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Honesty and your Voice of Customer messages—can you go too far?

Those who’ve read our book, The Death of Propaganda, will know that we’re staunch advocates of honesty in advertising. Specifically, we advocate a more direct delivery of the facts, albeit in a helpful way, when it comes to talking about a company’s own products or those of its competitors. But how far can that honesty thing go? Today I’ve been working ahead of most of the world (time zone-wise at least, in New Zealand, one of the first countries to officially see the light of each new day) on a solutions brochure for one our B2B clients. In line with the principles outlined in The Death of Propaganda, the client’s American marketing director has requested that the brochure be created using the style of a “customer advocate”. In other words, being seen to be actively aiding the reader, guiding and easing their decision-making process by providing valuable and factual information rather than using one superlative after another to describe the company’s own products.

I find myself dutifully lining up the decision criteria for the reader, explaining that the following list of bullet points comprises the most salient items to be considered when purchasing a solution of this particular type. Having created the list, my next lines of text, to be true to the overall mission of convincing the reader to choose my client’s solution over that of a competitor, need to affirm that yes, my client’s solutions do indeed perform extremely well on each of the listed criteria. No suprises there. And that’s my point: surely today’s savvy readers, knowing full well that they are reading Voice of Company marketing materials, realize that the list is tailored to the client’s own offering—and likely disfavors competitor offerings? And, given that they realize this, should I follow up the list with something like: “You will hardly be surprised to note that (client’s company) outperforms the market on every single criterion—after all, we wrote the list!”

That’s honesty—and it is likely, I believe, to be appreciated by some part of the brochure’s readership—but to go that far would be to go against an unwritten rule: people like to be sold to, as long as it is done in a way that they find appealing. By openly describing the tricks you are trying to use, you take away the pleasure felt by the reader as they quietly admire your selling skills. If I’m being a little obtuse with this explanation, try to remember whether you have ever been in an electronics store, buying the latest tech gadget, and found yourself being served by a pleasant, yet clever salesperson. You know you’re being sold to (and how!), but you can’t help admiring the professionalism of his or her approach, and you warm to the seller until you finally place your order in their hands.

Of course, going too far with exaggerated product claims hasn’t seemed to worry many corporate marketers, so perhaps it is, after all, OK to go over the top on honesty. You be the judge for your company.

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Jonathan Winch

I’m Jonathan Winch, partner at cylindr and BBN International and a B2B marketing enthusiast. I've participated as a strategic and creative resource in the marketing and communication sphere for over 25 years, making contributions to the strategies and communications of companies of all sizes, the best known of which include Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Danisco, GN ReSound, Hempel, Nokia Siemens Networks, LEGO, Coloplast, and Johnson & Johnson. My mission? To help B2B companies make the most of the value they create for the world. My hobby: Nutritional science, particularly sports nutrition.

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