Polarize Me

If you want people to like you, first decide who needs to hate you.

Is it fair to say that finding a soul mate is pretty important? If so, online dating sites should be full of sparkling bon mots, as people try to woo prospects. As a dater on Match.com, you have two key ways to communicate something quickly about yourself: a picture and a headline. The pic, of course, should embrace the social norm and be from 10 years and 20 pounds ago.

With the headline, you can start from scratch. Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They don't. We examined more than 1,000 Match.com ads--from men and women, old and young. Our search yielded headlines like this one: "Hey." Folks, if your opening line is "Hey," you better be hot.

Another said "Looking for love." Well, duh, you're on Match.com. At least two-thirds of the headlines said nothing--and did it poorly.

Why do these headlines suck so much? Fear. Fear of saying too much. Fear of saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at boring everyone.

The "Hey" phenomenon is rampant in the corporate world. Branding is nothing more than a company's personal ad, and companies are as bad at it as singles. Gap, for example, is the "Hey" of fashion, thus its recent woes. And Ford Motor Co. --who, exactly, does it want to date? Brands with enough scale think they can get away with being generically likable. And some can, at least for a little while.

Everyone else has to be ready to turn some people off. Consider Honest Tea, a fast-growing indie beverage expected to hit $25 million in sales this year. Its tagline? "Real Tea. Real Taste. Honest." In other words, "Hey." (Or do some tea drinkers seethe at the very notion of Real Taste?)

If anything, the fear of being disliked afflicts marketers more acutely than daters, because the stakes are higher. "Most marketers feel that if they make a bold statement, they risk not just alienating customers--but also their boss, and their boss's boss," says Charles Rosen, founding partner of Amalgamated ad agency. "That fear takes the edge off of all communications."

Amalgamated put a stake in the ground with its campaign for Svedka vodka, which is set in the year 2033 and features a "sexy" fembot spokesperson. It traffics in futuristic imagery and provocative lines such as, "Svedka says 'thank you' for making the gay man's fashion gene available over the counter in 2033."

Svedka knows who it wants to date: irreverent urban party people who are out until 3 a.m. three times a week. If that's not you, Svedka doesn't care. Its attitude helped it fetch $384 million from Constellation Brands this February.

Honest Tea, though, wants everybody to like it, and that's a shame because it is a distinctive product--namely, it isn't stiflingly sweet, like some of its competitors. Coke's tea brand, Gold Peak, is branded preposterously as the "timeless flavor of classic, authentic iced tea." Yes, our grandma's tea was always brimming with high-fructose corn syrup. (Gold Peak's sweetened tea flavors have about as many calories per ounce as Guinness.)

Honest Tea needs to meet sophisticated drinkers who are repulsed by mass-market sickly sweetness and corporateness. It should say, "If 'high-fructose corn syrup' on the label doesn't make you cringe, we don't want you." You don't have time to meet all the "Hey" people in the world--or to drink all the Real Tea in the world. Concrete images and language, like Svedka's, make it easier for like-minded people (and companies) to find one another.

Some singles have figured this out. Here's a brilliant example: "Athletic math nerd seeks someone to hum the Seinfeld intro music with." While excluding, he's simultaneously becoming more interesting to potential soul mates. Another appropriately polarizing headline reads, "I might just Bite!" Well done. And Biter, meet Svedka, your new vodka.

Read more Made to Stick columns

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are brothers and the authors of Made to Stick (Random House, 2007). Dan is a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, and Chip is a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

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