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Truth In Marketing: On Glitter, Warts And The Importance Of Value

Truth In Marketing: On Glitter, Warts And The Importance Of Value

This is the story of a backpack.

But it’s really about honest marketing.

Come along and I’ll share it with you because then I won’t have to tell you how important it is to craft your marketing messages truthfully. You’ll see it for yourself.

What Does That Mean? Really?

I read a fascinating article in the newspaper not too long ago about the meaning of a “lifetime warranty”.

Stop and think for a second about what YOU understand a “lifetime warranty” to mean.

I’ll tell you what I thought.

I thought that it meant a product would last… well, forever. Or at least my forever, until I got rid of it or died and took it with me like an Egyptian Queen.

Did it sound too good to be true? Sure, I figured there would probably be a catch, but mostly I expected that the product would be replaced if something went wrong.

Enter the backpack.

In the story I read, a man was complaining that his backpack had begun to deteriorate after a few years of light, infrequent use, but when he called in his chips on the “lifetime warranty” he was informed of a very interesting fact.

The backpack was only protected under the warranty for *ITS* life.

In other words, when the backpack died, all bets were off.

As it turns out, every product comes with an actual lifespan – a birth and death date. The warranty is good during that lifespan. In the case of backpacks, that lifespan is a few years before the poor old dear starts to forget where it put its strap and then comes apart at the seams.

Did you know that? If you’ve done enough homework to understand the concept of a lifetime warranty then I applaud you!

It’s more than I ever thought to do, simply taking it for granted as a marketing gambit that probably existed solely because people like me have always been too lazy to return anything that broke.

That got me thinking about truth in marketing.

Now that I’ve had it explained to me, I completely understand the idea of the warranty. But it took an odd newspaper article before that happened. I’m pretty sure that manufacturers are well aware of our ignorance tendency to gloss over the details (and reams of fine print. I’m talking to you, Terms of Service agreements.)

I’m sure they’ve fielded more than a few calls from people who want a new backpack only to be surprised that they’re getting a funeral instead.

I suppose it makes a good selling point but at what cost? How happy do you think backpack-less guy was about that answer (hint: he wrote to a newspaper about it), or how inclined he was to do business with that company again?

Marketing At The Expense Of People

Marketing is no stranger to tilting and twisting the truth to suit its ends. We must be constantly vigilant.

Part of marketing is highlighting the features and benefits of our awesome products and services, and to do that we must skillfully craft our messages to make them compelling and attractive to our potential customers.

But sometimes we can be tempted to tack on a bit of glitter that won’t really hold up under the light.

And much like the technically true but vaguely deceptive “warranty”, another danger of marketing is conveniently ignoring the details that we don’t want people to think about.

Of course we’re not going to write a sales page that says, “Our product is awesome, except for this one little catch…”

And yet I think that’s exactly what we need to do. The alternative is uncovering the warts later, only to disappoint customers.

Here’s a perfect example of the flip side…

This week, I was looking for tools that would make my life easier and help me run my business more efficiently.

I checked out a lot of tools, mostly by creating a free trial and then tinkering around until I got a feel for what that tool could do.

In the process I learned a few things, namely that it takes a lot of Oreos to sustain a person through a software hunt, but also that it’s so important to look beyond the marketing of a product or service to the reality of that product or service.

As I was hunting down email software I found one that sounded fabulous. The sales page was perfect. The features were exactly what I wanted. The price was right. I was so excited that I put the Oreos down for the ten seconds it took to create my free trial.

And then I discovered a pretty significant truth: the way this software worked, it could end up counting a single email subscriber as more than one. It could, in fact, count that single subscriber as two, three, four… or more…

Now, considering that pricing is based on the number of subscribers, this suddenly didn’t sound like such a good deal anymore. In fact, as I started to add things up, I realized that this software would take my email list and essentially quadruple it – all without adding a single new subscriber.

Put that monthly payment in your pipe and smoke it.

In the end I quickly cancelled my trial. But more significantly, I went on to complain about it to every friend, colleague, client and business partner I have. It wasn’t so much the payment system as the fact that it took a trial, a bunch of tinkering and a customer service phone call to unearth the truth of the payment system. The disingenuous marketing – not the payment – was ultimately the deal breaker for me.

