Perception IS Reality.

What is real? That’s really the most fundamental question, isn’t it? If we can’t trust our senses, we cannot tell what’s real from what’s not. And that brings us, campers, to the true nature of marketing – perception versus reality.

I once worked for a guy who was a brilliant marketer – a true natural. His favorite aphorism was “Perception IS reality.” His point was that your view of reality is colored by your belief system and, therefore, your perceptions…ergo, perception IS your reality. It follows then, that it doesn’t matter what reality is – it matters only what your audience PERCEIVES reality to be.

Think about the implications of this for a second. They are staggering.

As a marketer, I’m in the perception business. It’s my job to either define the way you perceive something, or attempt to alter the way you perceive it, to benefit my client. The difference between good marketing and plain old, garden variety marketing is that ability to control perceptions. Without that, you’re not controlling anything – you’re simply stating facts. Let me give you an example…

Let’s say you have a product, we’ll call it “Foremost,” that has received some negative press. As a marketing expert, it’s your job to restore the public’s faith in the product. Because the company that makes “Foremost” is a solid company, with a firm grip on corporate responsibility and ethics, they’ve corrected the problem and gone the second mile to make sure their customers that bought the defective products are satisfied. Their P.R. people have counseled the company to meet the challenge head-on, instead of stonewalling and pretending the problem doesn’t exist. So far, so good. But there’s all that negative stuff floating around out there – word of mouth, negative stories that you need to deal with. What do you do?

The first thing you have to realize is that this is a battle of perceptions. Next, you must acknowledge a simple, immutable fact of marketing – negatives are roughly ten times more powerful than positives. In other words, it takes a lifetime to build a good rep, but only a few seconds to destroy it. Remember, people love to talk, and spreading negative stories is much easier than positive ones.

You begin by facing the problem head-on (like the PR team did) – perhaps running a series of ads that talk about the problem frankly, discuss how it happened, and the steps you’ve taken to deal with the causes, so it won’t happen again. Then you shut up.

That’s right. Shut up. Hopefully, your client is financially stable enough to weather a storm for a bit. Shut down ads, go dark, keep quiet. After a couple of months, begin a new ad campaign, accompanied by all the viral marketing you can muster. Try something different – a test drive, free trial size, taste test – whatever. The key here is to change perceptions by getting people to sample the product, and then talk positively about that experience. Don’t reference the previous scandal – some will remember, but most will have forgotten all about it. Your job is to set (or reset) perceptions, not to rewrite history.

Think this won’t work? Here’s a real life case study. I play guitar. I’m interested in buying a new one. I’ve been to a number of music stores, and found one brand – Breedlove – that I really like. As a marketing guy, I’m always interested in researching any major purchase. What I’d heard in the stores – as well as from other players I know – is that Breedlove is a solid brand, with innovative design ideas, and well-made products.

When I did my web research, it confirmed that, but not in the way you might think. I learned that several years ago, Breedlove had a catastrophic problem with their finishes, where bridges were popping off and instruments became unplayable. It almost destroyed the company, driving it to the brink of bankruptcy. They survived by honoring their lifetime warranties, and letting the public know that they were on top of the problem. They fixed their design problems, and have since overcome all the negative publicity. They did this by supporting their customers, fixing the problem, and creating great problems, sure – but none of that would matter if they’d allowed negative stories to keep circulating. By getting positive press, and finding influential guitarists (usually guys in the trenches – players and sales reps at guitar stores – that were impressed with Breedloves and spread the word.

So – how do you deal with perceptions? The first thing to understand is that perceptions are built one prospect/customer at a time. Next, recognize that people today deal in “sound byte” marketing, where they have a need to pigeonhole things into a hierarchy. For instance, if you come out with a new cola, customers will automatically compare it to existing products, and use whatever your unique competitive feature are to put your product in perspective against Coke, Pepsi and the rest.

That makes it absolutely essential that you explain why someone would want your product over the one they buy currently. Brand loyalty is a powerful force, and it takes a lot of marketing muscle to sway users behavior. And if you are successful in getting a prospect to try your product, it’s essential that it is not only better than the competition, but that the marketing message you’ve communicated has resonance with their product experience. You can’t take a sow’s ear and market it into a silk purse. If your message matches a user’s experience, it is possible to reset their perceptions in your favor.

The $64,000 question then, is how to change/set perceptions. The answer? It depends. That’s where research, experience, and a working knowledge of what makes people tick comes into play. Throw in a little imagination, creativity, and a dash of inutition, and you have a recipie for a successful marketing campaign.

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