Rule 1 of All Marketing

Customers are interested in themselves, not your products and certainly not your company.

Your customers and prospects are not interested you or your company. They are not even interested in your product. They are only interested in solving their current particular problem as they perceive it.

The 'problem' may be unarticulated, so your product is only a potential / fuzzy match for their currently perceived needs in regard to a general movement towards their desires and away from their fears.

A stock photo of a tiger roaring with explosive flames behind it

KnowledgePower ad creative for cat food brand

This rule is also reflected in the more specific marketing advice:

  1. "Sell the hole, not the drill" (which is a proverb that can be well argued against - maybe, "sell the ease of success of the job that includes the holes, not the drill" - but that doesn't quite roll off the tongue...)
  2. Benefits before features (good write-up with examples here)
  3. Talk to the customer "you, your" - or if possible avoid the sense that your voice is there at all. This has been stated by Eben Pagan as [I paraphase] "make your website like a mirror for the customer". Avoid corporate "we, us, our".

In a web context, an ad or web page or video (or sequence of the three) needs to answer:

"is this interesting?",

"what was I looking for again?",

"oh yeah so is this what I was looking for?",

[if yes / if still here]

"what's in it for me?",

"do I need to do anything about this now?"

All your design+content needs to be judged on the above sequence of questions. Your marketing communication in each stage and medium and bite needs to cycle rapidly through answers to "what is it?" and "why should I care?". That is, it is not enough to craft one well-constructed AIDA set-piece and then let the rest be boring-business-as-usual. The 1st-rule-oriented communication has to carry on throughout.

stock photo of a person standing alone in a small boat in a wide calm see looking into the distance

Part of a KnowledgePower customer experience study for a busy commuter ferry service,


Corollaries of the rule:

  • Marketing is not about trying to make someone care about your product/service, brand, company, or people. It is about understanding what they want and doing a good job of offering and delivering it, without them at any stage having to care about you.
  • Customers don't see themselves as customers but as themselves: therefore if you make them feel like customers you are already alienating them by degrees.
  • People are only interested in your company and the people in your company insofar as this relates to what you can do for them. This completely alters how you should present information about your company and the people in your company.
  • When prospects become customers, they are not in a "relationship" with you. The important relationship is their personal experience of a degree of success with your solution, with variable degree of memorability... It is not some kind of marriage between the customer and the company / brand. ("Engagement" in marketing speak is so far from the literal meanings of that word....) So when a prospect becomes a customer, actually they are still a person, themself, and that person still does not care about you.
  • Changes in the customer's perceptions of their own needs and interests are most important. Also important are apparent solutions which are simply more recent or memorable in applicability to current needs and interests. Changing and improving a product is a very weak approach compared to changing the customer's perceptions of their needs and interests.
  • Because of the weakness of the identity and value of the product and brand in the customer's mind, results come as much from quantity of exposure to your message as the quality of the message.
  • Marketing strategy must begin from the point of view of the customer. However, because of the primacy of the internal thought processes and emotions of the customer, which are likely not even that clear to themselves, a frequent situation is admitting that you do not know. This re-orients marketing to work with hypotheses, tests, and customer qualitative feedback.
  • The more quantitative the analysis of marketing performance, the more divorced it is from the actual causalities of a customer's attention and decision-making.

To get into the right thinking for Rule 1 of All Marketing, you need to practice putting yourself into the customer's mindset in order to get the correct angle on everything you are doing in your company. (NB everything in your whole company not just what you choose to define as the scope of 'marketing'.)

A useful "axe-sharpening" exercise is to become deliberately aware of your own thought processes / reactions / emotions / motivations when you are in a customer position yourself. Learn how to behave naturally but observe and deconstruct your behaviour and derive marketing ideas from it.

This post is quite an important topic so we'll revisit and expand over time. Follow @knowledgepowers on Twitter to keep in the loop.

See here for a lengthy exposition of Rule 2 of All Marketing


KnowledgePower is a UK marketing agency offering strategy thinking and helping you figure out how to put this theory into action.