When in Doubt, Tell the Truth

by Dean Rieck

Mark Twain, an entrepreneur, writer, and relative of mine (through a convoluted family tree) once said, "What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if he can; honestly if he must."

I'm not as jaded as that. But I know it's too often true. In fact, in my very first job, I learned the pitfalls of "creative fibbing" from a car dealer.

I was working at a Top 40 radio station as an account executive. I had been told to push a particular $5,000 promotional package. I didn't believe in it and thought it was irrelevant to most of the people I was talking to, but I did my best to come up with creative ways to show clients why they needed it.

However, one client saw right through my verbiage. When the man asked me if I thought he really needed the ad package, I sighed and did something that could have gotten me fired.

I told the truth.

"No. Actually I don't think you need this."

This took him by surprise. "You don't?"

"No. I'm just pushing it because my sales manager wants me to. Actually, I think it would be a complete waste of money for you. And I'd like to suggest what you really need, but I don't know anything about your business."

The man blinked a couple times. Then smiled. "Son, what I need is more used car buyers. I already have ads out there for my new cars, but the used ones are just sitting. I get some real cherries in here, but if I run ads, they could be gone by the time the ad hits the air."

We talked for a while and came up with a plan where he would phone in his used car deals to the radio station and record them on tape to air "live." Over time, he ended up spending far more than $5,000. And he sold a lot of used cars, too.

Management had given me a lousy way to sell airtime. And I lost track of the truth in my efforts to sell it. But when I found the truth of my manager's proposition (it stunk), of what my client actually wanted (to sell used cars), and of my job (to help my clients succeed), I started to make sales.

Want to sell more? Try telling the truth.

When you're in the business of selling, you don't always have the luxury of pushing the very best products and services. Wouldn't it be nice if all our wares overflowed with superior features and meaningful benefits? We would be swimming in a sea of Unique Selling Propositions and Big Ideas. Promotions would virtually write themselves.

Alas, few products and services are top-notch. Most are fairly humdrum, with lots of competition, and need an experienced hand to turn features into benefits, find the USP, and create the Big Idea that will send the sales curve through the roof.

In doing so, it's easy to get caught up in our own patter, to lose touch with what's real and true when we're under the gun to sell, sell, sell. When in doubt, we reach into our creative toolbox and pull out techniques to hide the flaws and twist the features into what we hope will pass for relevant benefits.

Let me give you another quote from the irrepressible Mr. Twain: "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything." Know what? There's a creative formula there for all of us who create direct marketing messages. It's this ...

Every product or service has at least one central truth. Find that truth and frame your message around it. Why? Because telling the truth is easier and more direct than telling an untruth.

This is similar to the Unique Selling Proposition or Big Idea approach. The difference is that you don't just ask yourself what is unique or what is the big idea, you ask instead: What is the truth about this?

The benefits of this approach are enormous. In the heat of creativity, it's easy to come up with a selling idea that's not entirely true. A USP that's a bit convoluted. A Big Idea that's just a bit deceptive. And this just makes your selling job that much harder, since you'll have to work harder for your message to be attractive and believable.

As my grandfather says, that's taking the long way around the barn. Telling the truth is more simple and direct. All you have to do is find the truth.

I'm not suggesting you throw away your USP or Big Idea approach, just that you travel down one more avenue as you're looking for your selling message.

Telling the truth can help you see the true value of a product.

An entrepreneur in California invented a grocery coupon organizer that works like a rotary file. I was to write a print ad to run in Parade Magazine. The company line on this product was that it was the most revolutionary coupon organizer ever. It had superior, patented features and a low price. My job was to sell this product as the "ultimate coupon organizer."

But I ran across a statistic from Roper Starch Worldwide that said "nearly 80% of Americans often use coupons at the supermarket yet redeem only $4 billion of the over $200 billion in cash savings available each year."

Coupons are such a headache to deal with, most are never clipped or end up in the kitchen drawer until they expire. The truth? Everybody wants to save money but nobody wants to organize coupons.

