if you don’t make a physical product, show people who’s working on the software or services that you sell. But a human face behind the digital dashboard that most people see every day.
  • Your process: How does the product get from your facility to their front door? How is the manufacturing process supervised and kept safe? How do you ensure that your operations are as environmentally friendly as they can be?

Hire the Right People

If you sell bike parts and claim that you want to spread the joy of cycling to people across the world, but then hire people with no interest in cycling, people aren’t going to believe that you really care about the cycling community. The same goes for any other industry — the best way to prove that your company holds its values close to its heart is to make sure that every employee embodies them.

A good approach is to hire for attitude and train for skill. With the exception of some particularly technical jobs, you can teach someone most of the nuts and bolts of their job. You can certainly teach them to switch from Outlook to Gmail, or how your particular project management software works. What’s more important is that the people you hire are a good fit with the company and share your passion for your mission.

Don’t Sugarcoat Anything

If your company has to raise prices, don’t just try to sneak it into everyone’s recurring subscriptions. Send them an email explaining that costs have risen or that you’re trying to provide better healthcare, and people will understand. If you ship a bad product or run out of supply, apologize sincerely and explain what you’re doing to fix the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Keep the apology on-brand. If you’re a casual, laid-back brand and your apology sounds like a lawyer dictated it, no one will believe that you really mean it. For an example of an apology done right, look no further than KFC. When their UK stores ran out of chicken, it was a PR nightmare. Rather than brushing it under the rug or apologizing with boilerplate, KFC simply rearranged their letters to spell “FCK.” It was funny, edgy, and perfectly on-brand with KFC’s usual irreverence. Customers couldn’t stay mad, and all was forgiven.

Authenticity Is Here to Stay

Customers are more and more driven by their beliefs when they buy, and that’s not likely to change. Thanks to increasing wealth and connectivity, customers have more choices than ever before — they don’t have to stick with the most convenient option if they don’t like it.

If you want to make a connection with your customers and create a business that will stand the test of time, you need to get on board with authenticity in your marketing. Figure out what you stand for, show a little vulnerability, and let your customers see who you really are.

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