What dating etiquette can teach marketers

A couple are out having drinks and the woman looks irritated that her partner is on his mobile phone and not paying her any attention.

Like most people, I’ve had a lot of bad first dates in my life. In fact, my single life was full of cringeworthy first dates that could charitably be described as good story fodder. Luckily, as a marketing strategist, I love a good story, and it’s recently occurred to me that, while these dates were each bad in their own unique ways, they actually had a lot in common with bad marketing strategies.

Most of my bad first dates were with nice people who made one of two seemingly opposite-yet-related errors. And these are the same errors I see a lot of businesses make in their marketing strategies.

It’s all about me.

Ah, the self-absorbed narcissist. We’ve all been there, right? That unbearable first date where the other person can’t (or won’t) stop talking about themselves, droning on endlessly about their interests and ambitions. Rarely do they pause long enough for you to get a word in edgewise. Inevitably, they come away from the date knowing nothing about you—and caring even less.

We marketers see this all the time: businesses that are only interested in talking about their own brands, products and services. It’s a stubborn “build it and they will come” mentality often found in product-related companies that are so convinced they’re setting a trend, they see no need to collect market data or understand what their audience is telling them.

If you talk but don’t listen, the traps are obvious. You may end up as a solution in search of a problem. You may get blindsided by changes in market behaviour. We see this among businesses across many industries that have failed to adapt to changing market tastes and styles.

Knowing your audience starts the same way as being interested in your date: by listening to them. Use social listening tools to understand what people are saying about you. Dig into studies and surveys and focus group results, track user behaviour on websites and platforms, and read your reviews. In particular, use research tools to understand the key differences between different local markets and audiences; what works in one country or state or neighbourhood may not work in another.

Then use that data to understand, segment and engage your audience to achieve loyalty and growth. Be a good date by listening to your audience, showing empathy and openness, and picking up those unspoken, nonverbal cues. After all, data without insight is merely noise.

Actually, it’s all about you.

The polar opposite is the insecure blank slate. The problem with this type of date is not as obvious at first glance, sure, but they’re just as bad as the narcissist—and, in some cases, even worse—because they can fool you into believing they are caring and sensitive. In reality, they have no idea who they are. They define themselves by mirroring you.

In marketing, the equivalent is the business with solid audience research but zero positioning or brand strategy. That is, they know who you are, but they have no idea who they are. Brands like this approach our team for audience insights or personas, but often fail to pair it with the necessary brand strategy, competitive positioning or definition of what they stand for as a company. These brands often fall into the common trap of spinning on a dime whichever way the wind is blowing. Without a solid positioning strategy, they struggle to stand on their own two feet, and they often find themselves chasing, rather than setting, trends.

if you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing to nobody.

Crafting a solid positioning strategy involves pairing market and competitive insights with a detailed understanding of what a company is at its core—not merely the products and services it offers, but what it stands for deep down.

What are your fundamental values and beliefs? Companies need to answer this question in much the same way humans do. Brands, like people, need a strong sense of self to avoid being turned upside down by every passing trend. Positioning strategies help brands understand which opportunities fit their business and which audience segments to pursue. After all, nobody can build a relationship with a blank slate.

Striking the right balance

Good marketing strategy is like a good date. It involves talking and listening, give and take, and that magical way that you just “click” with another person.

I can’t promise you’ll meet the perfect date. But if you find the right balance of knowing your audience and knowing yourself—and then deliver the right message to the right people in the right channels at the right time—then you do have an excellent chance of marketing success.

Note: This article originally was written for, and is cross-posted from, AdAge, July 2019.