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Is Your Marketing Message Clear Or Are You Just Selling Toilet Water?

Is Your Marketing Message Clear Or Are You Just Selling Toilet Water?

Pull up a chair because today I want to share something a little fun and silly with you. And I promise there’s a marketing lesson in it, too!

It Happened When I Was About 7 Years Old…

My mother brought us kids to visit our grandparents. There was much hugging and kissing and pinching of cheeks and my grandfather presented me with a wrapped gift that he had hidden behind his back.

He was all smiles. My mother was all smiles. I was all smiles. I tore the shiny paper off the small box, pulled out a glass bottle and…

This is what my 7 year old eyes saw printed on the bottle: eau de toilette

This is what my 7 year old brain read: toilet

This is what my 7 year old self did: ran into the other room and hid in the closet out of sheer embarrassment.

I had no idea why my beloved grandfather was giving me something called “toilet” that clearly looked like water right out of the bowl, or what he expected me to do with it. I was mortified. Surely I had missed something important. Surely his smile concealed some secret I didn’t understand as to why he thought I needed toilet in a bottle.

My grown up self can only imagine the befuddlement this caused my family. I do know that my mother came into the closet to find me and to ask WTF?!?! In a nice-for-7-year-olds way of course, but she was none too pleased that I had been so rude.

I also know that I could not, would not, explain my reaction. I’m fairly certain that to this day nobody (except you…) knows why I ran off into seclusion and refused to say thank you to my grandfather or even to emerge from the closet for a very long time.

At some point my mother chalked it up to “horrible child”, I forgave my grandfather for giving me a toilet and he forgave me for refusing it, and we all went on with our lives.

So Why Did I Tell You That Story?

Other than the fact that I hope it provided a little comic relief during a busy week, it got me thinking about how much grief can be attributed to misunderstandings. Not just in our personal lives, but when it comes to our business and marketing.

Do you really know what your customers understand about your product or service?

Do you really know what they believe about how you conduct business?

We sometimes refer to this as “setting expectations” but I think it goes beyond that. I think it goes right down to the heart of perception and that can be a tough thing to contend with!

You’ve heard the phrase “perception is reality”? It’s a little cliché but it doesn’t matter so much what your business is about as much as what your customers think it’s about.

We as business people come from a place of knowing. We are intimately acquainted with our products and services. We know what they do (and what they don’t), we know what they offer and we know their limitations. We know how things work from the inside out, but sometimes we forget that just because we know, doesn’t mean our customers know.

Where I come from we sling terms around like “SEO” and “UX” but so many times when I say those things in front of a client I get blank stares. A couple of acronyms don’t make me sound smart. It makes me sound like I’m not communicating effectively.

Sometimes misunderstandings result in anger and disappointment – those times when we have a very clear vision of how a project will go or what a product will do but our customers have a completely different vision.

Are They Wrong? Are We Smarter Than Them?

Nope, we are just handing them a bottle of toilet and expecting them to understand that it’s perfume.

Other times misunderstandings can have comical results – as in the time I had a conversation with a client during which I was talking about a “site” in the context of a website and she, being in the construction industry, was talking about a “site” in the context of a building spot. It was a classic “Who’s on first” routine.

You never really know how someone will perceive something so it’s our job as business people to be excruciatingly aware of the potential for misunderstanding and to be crystal clear with our messages and communications.

That sometimes means assuming that our customers know nothing at all and taking on the role of teacher. It takes practice because you have to get out of your industry bubble and put yourself in the place of your customer.

It sometimes means scrutinizing our product and service descriptions and field-testing them with people outside of our circles to be sure that what we think we’re saying and selling is what other people think we’re saying and selling.

It also means, in an international marketplace, being aware of our language. I often joke about the vast quantities of Oreos that I consume to stay sane and at one point learned that some of my overseas friends had never even heard of an Oreo. The tragedy of that notwithstanding, it made me consider how some of my conversations could be missing the mark.

All of this comes down to understanding your target audience, how they think, what they need and what real problem your product and service provides the solution for – not just the one you think it’s providing a solution for.

How Do You Do That?

You talk to customers. And you listen! You enter conversations without preconceptions about what you expect to hear and you get to the bottom of what they really think and believe about your product, service and company.

Sometimes you may be surprised by why people hired or chose to buy from you – sometimes you may be surprised by why they didn’t.

Not long ago I learned that we lost a job because our proposal wasn’t pretty enough. And while that makes me roll my eyes a little bit, there is a point to be made that a marketing company should have a decent looking proposal.

Will I do a better job for that client because my proposal is prettier now? No, but that is my perception – not my customer’s.

And I didn’t learn that my osmosis. I learned it by asking.

So the next time you come up against a cranky customer, ask yourself if you could have explained your product, service or process better. I bet you’ll find ways to improve.

As for me, I know for a fact that whenever a customer of mine is disgruntled or disappointed, I’ve always found a hole to plug in the way I communicate expectations and come to an understanding with them.

Sometimes fixing the problem can be as simple as asking what someone’s understanding is, and ensuring that it matches yours.

If someone had said to my 7 year old self, “Why don’t you like the perfume?” instead of insisting I should be grateful for “the gift”, it might have saved my family a lot of raised eyebrows.

Have you ever had a misunderstanding that led to weirdness and confusion? Have you ever taken the opportunity to turn a misunderstanding into improving your business communications? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • This is a paraphrased quote (can’t remember the source) that I think is spot on:
    It’s not important what I say. It’s what you think after I stop speaking that’s important.
    Perception IS reality…the receiver’s perception. Cheers! KL

  • What Kaarina said. 🙂

    Sometimes I think peddling toilet water would be so much easier than marketing a service. (I’m just sayin’) And if I was selling toilet water, the label on the bottle would read “Adults Only. Gifting this product to children will cause them to run and hide in a closet.” 😉

    Great topic for today’s episode! As small biz owners, the less industry jargon we use with prospective clients, the better. As a veteran health care professional, one of the best lessons I learned was to always speak to patients in layman’s terms.

    • OH HEAVENS!! I think your gift wins. Your mom got you started early. I remember “the book” but I got it when I was 13 and it was sort of concealed as “science” but most of it was that. And how babies are made.

      • I was definitely an “early starter” and, believe me, it’s no fun having periods while mastering 5th grade. (By the way, I’m sure your male readers are going to love this conversation.) 😉
        I have four girls and I never gave them “the book”. They’re more the types who could write the book. No matter what info I shared with them, they seemed to always know more than me, anyway. LOL!

  • Krithika Rangarajan says:


    Clearly, Eau De Toilette is NOT for seven year olds! 😉 But this raises a few branding questions as well: why would anyone name their product that ‘sounds’ like ‘Use this Toilet’ 😀

    hehe – I am sure you made a ton of good points in this article, but I am still processing the horrified expression on the face of that seven year old 😉 hehe