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Marketing isn't about changing your customers, it's about changing yourself

Todd Haskell | October 8, 2020

Recently I read the classic "Start With Why" by Simon Sinek, followed by Seth Godin's "This is Marketing". Intermixed with these I've been reading some books on Buddhism. Oddly enough, there have been similar themes in all these books that are highly relevant for anyone interested in customer-centric marketing. So while the thoughts are all fresh in my mind, I wanted to put them into words.

Often when I talk with business owners, they see marketing as having two main functions:

  • Get more people to buy our products
  • Get existing customers to buy more of our products

What the business owners are hoping for is to change the behavior of customers. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the motivation for doing this is to benefit the business. Achieving this kind of behavior change is actually pretty easy: You can just use what Sinek refers to as "manipulation".

That word has negative connotations, but so long as both business and customer are fully aware of what's going on, I don't see anything unethical about it. Suppose a new pizza place opens up in town. Most people in town already have a go-to pizza joint. The new restaurant wants people to give them a try. So, they run a 2-for-1 promotion. As a consumer, I'm happy to make a temporary change in my behavior in response to this promotion. But this approach is not sustainable. Imagine that, alarmed at the new competition, one of other pizza joints runs their own promotion the following week. We've now embarked on a race to bottom. If the two restaurants keep competing with each other on price in this way, they're both going to end up with tiny margins on a generic, mediocre quality product. And they'll both be constantly stressed out about how to maintain a competitive edge.

Some readers might suggest that the problem here is the choice to compete on price. After all, there are a lot of ways to set up a unique value proposition. Perhaps the new pizza place might decide it's going to offer unique pizzas - miso eggplant and enoki mushrooms, anyone? Assuming there's a market for such pizzas, this is certainly a way to avoid the race to the bottom. But I think there's something more fundamental happening in this shift as well. How would the pizzeria know if there's a market for an eggplant and mushroom pizza? If the pizzeria wants to add a new pizza to their menu, how would they know what their customers might like? Whether it's formal market research or just chatting with diners in the restaurant, that's something you're going to have to learn from your customers. And at this point, you're starting to think in a very different way, because you've shifted the focus from changing the behavior of your customers to better serve your needs, to changing your own behavior to better serve the needs of your customers. That's the essence of what it means to be customer-centric.

Personally I find that some ideas from Buddhism help me better understand what's really happening with this shift. If this seems a little out in left field, note that I'm far from the only person to make connections between Buddhism and marketing, or even to talk about Buddha in the same paragraph as Seth Godin. At its core, Buddhism is built around the idea of reducing suffering. In a Buddhist worldview, although some suffering is unavoidable, we bring a lot of additional suffering upon ourselves through what is sometimes called "craving" and "clinging." To greatly oversimplify, we can reduce that suffering by working to see the world as it really is rather than how we think it is or should be, and letting go of the urge to shape the world to our own vision. To translate this to a marketing context, when we fight against the way consumers naturally behave in order to try to reshape their behavior to fit our own ends, that leads to suffering. Perhaps the consumers suffer, but here I'm talking about us as marketers - we suffer, because this is ultimately a futile effort. Perhaps you can win the fight today, and next week, and maybe next month, but ultimately you will collapse from exhaustion. When we accept reality and work with it rather than fighting against it, we can avoid this suffering. And it's at this point that you can start doing true marketing.

The beautiful thing for me is that market research is really nothing more than a process of trying to see the world as it really is. Some people might say that the goal is to be able to see the world through the eyes of your customer. The thing is, customers are just as susceptible to self-deception as businesses are. So while I certainly aim to understand the customer's perspective, ideally I can get outside the perspective of both the business and the customer. With adequate research, you can learn about the pain points that the customer knows they have. With really great research, you can learn about the pain points that the customer isn't even aware of. And then you come up with a product or service that addresses those pain points.

Coming back to the pizzeria, we can now see things in a new light. It's not our job as marketers to figure out how we can sell more pizzas to more people. Or even to figure out what group of consumers is currently being underserved, so that we can carve out a niche for ourselves in a crowded marketplace. Those ways of thinking are primarily focused on business goals. At our best, we do something very different. Imagine consumer behavior as water. Water always wants to flow downhill. We can try to build dams, to keep the water where we want it to be, and not let it flow. Or we can create the tiniest channel for the water to follow, step back, and wait. With no intervention on our part, the water will flow down the channel, in the process making it wider and deeper. We are not fighting against the water, we are working with it. Your job is to go learn about a group of consumers, understand where the water wants to flow to, but isn't able to find a path. And then make the tiniest channel. Selling pizzas has to be part of that - after all, we're talking about a business, not a charity. But the trick is to bring the pizza to the water channel, rather than trying to bring the water channel to the pizza.