How To Avoid The 7 Terrors Of The Marketing Fire Swamp

You’re not the target customer. Or Steve Jobs. How lessons from The Princess Bride can help you get real, then get better.

How To Avoid The 7 Terrors Of The Marketing Fire Swamp

In a scene from the classic movie The Princess Bride, Buttercup and Westley find themselves trapped in the Fire Swamp, which no one has ever survived.


It is such a scary place that Buttercup thinks they won’t succeed in escaping the evil Prince Humperdink together, but instead will die together in the swamp. But Westley consoles her, saying:

“No, no. We have already succeeded. I mean, what are the three terrors of the Fire Swamp? One, the flame spurt–no problem. There’s a popping sound preceding each; we can avoid that. Two, the lightning sand, which you were clever enough to discover what that looks like, so in the future we can avoid that too.”

When Buttercup asks him about the R.O.U.S.’s, Westley responds, “Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.” Unfortunately, at that point he’s attacked by one. Yet after a tough battle Westley successfully defeats it as well so they can safely make their way out of the Fire Swamp.

While perhaps not as deadly, marketers have their own version of the Fire Swamp. It contains not three but seven deadly terrors a marketer must avoid if he or she is to succeed. I give them to you now so you can avoid them as well and succeed in your marketing quest.

Terror One – Thinking it’s about you and not the customer.
Many are the marketers that have been sucked into this trap. Commercials in which companies boast that “we’re number one” or “we’re the biggest” don’t resonate with customers because they don’t address real customer needs. Customers don’t care if you’re the biggest or the leader. They only care about if what you are offering meets their needs, gives them an identity, or connects emotionally with them. Bragging about your company, if anything, turns customers off, not on. So avoid this terror by focusing on making your marketing all about the customer.

Terror Two – Thinking that your customer thinks, knows, and cares about your product as much as you do.
This terror is like the one above, but slightly different. Maybe it’s because we spend so much time thinking about our offerings that we marketers assume our consumers follow suit. But that’s not the case. Unless you are a top brand (think Apple or Google) most consumers aren’t thinking much about you at all. There are too many other brands competing for their attention, not to mention real-life stuff like their jobs, significant others, friends, kids, etc. So to get past this obstacle, recognize that you need to get customers’ attention, make your message to them super-simple, and stay on that message for a long time.

Terror Three – Mistaking yourself for being the target customer.
I have seen many marketers fall into this hole when talking about an ad or a campaign. Their comment before the trapdoor opens is usually something like, “I don’t get it. That ad doesn’t speak to me.” Well, it could be that the campaign is truly terrible. But it could also be that the reason it doesn’t resonate with them is that they’re not the target market. The only way to avoid this pitfall (unless, of course, you are the target customer) is to forget about your own predilections and immerse yourself in the beliefs, desires, needs, and wants of your target consumer.


Terror Four – Saying Yes to the CMO’s Bad Campaign.
This is a hard terror to escape because it takes not just common sense but courage as well. We’ve all had the moment when we’ve been watching TV and see a truly terrible advertisement come on. And as marketers we know that somewhere along the line the agency showed the disaster-in-waiting to the CMO, he said, “That’s great!” and then everyone else in the room just looked at one another and said nothing. Not only that, then those same people had their subordinates work hard for several weeks or months to get the ad on TV. And in all that time, even though they all pretty much knew the campaign would be a bomb, no one had the guts to say “stop the train!” As I say, this is a tough snare to get past but the only way to do so is to be brave enough to (tactfully) tell the emperor he has no clothes. If you do that and the ad still goes public at least you have your integrity intact.

Terror Five – Believing your own B.S.
In marketing we spend a lot of time looking for ways we are better than the competition, talking about how to communicate that differentiation and then creating ads to get that across. So the cause of our demise in this part of the Fire Swamp is that we begin to believe our own marketing “B.S.” Yes, it’s great to think your product is the best and that every customer should know why it’s better but don’t forget that some portion of that story is your own marketing spin. The best way to escape this terror is to take yourself out of “marketing mode” and again, put yourself in the shoes of the consumer. Plus having a little Post-it note by your computer that reminds you, “Don’t believe your own B.S.” wouldn’t hurt either.

Terror Six – Not having customer data.
When it comes to your marketing efforts everyone in your firm has an opinion. And, unless you have rich data and deep insights about your customer, that’s all you will to bring to the table when you meet with those folks…just your opinion. The best way to elude this terror is to ensure you and your marketing team spend the money and time necessary to develop a strong understanding of your target customer and constantly seek new ways of learning about them. Without it you will never succeed.

Terror Seven – Thinking you’re Steve Jobs.
Not a lot of people fall prey to this terror of the Marketing Fire Swamp but I must say that those that do deserve it. As Oracle CEO Larry Ellison warned aspiring businesspeople, “To model yourself after Steve Jobs is like, ‘I’d like to paint like Picasso, what should I do? Should I use more red?'” While there have been a few marketing titans like Jobs, the vast majority of us (myself included) are merely mortal marketers. So to make our way out of the Fire Swamp we must use our humility to realize it’s not about us but the customer, our customer insights as our map, and our wits and courage to find the best path to our success.

[Image: Flickr user Biodiversity Heritage Library]

About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo