Can sensitive marketing be successful?

I have rarely received so many email sales messages about Father’s Day. Perversely this is because traders have taken it upon themselves to check if I am going to be triggered by messages about Father’s Day.

It many ways this is admirable. In a year when so many have experienced the unexpected death of elderly relatives it is advisable to tread lightly. Naturally that’s complicated somewhat by asking the question in the first instance. Would it have been better perhaps to just avoid the F word in your seasonal marketing plan, rather than ask whether we mind you mentioning something which involves you mentioning it?

I suspect that asking once is better than then sending out repetitive emails on the subject. I didn’t read any of them deeply enough to know if it would prevent companies ever mentioning it again or if they’ll have forgotten about it by next year. That’s a whole separate issue. My concern is whether people recognise that a brand has put in the effort to avoid offending them, whether it enhances their brand reputation.

Our attention is assailed by thousands of marketing and other messages every day, it’s unlikely that we will recall that nice company who tried to protect our feelings – but some might. We should recognise that doing the right thing is a great sign of integrity, a demonstration that you know the correct ‘behaviour’ even if it may hurt your bottom line.


Sensitive Marketing and Father's Day
Don't mention the D word. Images by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash.

I did not leave any lists this time around, I appreciated the effort if not the execution. My father has been dead for over a decade and I take this opportunity to reflect how difficult he was to buy for – that cliché that exists around older men. Likelihood is that I didn’t try hard enough and also that there are now many more options. Being a dad myself, I have a self-interest in the ‘offers’ being touted. I want to see if something appeals to me, for me. It’s all self, self, self.

I also take a perverted humourist’s view of the products that are punted at ‘older’ men: Beer and beards, shaving, shoes, sunglasses and saki mugs (?), Alcohol and audio products (high-end, naturally). Of course, some of my messages are driven by my browsing and purchasing habits, which always begs the question: ‘if they know so much about me, can they perhaps anticipate my sensitivities?’

It’s been a tough year for advertisers, for brands and marketeers. Crushed by the demise of high street retail, harried by a crisis of consumer confidence sparked by Covid. Sometimes you have to go back to basics. If you want to show your sensitive side about cultural or personal issues check with the source. Ask people who know, do the research, talk to the communities. It’s always been about knowing your audience; nothing ever changes on that front.

Influence, and when to exert it

The recent arguments about ‘cronyism’ within the UK Government have piqued my interest, causing me to consider how mine and many other businesses operate and interact with the wider world.

At its most basic there are allegations that leading businessmen and former politicians were able to exert undue influence and have a direct line to policy makers and influencers. In some cases, I would reflect that this was the entire purpose of their role or employment, it’s why and how they got the job.

At most stages of business, you are interested in having influence; a belief that when you call or write it will be noticed and responded to. Many of us are engaged as much for who we know as what we know, and ideally a combination of the two. As business consultants or for marketing and events, people talk to us because of our experience but also in the belief that we can do the job better or quicker than others. Some of this is down to knowing who to call upon; having built relationships over periods and projects we will know who can do the best job and that when we call, they’ll answer.

Of course, it is different when this applies to potential misuse or misappropriation of public funds, but there are definitely times when the ability to influence or have input on the decisions of Parliament is extremely useful. Certain industry bodies like the recently established Live, the Music Venues Trust or the Night Time Industries Association exist primarily to give a greater voice to the individuals and businesses they represent, whether in the media or in consultation with government departments. I should add that paying for influence via party donations is something entirely different and that the work of these organisations, often without fanfare, is utterly laudable.

Questions over a level-playing-field are relevant, business can be a contact sport and its rarely fair. I know well that should we pitch for an opportunity and one of the other companies competing has a pre-existing relationship (personal or professional) with the decision makers, we’re far less likely to be chosen.

In certain procurement situations there are well-established regulations and safeguards which should always be observed but, in most cases, as the UK Government is proving, the boundaries are a bit blurred, and interpretations can be open to question. I consequently began to wonder if, and when, I may have unduly exercised influence for personal gain and whether I should be proud or embarrassed by it.

The truth is that the bulk of us work in businesses where relationships are crucial, they’re the very foundation of what we do. We may try to pretend otherwise but we all get by with a little (and often, a lot) of help from our friends. We have only survived lockdown and the absence of events, by diversifying and helping our friends in associated businesses.

Some of us graft for a while to gain an advantage, to become influential. We all want to believe in a meritocracy, even though we know it’s been disproven. All we can do is ensure that our behaviour is ethical, that we act fairly and bring others along with us rather than pulling the ladder up as we scale it. Knowing and acknowledging your privileges is a great starting point. In business as in life, use your influence wisely.

When to advertise

Pester power and attention share

In 2017 I made a Christmas list. I’m too old to be writing to Santa, so this was slightly different – it was a list of all the commercial entities who thought it appropriate to send a sales e-mail on Christmas Day.

There were 23 companies in all, including two who emailed twice. I made a point of unsubscribing from each of their mailing lists. I doubt that it damaged their profits greatly, but it made me feel better. It annoyed me that they couldn’t just take a day off.

I had no doubt that each of their marketing directors would’ve found justification for the decision to hit up the database on the one day that almost everyone agrees is sacrosanct. They’d have looked at last year’s figures and mapped out the efficacy of the messaging and the timing, they’d have said it was effective and proved that it’s all they care about. I don’t know what advertising means to you generally, but I’d hope you have more pride in your brand than that.

Times move on and I saw fit to repeat the exercise in 2020. This time around, perhaps due to more conscious mailing list management (on my part), there were 11 offenders including a double hit from Netflix. Amusingly there were also some repeat offenders whose lists I’d clearly strayed back onto, unless they were in breach of GDPR protocols. I’m sure Ebay, First Choice & Secret Escapes will argue otherwise.

What disappointed me this time was the banality of the messaging. I’d have hoped that if you were going to bother me on the one day that everyone in the UK accepts as a national holiday, you’d at least make it worth my while. Sadly, it was the same old, same old. A sale or a discount or similar. It’s almost like they’re only interested in me for my money.

Obviously, some brands never take a break. Commerce knows no bounds in the 24-hour economy. There is clearly a temptation to think that the shop is always open and the consumer always available. If your interest is only in profit or being front of mind this may be an acceptable way to behave. I might be over-sensitive about commercial intrusion, there are undoubtedly thousands of people who don’t care about such things. To me it’s a question of how you wish your brand to be seen, what you want it to represent. If that’s naked profiteering and disdain for social norms, then so be it.

More than anything though, I want to believe that you’ve given it some thought. I don’t want to think that the primary motivation was that you’ve got some shit to sell and there’s a potential to grab attention on a day when people are relaxing. Are advertisers at risk of treating Christmas just like an average Sunday, a time when you know people are online and you can overwhelm them with commercial messaging?

Is everything fair game and nothing off-limits? I always ask clients to think about their ideal consumer and how they get in their heads, how they want to be spoken to, what they want to hear. It is important also to know when they want to hear from you and how often. Too many marketing people ignore this and simply rely on repetition. In these times of greater personalisation, it’s simply not good enough. You must try harder and be smarter, otherwise how do you stand out from the crowd?

Chris Hadfield 2018

For the third year running we are delighted to be assisting Unique Lives & Entertainment in the promotion of Chris Hadfield's UK tour. The ever-popular astronaut will be appearing in Southampton, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast next February. Full info is here.

Chris Hadfield at Symphony Hall
Howard Szigeti, Unique Lives; Paul Flower, Profound Media; Chris Hadfield; Chris Proctor, Symphony Hall