Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Best Marketing Advice I Ever Got

My original plan was for Chowhound to be a site about "cheap eats". I had a chip on my shoulder about fine dining. People involved in that end of the spectrum condescended to other food genres*, and that pissed me off.

"But wait," said a friend who happened to be a brilliant marketer. "I've eaten with you at four star restaurants. You really like those places...so long as they're good!"

So long as they're good. Yes. The real distinction to be made wasn't price or ethnicity or locale. Neither snobbism or reverse-snobbism was the way to go. What matters is quality. Anything, so long as it's good. That's how I truly felt; my vision was not quite aligned with my own true feelings.

"Why exclude people who eat a certain sort of thing?", my friend asked. "You want all sorts of eaters sharing tips about all sorts of places, so long as they're good...right?" I couldn't argue. Her adjustment made my mind catch fire. She'd helped me see the full breadth of what I actually wanted. I'd constrained things unnecessarily.

Marketers always want you to make your product more broadly appealing. The broader the appeal, the larger your potential consumer base. So go ahead and compromise your core principles, dull those sharp edges, and dilute the concept until it's so neutered, toothless and blandly uncontroversial that it appeals strongly to no one in particular.

That's how you make most marketers happy, which is why so much of our landscape is so neutered, toothless, and bland. And it's also why visionary founders loathe marketers. Marketers are the natural adversary of the creative person. They are a scurge.

But what I learned that day was that these things are true only of sucky, hacky marketers. Their compulsion to neuter and dilute stems from sheer laziness. It's much easier to tailor a product to fit a marketing message than the other way around, and that's why sucky, hacky marketers are always trying to get their talons into the product. It's really that stupid. They're bad at their jobs.

My friend had a flair for marketing the unmarketable. She would simply find a way. "Keep doing exactly what you're doing," she'd enthusiastically tell her oddball, unclassifiable clients. "Let me find a way to make a broad range of people fall in love with it. Give me absolute control of the message, but the product itself is all yours!" If you were to dilute your product to pander to a greater market, she'd lose all respect for you. She'd probably quit working with you.

She might urge adjustments, but they'd be offered with the sensitivity of a dramaturge, deeply respecting the original vision. Chowhound had the potential to serve as a stupendously broad and inclusive service, but I'd failed to fully consider what I truly wanted to create. In broadening its scope, she was neither meddling nor diluting.

Only hacks try to meddle with your vision purely to suit their aims. Marketing doesn't require interference or compromise. Good marketers hold creative inspiration sacrosanct. They may urge you to expand chunks which are needlessly constricted - and nearly every vision is needlessly constricted in some way or other. But if they do it right, you'll like your product better. Chowhound turned out both broader and better thanks to this guidance. A neat trick!

How many marketers are this good? Damned few. They're nearly all hacks, so my aversion to marketers remains firmly in place. But that's okay. If you really understand what I've written above, you now know everything you need to know to market on your own - and you'll do so better than 90% of the professionals. If you're creative enough to have birthed an original vision, you're creative enough to find ways to market it....and, critically, to de-constrict it.

Accessibility does not require dilution or pandering. Nearly everyone gets this wrong. The world would be a lot better if this was more widely understood.

I can't count the number of people I've shared this advice with, and who've done very well with it: Dream free. Dream unfettered. Then remove unnecessary constriction; i.e. do everything you can to make the result as broadly attractive as possible without the slightest creative concession. Without, that is, dishonoring the integrity of your vision and all that makes it unique. Then convey the attraction to anyone who you imagine you can excite. That is all.

Unique things are tough to market. But marketers averse to hard tasks are hacks who don't deserve a moment of your time. Good marketing is hard and requires insight and creativity. But now that you understand how it works, you can do it yourself, as I ultimately did.

* - It's hard to believe today, with a much more open-minded view having taken hold, but mainstream writers in the 1980's and early 1990's would freely make ignorant pronouncements about how "ethnic" restaurants are a handy way to grab yourself a cheap stomach-busting fill-up if you're unable to afford serious cuisine. The fact that the cuisines anointed as "serious" perpetually re=shuffle should have tipped people to the snobbish absurdity of this view. Leading restaurant critics in the 1930s described Chinese cuisine as fit only for toddlers, given that it's all chopped up into tiny little bits.

"Ethnic" has always been a euphemism for grub from cultures which current tastemakers happen not to respect. Hey, rich people need to draw lines if they're to fully relish their sense of elevation. But then a funny thing happened: rich people discovered how great tacos and falafal are, and how left out they were, and it all came gloriously tumbling down.

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