Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to have some substantive discussions with very smart people around the topics of energy and money. In these talks, we’ve debated about what people want or need, or what drives their decisions. Fair themes in the marketing world in which we live.
To be honest, it’s relatively easy to identify a core set of attributes to emphasize when developing a product or marketing communication because consumers have told us what they want and what’s important. Right? But there is a dirty little secret about this. It’s mostly BS. The problem we as energy or financial marketers face when divining what’s important is that energy and money are both areas in which most people are vastly uninformed. When pressed, they know little about these topics. It’s only made worse by the constant barrage from “experts” who spout reams of wisdom and expertise, and companies from which they purchase (utilities, banks, investment firms) that seem to hold all the cards. We as individuals feel very uncomfortable discussing these topics with anyone, which makes us feel small in an enormous world of experts and corporations. We feel like we have little power or influence.
Social scientists have studied this phenomenon, coining the phrase “social power.” Social power exists in any society where one group has some leverage over another, and it provides some advantage or benefit. Every social system has power inequalities, and they’ve been in existence throughout the history of humanity. But the ways this difference manifests have changed over time. Historically, this "power" was more in the form of physical, political or economic strength. As society has progressed, it is more about ideological conformance, emotional congruence or social acceptance. You’re in or you're out. You have, or you have not. You’re with me or against me. Sound trivial? Look at the protests against Wall Street. The searing anger toward politicians. The community uprisings around local energy. It’s very real, and for marketers in these areas of energy and money, social power plays a significant and unavoidable role.
Brands must carefully navigate this social landscape. How are consumers reacting to this disparity of power? Are they feeling empowered or controlled? Liberated or oppressed? Respected or demeaned? Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can just ask, as nobody will tell you they feel oppressed or controlled. But it becomes very apparent in the stories they tell about their lives, the physical cues of resignation they display or even the choices they make in their day-to-day lives. Across my work, I continue to see a strong influence on the degree of acceptance or support of a brand based on how included or accepted people feel. Said another way, that they receive the respect they feel they deserve.
It’s about trust. When your brand is in a position of strong social power, you have some form of leverage over the people you serve and it is entirely natural for your constituency not to trust you. Why does this matter? It matters because you can’t overcome this lack of trust with many of the typical marketing tools at your disposal. A clever slogan, killer direct mail campaign or viral meme will make no difference. You have to think very differently about the job you have to do. Your work is to build trust, over time, and that comes through a continuous series of small actions and stories. So you can effectively market in environments with a large disparity of social power, it’s just done a little differently.
- Know who you are and why you exist (your brand essence)
- Start telling stories and having conversations about why you exist
- Show, don’t tell. Live your brand through action and story.
Content, content and more content. You have to provide opportunities for your diverse audience to connect with you but on their terms. As Gary Vaynerchuk espouses, “Offer value, offer value, offer value…then ask for the business.”
And lastly, you must be persistent. It's a long journey with ups and downs. Keep showing your true intent (assuming it’s not just to separate your customers from their money), and over time your audience will grow to love you. They’ll become your greatest advocates and be far more effective than any traditional marketing tool.