The Golden Rule—treating others like you want to be treated—seems to be an ingrained, universal principle we strive to apply in our daily lives. When it comes to marketing, however, this self-determined standard may not be as helpful when trying to address customer needs. We need a rule to upgrade. Instead of the Golden Rule, how about the Platinum Rule?
I learned about the Platinum Rule during a parents’ meeting at my children’s school, where the teachers discussed how they approached collaboration and community among the students. They explained that they no longer use the Golden Rule but rather use the Platinum rule: Treat another like that person wants to be treated, not how YOU want to be treated. That’s because everyone is different, and they can see or interpret things differently and may want different things. Simply, the Platinum Rule is about considering things from others’ points of view before taking action. The Platinum Rule invites inquiry and curiosity to understand what others want and helps avoid imposing one’s views and judgment on others, which can be a source of misunderstanding and conflict.
Hearing about the Platinum Rule resonated with my work as a marketing strategist. As I work with clients on challenges delivering customer value and sustainable growth in turbulent times, I frequently see that the organization, leaders, and marketing teams are moving too fast to make sure what they do is relevant to customers. We may be customer-centric, but our heuristics, filters, and behaviors rely heavily on a mix of rushed analysis and gut and an unreflective consideration of customers beneath the surface. In most cases, we are not our customers. So, when we rely on ourselves—our worldview, experiences, preferences, and habits—as proxies for our customers, it risks missing the mark. Projecting ourselves is a dangerous way to imagine what customers want, might think, and do due to our marketing work. The Golden Rule is not a good rule of thumb for being an effective marketer.
There are countless times I have seen the perils of the Golden Rule in marketing, from lackluster new product ideas to poorly received messages and materials to utter launch failures. I distinctly remember a situation with a senior executive who led the division I worked for. After months of research and development, my team and I had just introduced a bold advertising campaign and were riding high. Our excitement was soon blunted as I was called into the office of this very senior executive who was upset with the new campaign and wanted me to pull it urgently from the market. He didn’t like the advertising idea or the animated execution. While our legal and regulatory groups had approved it, he didn’t find it relatable and thought it was offensive in its visualization and tone. He proceeded to prescribe how to fix the campaign, right down to the creative idea and copy. Now, it didn’t seem to matter that he was a healthy, 40-something male commenting on a product campaign targeted at 50-65-year-old females facing a devastating, intimate medical issue or that the campaign performed overwhelmingly positive across a range of evaluation methods with the target audience. He was following the Golden Rule, projecting his views, wants, preferences, and tastes onto customers that were very different from him.
I have seen time and again: that problems with marketing performance most often have to do with issues with the Golden Rule. So how can marketers apply the Platinum Rule instead?
Be deliberate in working from the stance of the customer. Assume that your point of view, wants, and preferences are not the norm and are not reflective of the customer. Assign a “devil’s advocate” during meetings to help challenge customer relevance and identify team biases. Find ways to put yourself in customers’ shoes, similar to what is done in the TV show “Undercover Boss” (where top leaders become regular employees to see what it’s like working for them). Read or use things that are different from what you usually do. Go to stores or places that your customers go that you might not typically go. Set aside time to identify your views, assumptions, filters, and preferences, and notice when and where customers are different. Working from the customer’s perspective requires imagination…imagined from another’s world.
Favor ethnography practices over 3rd person analysis. It’s important to approach learning about your customer as an ethnographic endeavor. Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures (aka “customers”). It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher (“marketer”) observes society (“customers”) from the point of view of the subject of the study. Be sure to include a vast range of information about your customer. Quantitative data are important, but qualitative information helps us take a first-person stance and helps tap into the “why” behind what customers do and believe. It requires careful interpretation and integration of data to craft a holistic view. Be curious, contrarian, and creative in how you learn about your customer.
Champion the customer across critical, corporate moments. As marketers, our role in the company is to be the champion of the customer and teacher of the customer as we steward strategy and plans across teams and functions company-wide. In the example I described earlier, I pushed back on the senior leader’s request, sharing what we learned about the customer and saying he wasn’t the target audience. I explained how the bold approach helped these women face an embarrassing situation with more ease and how, repeatedly, we saw that the execution wasn’t offensive but empowering. After some back and forth, he reluctantly allowed the campaign to continue, but I did suffer some early political fallout from my managers up the line. However, in the following months, as we saw sales uptake exceeding forecast, unsolicited calls coming in from customers, and the marketing team winning external awards, this leader came back to me to acknowledge the situation and to thank me for holding firm on behalf of the customer. Expect dissonance, though, along the way.
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Michele is a strategic thinking geek and is curious about how this thinking, creativity, and ongoing change intersect with our sense of meaning and purpose in our work and our lives. She runs lime LLC, a boutique marketing strategy and capabilities consultancy that helps companies make sure the right thinking, tools, and conversations are in place to drive sustainable profit and growth. Michele is also co-founder of The Collective, a group of innovative commercial capability experts leading an insurgency in how capability programs are done across marketing, sales, and account management.