However this truth led to another truth: this product did more than any other organizer to eliminate the mess of unused coupons.

My headline: Say goodbye to "coupon clutter" forever!

Telling the truth can help you find buried benefits.

An ad agency called me in to create a direct mail package to sell an extended automotive insurance product. The client bought lists of car owners whose three-year factory warranty was about to expire, telling them their warranty was about up and that they would be responsible for all future repairs.

The selling proposition was supposed to be that this product offered superior mechanical protection. But that just didn't ring true to me. All the competitors offered the same thing at about the same price. So how could this be superior? Truth was, it wasn't.

But what was true? I read the legal type, and buried in the legalese was a deductible of just $25. In other words, any mechanical problem covered by this insurance would cost only $25. Bingo!

On the cover of the brochure I used the headline: Guaranteed. You will never pay more than $25 for any mechanical repair.

Telling the truth can help you find creative solutions.

I was asked to rewrite a direct mail package for FamilyFun Magazine so that it appealed to teachers. The client gave me a number of reasons teachers would want to use this family activity magazine in the classroom, but the whole idea didn't seem to make sense.

The name was wrong. The columns were directed at parents. The truth was that this magazine just wasn't created for teachers. Should I try to gloss over that fact? No, I decided to use the truth to my advantage.

My envelope teaser copy: It's the fun magazine teachers were never meant to read ... (Now it's YOURS! And the first issue is FREE!)

Telling the truth can help you deal with unpopular features.

Huntington Bank was making a change to one of their accounts. Those with a Direct Checking Account would be switched to The Huntington Access Account. Customers were not given any choice in the matter.

One change would be that customers would no longer get their checks returned to them. Instead, checks would be recorded on microfilm and filed. Marketing considered this a big problem and wanted me to downplay the fact in a letter I was writing.

I had to admit the truth, not getting your checks back is a big negative. But I thought about that and came to another truth. The only thing worse than not getting your checks back is getting your checks back and having to store them for years. Ahhh!

In one bullet point in the letter I wrote: Like most people, you'll probably never need any of those canceled checks piling up in your closet, filing cabinet, or drawer. And if you do, finding the right one could take hours. So, as a special exclusive service of your new Huntington Access Account, we won't mail your canceled checks to you every month ... we'll record them on microfilm and file them for you. If you ever do need one, we can locate it quickly and provide a copy.

Telling the truth can help you turn jargon into meaningful messages.

A computer accessory company wanted to improve results to their lead generation efforts. They sold a hardware system for computer training classrooms. The system linked together student computers and slaved them to the teacher's computer. They had been using simple postcards with feature-based copy like this: Tired of slow broadcasting software incapable of routing graphics?

They were very keen on the hardware and assumed their customers were, too. But I was a teacher at one time and knew teachers don't give a hoot about hardware. They just want to make the job easier. So I ignored the hardware and looked for the central truth of this product.

My headline: Now you can control every computer in your classroom — right from your desk! FREE Information Kit shows you how!

In all these examples, could I have arrived at the same propositions in other ways? Yes. But by searching for the truth, I found the Big Ideas or the USPs that also had the powerful benefit of being true.

Finding the truth — the honest to goodness truth — can often open up creative doors for you. When you set aside random techniques and key your message to a truth, your creative job becomes much easier. You will end up with a more cohesive and believable message. You preserve your credibility.

What happens if your search for the big truth turns up a big problem, such as your product stinks, or the offer is lousy, or the sales claims are unfounded? Well, that tells you something, too, doesn't it. It tells you that you need a better product, a better offer, or improved features.

And what if you can't do anything about the unpleasant truth? At least you'll know what reasonably intelligent prospects may eventually conclude. And you'll be better prepared to take on the task of selling, knowing your real challenge. Perhaps you can find another truth about the product or service instead.

So the next time you're faced with a difficult promotion, forget the jargon and the well-worn sales babble, the preferred techniques, and what the client or product manager says — just for a moment.

Ask yourself: What is the truth about this?

As my dear cousin Mr. Twain would say, "When in doubt, tell the truth."

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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