Time To Lose The Fine Print

If we’re dealing with big companies that we can’t escape (think: banks, cable providers, six-of-one phone companies) there’s not much we can do about glossy marketing covering up for poor products or services.

But if we’re dealing with a small business – especially when there is competition, usually a lot of it – then we don’t have to stick around and be aggravated or frustrated.

And neither do our customers.

Marketing is good. It gets our messages out, it gives us a chance to share our value with the world and connect with customers in a way that’s mutually beneficial – they get the thing they need and we get paid for providing it!

But marketing plus glitter is bad. And marketing minus warts is just as bad.

Small businesses don’t have the luxury of hoping their customers won’t notice those little things like quadruple costs. We don’t have the luxury of crossing our fingers and waiting for people to forget that we promised all sorts of amazing results/perks/features/services and then failed to deliver.

People are smarter than that. More importantly, they have options. Trust is hard to earn and almost impossible to earn back if the reality of our product or service doesn’t live up to its marketing.

So when it comes to your marketing, I dare you to go all-out-truth.

Don’t stick that teeny disclaimer at the very end of your 12-page-long proposal. Don’t jargon-up your contracts and rely on semantics to get out of delivering on a promise.

Don’t tout the amazing features of your super awesome never-before-seen umbrella but fail to mention that it doesn’t repel rain.

If you’ve got the goods, you can stand on your true value. You can tell people about the good and the bad and earn their trust, respect and loyalty far more effectively than if you simply douse them with carefully worded “messages”.

What do you think? Does this make you reconsider any of your marketing “promises”? Have you ever been pulled in by a perk that turned out to have all sorts of conditions attached? Tell me your story!

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Whenever there’s ANY “fine print” involved, my suspicions are immediately raised. My first question is always the same … “What are they trying to hide?” 🙁

    One thing that drives me nuts about warranties on physical products:
    Oftentimes the store/merchant has one kind of warranty while the manufacturer has another.

    A side note about backpacks …
    Buy JanSport!! You won’t believe how stellar this company is, Carol Lynn. All four of my daughters carried their products to school every year (Please don’t ask me how many backpacks I’ve purchased over the years — I’m likely to faint.) Anytime we had a zipper that failed or a strap that wouldn’t adjust properly … or whatever … they either repaired or replaced the backpack … without question … quickly … and at NO CHARGE.

    Wonderful message in this post! Hope you haven’t downed too many Oreos this week. LOL!

    • I actually like JanSport too, though I have a lot less need of backpacks than you did 🙂

      The worst part about the fine print is that it’s usually something barely understandable in some vague or legalese-y language that you can interpret any way you want depending on how expensive your lawyer is. Small businesses just don’t need that kind of nonsense.

      • “Small businesses just don’t need that kind of nonsense.” I agree!

        As far as contracts go, I realize everything needs to be stated clearly so all parties concerned know what to expect. But I also thinks it’s possible to keep them brief (You know, non-attorney like and written in language everyone can understand without having to consult an attorney!)

  • Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: always. Cheers! Kaarina

  • Okay, so I have a confession to make: I am a recovering attorney. Three years of my life (and a great deal of money) were dedicated to learning the art of writing and parsing the fine print. My skills were further refined when I went into practice. But the constant need to save-thy-client’s-arse-at-the-expense-of-someone-else’s was more than enough reason for me to leave the practice of law. Today, I try to avoid the legalese. But I still struggle with that balance between having a detailed enough proposal to ensure that we all understand the scope of the work and building in enough flexibility to accommodate the natural shifts in direction and priorities that accompany a project. I also struggle with the fact that my ability to keep my promises is dependent on my client’s ability to keep his promise and to meet deadlines. I’m not sure that there is an easy answer, aside from keeping the lines of communication wide open.

    • Wow, learn something new every day. I didn’t know you were an attorney. We went through the same angst over contracts. We had a long legal one for a while that only made it impossible to get it signed. Half the time the client asked me what it meant and I had no idea. We went back and forth between English and lawyerese but now we are into the plain English. At the end of the day, we are not building the next The purpose of our contracts is so everyone understands the expectations and limitations. After 15 years I have figured out (finally?) that there is no way to CYA completely. And it’s not about words on a page but communication. It’s not a simple thing but 10 pages of legal documents certainly doesn’t help to uncomplicate it.