How Much Truth Should You Hide from Your Customers?

I’m about to say something that may shock and scandalise you:

Some people don’t like marketers.

Some people think that if a business is out to sell, they’re out to deceive. They’re out to mislead, misrepresent, and fool some poor sucker into handing over their money.

Now here’s something that probably won’t shock you:

Some people are right. (Some of the time.)

Lying by omission

If you’ve ever tried to lose some weight, you’ll know how confusing the supermarkets can be.

‘1% Fat!’ screams the label on the yoghurt. But when you read the back, it’s 40% sugar.

‘Now Sugar-Free!’ says your favourite packet of biscuits. But it’s packed to the brim with artificial sweeteners.

‘Made with 100% Whole Grain!’ says the salty snack with the happy sun logo. But every crunchy bite has been deep-fried in oil.

We all know the basics of marketing a product: you focus on the positives, and try not to dwell on the negatives.

But when you know that your target audience has a specific set of conditions in mind (like eating food that won’t put them in the emergency room), you’re being disingenuous if you wilfully hide the parts they need to know.

Healthy food is an easy example. But the same logic applies to just about any product or service where you know what your customers are looking for.

You might be selling software aimed at people on a budget – knowing full well that the features they really want are locked behind pricey add-ons and upgrades.

You could be selling plane tickets for £20 a pop – but you don’t mention the part where you charge £50 to carry a suitcase.

It’s always a good idea to put your best foot forward when you’re marketing a product. But devious tactics don’t go unnoticed for long.

These days, shoppers are happy to stand at the shelves reading nutritional labels. They spend hours scouring online reviews before they buy a new piece of software.

Every single person who’s been burned on an airline luggage charge will remember it for the rest of their lives. And when they find another company that’s willing to lay out their prices clearly, those customers won’t be bothering your business with their money ever again.

Dressing up your ethics

Big businesses are trying hard to look human. They’re focusing on sustainability, local communities, and giving the right pay to the right people in the right working conditions.

They call it ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. But that’s just another complex piece of jargon for something that’s really a simple idea:

It’s about being the good guys. And of all the trends in marketing we’ve seen over the last decade, it’s the one we should all be happy to stand behind.

But there’s a serious danger here:

As consumers, we’re used to a little exaggeration. We know that marketers need to sell the sizzle, not the steak. So when we hear a company prattle on about its ‘revolutionary approach’ or its ‘ground-breaking innovation’, we’re usually happy to overlook a few inflated claims.

Just don’t think you’ll get away with puffing up your ethical achievements. Because the people won’t stand for it.

We’ve seen car companies launch campaigns promoting their low emissions – and later admitting that the results of the tests were compromised.

Every month, there’s a new accusation of ‘greenwashing’ – from fashion companies to fast food chains.

These businesses might be starting new initiatives with the best intentions. They might simply be making a few mistakes on their path to a more ethical way of working.

But no matter what their initial intentions were, one thing is clear:

If you use your new ethical practices as a promotional tool, you’re inviting a brutal level of scrutiny.

So if you think social responsibility is an important part of your marketing message, make sure it’s watertight. Make sure it’s defensible, and make sure you can justify every claim you’re making.

Implying a USP

Have you ever wondered why so many toothpaste brands come with the backing of so many medical professionals?

They’re always recommended by nine out of ten dentists.

And on the face of it, that sounds impressive. If 90% of experts are endorsing a certain brand, that brand must be a solid choice for the consumer.

But here’s the reality:

Those dentists aren’t just recommending the brand you’re holding in your hand. They’re recommending loads of them at once.

A few years back, one famous toothpaste brand came under heavy scrutiny for claiming that 80% of dentists recommended their product.

And technically, the claim was true. But it wasn’t quite the USP they were implying. The dentists in the survey were allowed to name more than one brand – and one direct competitor was named almost as much as the brand that made the advert.

It’s a bit like that famous scene in the TV series, ‘Mad Men’. When the ad agency was struggling with a concept for their new cigarette ad, they chose to highlight a feature of the product that hadn’t received any attention before:

“It’s toasted.”

What they didn’t tell their customers was that every other cigarette brand also used toasted tobacco in their products. No other brand had ever used that feature as a selling point – and that’s what helped the ad agency to set their client apart from the others.

It’s a scene that’s almost universally praised as an ingenious marketing ploy.

But when you really think about it, it’s pure deception.

They’re not showing off a distinctive feature of the product. They’re not letting their customers know how their product is better than the others.

They’re creating the illusion of a unique benefit. It’s an act of trickery – and it doesn’t give their consumers the respect they deserve.

Ready to sell without losing sleep?

We’re all tempted by shortcuts. We’re tempted by fast results, and we’re sometimes desperate to get a competitive edge.

But consumers are sharper than ever. They’re more perceptive and critical than ever. And if the current climate is anything to go by, they move quickly to outrage – and they’re happy to blacklist any company that thinks they can misrepresent themselves.

So if you’re looking to build a brand based on sincerity and respect, good for you.

Let’s get you some straight-talking copy to help you on your way.