Daily Lab: Hard times, hard sell

How to stand out when styles shift

Daily Lab: Hard times, hard sell

Short summary:

  • Advertising flips between soft selling and hard selling every few years
  • Hard sales techniques get more popular when times are tough
  • But that doesn’t mean you have to follow the prevailing trend, or that you even should

The prevailing style of advertising has cycled every few years since the late 1800s.

From clever and emotional “image” ads (what we’d call “branding” these days) to harder sell “claim” ads (marketing a specific product or feature), it flips back and forth with some amount of predictability.

And it’s not really a mystery why it changes.

For one, people just get tired of the prevailing style, as with any media. It’s not that superhero movies have gotten worse over the years, it’s that they’ve stayed the same—and people got bored of them.

The same with advertising—it’s not that people necessarily dislike jingles, or jokes, or celebrities, it’s that they get sick of them when every ad has one (or tries to).

The second reason is practical, and it’s why I expect advertising to get a lot more direct.

As Stephen Fox wrote in his history of the advertising industry, Mirror Makers, during the Great Depression, “clients pressured their agencies for rebates and special deals, and expected more effective ads for less money. Expensive artists gave way to cheaper photographers. The ghost of Claude Hopkins rose up: louder headlines and specific, harder-selling reason-why copy returned to favor.”

Or, to sum it up, “Hard times meant a hard sell.”

So, if we can expect others’ ads to be a harder sell, more direct, and more forceful, what can we do to stand out?

Remember: sales is demonstrating value in the moment. Which, in hard times, often means discounts.

But marketing is demonstrating value at a distance. Which, in hard times, means finding more of the right people, at greater and greater distances.

So, here’s the question: How do you deliver your value in the moment, with your very best customers?

And how could you demonstrate that value, at a distance in space or time, to your very best prospects?

It’s probably not by cutting rates or cutting unsustainable deals.

Because you don’t need a hard sell when you know your true value.

You just need to demonstrate it.

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