ETN: Criticism – Are You Shaken or Stirred?

I recently came across an article on LinkedIn, rather provocatively entitled ‘Marketing in the Equestrian Industry – Why it Really Needs a Shake-up’ by a lady called Isobel Witts.

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Reading it, I raised at first one and then both eyebrows as its author describes how poorly you’re all doing at connecting with ‘the customer’ – whom she claims to represent. I haven’t done any marketing to the equestrian consumer for about a year but a couple of paragraphs in, I could feel my hackles rising at this blunt deconstruction of a whole industry’s efforts, mine included. I found myself gleefully spotting the various assumptions and delighting in areas where the point is oversimplified. In short, I became incredibly defensive for no logical reason.

Eventually, I arrived at the part that’s a sales pitch to help you put everything right. Ah, I should have known! Grab the attention, pique the interest, provide a desirable answer and leave a call to action – it’s literally the textbook way to make a sale. Her disclaimer really should have read the other way round: “I’m a real customer who happens to be selling consultancy”.

But does that render her words meaningless, lacking in any credibility simply because they’re there to support a sales proposition? If you believe that, then by extension you’re kind of admitting your own ad copy is bereft of any integrity, aren’t you? There are always basic truths in promotional literature, the trick is the extent to which they’re clothed in hyperbole or they exaggerate the absence of an alternative – just enough to stimulate response while avoiding claims of deception.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to re-evaluate your own communications to see how many of the sins the author describes actually apply to your brand? Is equestrianism is still too keen to embrace its heritage as a ‘calling’ to which few are worthy and in which a lifetime of study and apprenticeship is the only path to true enlightenment? Back in the real world, most of its consumers are people who simply want to have fun owning and/or riding a horse, not feel like they have to ascend to the level of a Jedi Master. If such people are willing to consider spending money with us, don’t they deserve our help and encouragement in ways that will motivate them the most?

There’s an episode in ‘The Simpsons’ where Japanese game shows are described as being different from those in the West because they punish ignorance rather than rewarding knowledge. It can be a fine line and it’s easily crossed. We’ve all seen this done over the years, haven’t we, retailers: someone not entirely confident calls for a slightly left-field item like a de Gogue. If it’s in stock, we sell it whether they need it or not under the convenient pretext that the customer is always right; if it isn’t, we’re tempted to make ourselves feel better about missing a sale by dismissing the possibility that it would have been used properly, anyway. Does that sound uncomfortably familiar?

It’s not just a case of what we choose to communicate, it’s also a question of methodology: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, as I think Bananarama more succinctly put it. We need to think about using the most compelling ways to engage with our audience – and including media they may wish to consume more than we do. If that means it’s time to start using scary words like ‘blogging’, ‘vlogging’ and ‘Instagram’, maybe it’s time you were less scared by those words.

Be honest about your own communications offering – is it at odds with what you expect from other companies when you’re the one sat in the customer’s chair? Ignore for a moment issues like scale and cost. I know you won’t want to throw another X thousand pounds at that website you only seem to have had for five minutes. Try to find out how many punters you’ve annoyed this week because they stuck with your fiddly site on an iPhone – and be amazed that some of them still ordered something! Estimate how many extra sales that could be if it was just easier for them to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

I know Tesco can seem to do these things in an afternoon and you can’t and I know money doesn’t grow on trees but surely ignoring changes in customer behaviour is only going to make things worse, isn’t it?

Feed companies have least insulation from criticism and it’s canny of the article to direct its disdain in that direction – they generally have far greater revenues than anyone in the industry and from a relatively narrow range of products. You might conclude that it’s more cost-effective for them than anyone else to invest in the kind of content that she claims will engage her. To a certain extent, this may also be true of some brand-owning suppliers.

For almost everyone in retail, with more modest revenues and a range that can run into thousands of products, it’s not that simple. Having said that, if there was a way to prove that the more good copy you include about your products, the more units you sell, wouldn’t that justify the effort? Actually, there is a way to demonstrate that relationship but you’ll need analytics you can trust and popular, consistent-selling products to test it properly.

We can all choose to react defensively to criticism or we can let it inspire us to think again about what we do and why. Ms. Witts and her colleagues may be just what you’re looking for – and I’ve sort of walked into the advertising trap she laid by making reference to her article – or you may find the most effective response is merely to stir yourself into action, challenge your own assumptions, understanding and standards in order to bring about a shake-up yourself. Good luck!

  • Look out for my next column, about the challenge of attracting boys to riding, in the May issue of the ETN, out May 1st.
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