Regardless of the nature of your business, your product or your service, it’s understandable that you would want to put your best foot forward when telling potential customers about what you do. This is something you should always be thinking about—how to put your story in the best light possible. Over the course of my career, however, I’ve met a person or two who interpreted this to mean that it was acceptable to spin up the features and benefits of a company or product beyond recognition.

Unfortunately for them, I’m convinced it’s relevance rather than “spin” that wins over customers.

Being creative or entertaining at the expense of being relevant isn’t a good long-term strategy. In fact, one of the most famous ad men of the last century, David Ogilvy[1], said, “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

In other words, your customers want to know how your product or service is going to make their lives easier, meet a current need, or solve a problem. The more relevant your marketing or sales messages are to that goal, the more success you’ll have reaching your audience, making sales and growing your business.

What Does it Really Mean to be Relevant?

This is something a lot of marketers and advertising professionals struggle with. Successful marketing is really more about motivating your customers to take action and less about entertaining. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with entertaining, but if it doesn’t motivate your target audience to take the next step down the customer journey (which could be learning more or even purchasing your product or service), it’s not doing its job.

Encouraging those who show an interest in your product or service to move along the customer journey requires relevance, and becoming more relevant requires that you ask yourself a few very important questions:

  1. Who am I talking to? In other words, who is my customer, what are they looking for, does my product or service fill a need they have?
  2. Where are they right now in the customer journey? Are they just getting to know me, are they familiar with what my company has to offer, have they done business with me before, are they ready to place an order? Depending on how you answer these questions, you’ll be able to determine the answer to the next question…
  3. How do I get them to move from where they are to the next step of the customer journey? If you don’t know the answer to the first two questions, it might be tempting to give everyone what I call a “Buy Now” message, but this could be a mistake. For example, if they are trying to solve a problem and are looking for information about potential solutions, they might be more interested in a relevant message that will help them learn more today, so they can make a purchase tomorrow. Unless you can convince them today that what you have to offer will help fill their need, they’ll never accept a “Buy Now” message. That’s relevance.

Additionally, if your product or service doesn’t help them meet their need, then marketing messages that avoid relevance for creativity or hyperbole may be able to convince them to purchase today but won’t likely help you build long-term (and profitable) relationships with your customers down the road. Look at it this way: your brand is not what you say about yourself, your logo, or the colors you use. It’s your values and how you act on those values at every point of contact. If your product doesn’t do what you say it does or fill the needs you claim it does, it won’t take long for your customers to discover the truth—regardless of what you say in your marketing materials.

Relevance requires that you tell your customers what you do and that you are willing to acknowledge what you don’t do.

Why is Being Relevant More Important than Being Creative?

Another great question—and not meant to imply that creativity is unimportant. Nevertheless, relevance should be at the top.

More than ever before, your customers have access to more information about the types of products you offer. It doesn’t matter if you sell automobiles, books, machinery or dry cleaning services. Researching to discover what they want is relatively straightforward, and your potential customers can learn about your company specifically by looking you up on review sites where your current customers are likely telling the world about their experiences doing business with you.

If you aren’t relevant, the customers you’ve disappointed have a forum where they can share their disappointment with everyone who takes the time to read what they have to say. Even if they haven’t seen Seth Godin’s book, All Marketers are Liars, they believe they are. What’s more, your potential customers are making snap judgments about you, your products, and your company by how relevant you are to their needs.

Godin argues that customers make snap judgments because there are so many options available today; they have to narrow the field to determine what might be the best for them. If your products or services and your marketing messages reflect that you are offering something relevant to your customer’s needs, you’ll improve the odds of surviving the snap decisions and increase your ability to win their business.

“The wrong advertising [or marketing messages] can actually reduce the sales of a product,” writes Ogilvy.[2] “I am told that George Hay Brown, at one time head of marketing research at Ford, inserted advertisements in every other copy of the Reader’s Digest. At the end of the year, the people who had not been exposed to the advertising had bought more Fords than those who had.”

The key to small business marketing success is not focusing on creativity, but on being relevant to your customer, their needs, and how your product or service will meet those needs.

[1] Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy, First Vintage Books, 1985, page 7

[2] Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy, First Vintage Books, 1985, page 9v