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Marketing Lessons From An Accidental Con Man

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 level.

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 elegance.

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 happy. 

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 choice.

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

[Image: Flickr user Nemodus]