Why Self-Reliance Must Guide Marketing Strategy

Magnus and I lived in Southern California for 10 years. Now a D.C. area resident, I pine for that moderate coastal climate as the oppressively humid summers start to take hold.

My “California Dreaming” became a reality this week, when I joined my husband for a quick getaway. Since I can work from any location, I bring my laptop, hunt for good WiFi, and get down to business adroitly.

While the freedom to walk miles of natural coastline draw me back to San Diego each year, the lack of freedom in public areas mars that image. I find the authoritative tone of these signs oppressive and insulting (and I saw them in most public gathering places).  Take for example the Café Zinc restroom sign in Solana Beach:

Hand washing for dummies

Hand washing for dummies

This brings me to an important point for every marketing leader to ponder. Your customers are typically sane, fully grown adults. Most of them grew up with some parental influence. Many of them probably shower daily, and wash their hands after using a restroom. Some even exhibit common sense behaviors. They can see through veiled attempts to control or manipulate. Why insult them with remedial, “Read along with Rex” marketing content?

Here are examples of scary, childish communications protocols:

  • Conference organizers who tout themselves as “educational forums for executives” who will only allow paid sponsors to speak during the event.
  • “Automated” customer service systems that force you to repeat your account information after you have reached a live person.
  • Artificial deadlines to register for a specific event.
  • Laborious customer satisfaction surveys that require you to answer dozens of questions.
  • Service associates who beg you to give them perfect scores after your car has been repaired.

Two marketing strategies can help foster self-reliance and resourcefulness:

  1. Create programs and online campaigns where prospects are emotionally invested in what you do. When I recently attended a book signing featuring Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, he waxed poetic on the merits of personal responsibility. He believed that in any company, the first 50 people are founders. He continued by saying “opportunity is not defined as a set of circumstances that allow things to happen…you have to take it one step back. You need to be the architect of those circumstances.”

I couldn’t agree more. In my CMO communities, leaders who pursue opportunities based on prestige and pay burn out quickly. Those who thrive on innovation and experimentation, and are willing to invest sweat equity to guide results, seem the most elated with the outcome.

  1. Encourage self-discovery with your marketing teams and customers. Give them the freedom to choose how they want to buy and interact with your company. Resist the temptation to cut costs and replace your receptionist with an automated phone system. Resist the temptation to spell out exactly how they should use your product or service (unless misuse puts them, or others, in harm’s way).

 WD-40 convenes over 200,000 loyal customers through their “My WD40” online community. (You can listen to my conversation with CEO Garry Ridge here.) Prospects and customers will find ways to self-organize and create smaller affinity groups without parental supervision. Give them that opportunity.

Stone exhibited these qualities at an early age. While a high school student, he needed to juggle a job with lacrosse (a team he founded) with a full workload. He took his teacher’s orders seriously, and tried to complete every homework assignment. This led him to the brink of physical burnout, sometimes completing homework at 4 am. “I realized that I needed a new way to survive high school. I instituted a ‘no homework policy.’” Stone approached every teacher and told them about his new policy, and promised to pay attention in class. His grades barely suffered. “The key to my surviving high school was talking to them about it in advance, so they didn’t think I was just ignoring the homework.”

It’s time to wash our hands of coddling customers and teams. Perhaps the State of California’s Department of Health could learn a few lessons from WD-40 and Biz Stone.



Copyright 2014, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.


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