Marketing Lessons From An Accidental Con Man

All business advantage is founded on some anomaly–a unique set of experiences that makes you better than anyone else at a particular skill, a new business model, a pool of talent others overlooked, a patent that sets you apart. But it’s not enough to describe the difference–you need “Reason Why Marketing.”


In a previous Fast Company article, I wrote about
hitchhiking. Specifically, what I’ve learned about hitching a ride in
semi-rural South Africa and how these strategies apply to marketing. I learned
something by accident last month that took my thumbing skills to a whole new

I Buy a Bicycle

I live in an area with steep hills, dangerous switchbacks,
potholes the size of dorm refrigerators, and occasionally incompetent and
frequently insane motorists. So naturally I thought: “A mountain bike would be
fun here.”


My friend Anthony was selling his old Merida Matts Sport 500.
I took it for a spin around his yard, liked it, and told him I’d be back with
the money after my next encounter with an ATM.

Given the risks and the fact that most of my
income-producing power begins between my ears and ends up at my keyboard, I
also picked up a helmet and a pair of bike gloves. And at 8:30 a.m. on a momentous
Wednesday, I began walking up the road to Anthony’s house wearing, rather than carrying, the helmet and gloves.

I hadn’t walked 20 meters when a big, new, shiny Toyota SUV
roared past, slammed on the brakes, and backed up toward me. A genial tourist leaned out his window and beckoned,
“Need a lift?” 


Gratefully, I accepted. I had been feeling a bit dorky about
wearing the helmet and gloves on the walk, so I was glad to speed up the trip
and reduce my exposure. I wondered about my good fortune; in my experience a
man traveling alone is more likely to have a pair of bluebirds alight on his
head than get a ride if he actively solicits one. To get offered a ride,
unasked, is unheard of.

When I plopped myself down, SUV Man inquired pleasantly,
“Your bike broken?”

So that’s what was going on. My helmet and gloves had provided
a Reason Why.


Not a Fluke

Later that day, after Anthony couldn’t find a pump with a
Presta valve, I walked my flat-tired Merida several kilometers to the cycle shop
at Mountain Splendour. Again, wearing helmet and gloves. This time, for added
effect, I was pushing a big blue bike down a hill. And again, I received an
unsolicited offer of a lift.

How to Hitch a Ride
in South Africa


So now I know how to reliably get a ride around here. I just
wear my Bell Slant helmet and start walking. Before, drivers had to wonder why
a healthy-looking white guy didn’t have his own car. (In South Africa, that’s
pretty much an anomaly.) Now they know why I need a ride: My bike must have broken
down somewhere.

Once my situation makes sense to them, the ride offers come
easily, often unrequested. The Reason Why alleviates their fears that I might
be a Psycho Killer or Unpleasant Travel Companion. It also gives them a reason
to pick me up: I’m in need, and they’re the kind of person who helps strangers
in need.

The only thing that had changed about me was the Reason Why.
The power of that insight applies to our businesses as well. 


The Power of Reason Why

Human beings are programmed to make sense of the world, to
look for patterns and predict outcomes. It’s how our species survived, adapted,
and thrived in so many different environments. And one of the strongest
patterns is cause and effect–reasons why certain things happen.

Social psychologist Ellen Langer found that human beings
exhibit an automatic response pattern of saying yes when given a reason. In a
fascinating study reported in Robert Cialdini’s Influence, Langer and her colleagues asked to cut in line at a
library photocopy machine with one of three statements:

  1. “Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the
    Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
  2. “Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the
    Xerox machine?”
  3. “Excuse me. I have 5 pages. May I use the
    Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”

The first request (“because I’m in a rush”) worked 94% of
the time. The second request (no reason) received only 60% positive responses.
The third request (“because I have to make some copies”) succeeded in 93% of
cases. “Because I have to make some copies” is not, of course, an actual
reason. It’s simply phrased in the form of a reason, and that was sufficient to
trigger the automatic “that sounds reasonable” response.

Reason Why Marketing

I’m not suggesting that you pepper your marketing with
meaningless reasons (“Buy our product because we say so”). Rather, acknowledge
the natural skepticism of your market to any claim of superiority or dramatic
difference and tell ’em why it’s so.


All business advantage is founded on some anomaly. You have
a unique set of experiences that makes you better than anyone else at a
particular skill. You engineered a new business model. You found a pool of
talent that others had overlooked. You have a patent on a process or material
that sets you apart.

It’s not enough to describe the difference or the advantage
you hold in the marketplace. Reason Why Marketing explains the difference and
makes it believable, credible, even obvious. 

People are naturally skeptical of competitive claims, but we
want to believe. We cling to Reasons Why as life vests in a sea of mediocrity
and sameness. We’re passionate about the companies that create, and
demonstrate, and justify their Uniqueness.


Some Examples of
Reason Why Marketing

Why are Apple products so good? Because Steve Jobs was a hyper-driven
visionary perfectionist who imbued the company with an ethos of innovation and

Why is Zappo’s customer service so good? Because Zappo’s
spends huge amounts of money on training, creates a fantastic workplace
environment, and empowers employees to do almost anything to make customers


Why are Surefire flashlights so good? Because the company
was founded by an engineer with a PhD in laser design who saw the potential of
outfitting weapons with laser sights almost 30 years ago.

Why is your company so good? If the answer doesn’t
immediately pour out of you, go into reminiscence mode. Why was the company
founded? What’s the background of the founders? What was missing in the
industry that they wanted to deliver? What was their particular passion? What
unique set of perspectives influenced their decisions?

If you truly offer something dramatically better in your
marketplace, Reason Why Marketing may be the missing core of your message. In a
world where most businesses rely on meaningless platitudes (“Value, service,
integrity”) or unfounded claims (“The leading purveyor”), a simple “This Is
Why” explanation can cut through the clutter and position you as the obvious


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to town. Wallet, keys,
phone, helmet…

[Image: Flickr user Nemodus]


About the author

Howard Jacobson, PhD is co-author of Google AdWords For Dummies, and Emotional Intelligence & Empathic Inspiration Officer (EIEIO) for Vitruvian. When he's not playing guitar or Ultimate Frisbee, he's working on his permaculture garden in Durham, NC