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The Biggest Marketing Mistake and How to Avoid It

Make this misstep and you could turn customers into combatants
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Oreo cookies, a division of Mondelez International, thought that it would run a clever marketing campaign for its Oreo Mini product. In theory, it was smart and cute: Send cookies out to people in 50 small towns throughout the U.S.

In practice, however, the campaign has been a flop. Not because it didn't go viral. It did, except not quite the right way. There's been enough backlash to capture major media attention.

Oreo sent households one single cookie the size of a nickel--not always guaranteeing even one whole cookie per person. ("I'll take the Jefferson's nose slice, please.") Here's how a columnist at the Great Falls Tribune explained the problem:

It was undoubtedly a nice gesture--it's hard to imagine anyone who could be put off at receiving a free cookie in the mail. Yet there seems to be some semblance of patronizing disconnect between the corporate executives at Nabisco and their small-town customers in rural America. It's sort of like receiving a letter from a major East Coast corporation saying, "We're sorry you have to live in the middle of nowhere--here have a cookie."

If you find yourself wondering how the company was to know the reaction it would get, you and your company could be next in line. The major misstep Mondelez made, and that you might be about to make, was to treat its customers as objects, not as people. Executives assumed that they understood all consumers and didn't bother to consider geographic, social, political, gender, racial, or religious differences that might cause a different reaction.

I saw this happen in one company that sold to a technical customer base. The COO and VP of sales would refer to the engineers and programmers by derogatory terms like geeks. I said that the attitude was terrible because when you are demeaning to customers, even behind their backs, it affects your work and success (in addition to being generally wrong). The executives were eventually booted out of the company.

When you assume that everyone is like you, you're eradicating their existence and assuming that they're purchased robots that should react as you want. It never works. Getting outside of the cultural and economic boxes we all occupy is difficult. Here are some ways to get beyond yourself and to actually recognize customers as autonomous human beings (and maybe improve business as a result).

Diversify your management and board

Look at your board of directors or advisers and around your company's management. If everyone is the same color, went to the same type of school, comes from the same type of background, you are living in a gated community. Unless you plan to see only people like you, it's time for broader insight at the strategic level. Make sure that there are peoplein top positions who look and sound like your customers.

Get consumer advisers

Many companies create a board of customer advisers. Invite select customers in and communicate with them. Most important, listen to what they say and how. Learn about their general experiences, what drives their days--not as a way to gather marketing information, but rather to create some understanding and empathy on your part.

Test before roll-out

Don't blindly assume that a campaign or program that you and your coterie absolutely love is necessarily going to bowl them over in Peoria. Test the idea on customers and see what they think about it. You can save yourself a lot of money, grief, and brand value in the long run.

Use the Mockingbird standard

Saving the most difficult step for last, try to apply the idea in To Kill a Mockingbird to walk around in someone else's shoes to better know that person. Use directed imagination and empathy and think of what pressures they might be under, what presumptions they make, how they feel about their community, the things they believe and hold dear. People don't like to buy from those who act as if they're better, and companies that don't sell don't last.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 22, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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