Sell Your Audience, Not Your Product

Ads that relate to the lives of your potential customers will always trump more generalized pitches. Just look at Nike

Here's a tough question: Why would you expect people to be interested in what your advertising says just because you are?

A while back I heard a radio commercial advertising an automotive summer maintenance check. The ad talked about all of the things a particular service center could do to get my car ready for the summer. But as far as I knew, my car needed none of those things. Like most people, I tend to not think about maintenance for my car until it's broken. Car problems aren't car problems until they become car problems. This ad was offering to solve a problem nobody knows they have.

When an ad is about your company, you're essentially asking consumers to actively pay attention, process what you're telling them, and compare it to their current reality to see if it fits. On occasion you may hit someone who's in the purchase-decision mode and tell them exactly what they need to hear, but most of the time your ad will fall on deaf ears.


By contrast, if you begin with the target audience and understand what's on their minds and where they're coming from, you're much more likely to capture their attention. You'll get credit for understanding them, and they'll give you a chance to make a point that they can grasp. The key is to start from the customer's perspective, not the company's.

How does it work? The standard-bearer for this type of approach is Nike (NKE). Most people can't honestly say that Nike really makes a better shoe than its competitors. Is its cushioning more resilient? Its arch support stronger? Its durability longer?

I have no idea, and I'll bet you don't either. Yet Nike holds a commanding lead in its industry because nearly 20 years ago it perfected a customer-centric kind of advertising -- one that focused not on a product but on an idea. Nike signed Michael Jordan in 1984, introduced its "Just Do It" campaign in 1988, and has been chased by its competitors ever since. And in its TV advertising, it never sell the shoes.


Nike's approach has become a benchmark in the world of advertising and its a tagline a mantra in the culture at large. The reason is simple: "Just Do It" is a concept virtually anyone can relate to, from the couch potato for whom "just doing it" means taking a walk, to the elite athlete for whom it means competing in an ultramarathon.

It's not the slogan itself that's important, it's the universal idea that the slogan articulates (see BW Online, 1/14/05, "What's in a Phrase"). Nike's phrase indicates an attitude of mind and spirit that inspires the athlete within and calls us to take just a single next step. Everybody can do that (especially if the next step is to go out and buy a new pair of Nikes).

In one notable Nike commercial Spike Lee famously said, "It must be the shoes!" But he knew it wasn't about the shoes at all. It was about the idea that Nike was selling -- an idea that people were buying, again and again. The secret to Nike's advertising success has always been to make its commercials about us, not about it. And that's an idea any company can leverage.


How might the automotive repair shop have applied this lesson? Well, any number of ideas are related to cars and summer driving that are common to us all, from sweltering seats to inefficient air conditioners to tailgaters.

The first thing this company should have done is tap into the universal experience of driving a car. It should have spent its efforts relating to its target audience in a way that would make us want to listen. Then we would think of it not only as the expert but as a company we can relate to. When the inevitable car problem does arise, a company like that will get our business.

Are you trying to sell something? Quit selling and start relating. You'll find that people are more open to your message and more apt to develop affection for your company. Which is the first step toward long-term loyalty.