26 May 2016

If you took (or had to take) an economics class in high school or college you may remember hearing about a Scottish fellow by the name of Adam Smith. Smith wrote a fundamental book on how free markets work called An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations offered a number of important ideas about what makes an economy tick, including the crucial role that human self-interest plays. Here’s a snippet of what Smith had to say:

“It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

What Smith was driving at was that the butcher only cuts and sells meat to gain money to feed himself and his family. The same goes for the brewer and the baker and—when taken together—these self-interested actions are what make the (economic) world go round. It may sound a little greedy, but Smith explains in his book how these self-interested actions actually result in collaboration and mutual benefit.

So that may be how an economy works, but what does it have to do with effective marketing? I think a lot.

First, it’s hard (if not impossible) to be a good marketer if you don’t have self-interest. You have to be enthusiastic about your role in promoting your company’s products or services (and making a buck along the way). That’s a given—and it translates into the reality that you want to share with anyone who will listen how great those products or services are—the innovative bells and whistles they feature, the excellent support your company offers, how much better your solutions are than those of the competition. But as good as that enthusiasm (and self-interest) is, it comes with a potential risk—forgetting that Adam Smith was telling us that everyone else is also focused on their self-interest.

So if you are a farmer selling a cow to a butcher, the butcher doesn’t want to hear about what a good farmer you are or how many head of cattle you have. He just wants to know what the cow you are trying to sell him is going to do for him. Will he get more steaks from it than the last cow he bought? Will his customers like the taste better because of what you fed it?

It’s an important point for all of us involved in marketing to keep in mind. So if you are writing or talking about your company’s products or services, don’t forget that the only thing your customer really cares about is whatever is in it for them. No matter what the topic is, whether it’s a product feature or your company’s position in the marketplace, the discussion shouldn’t lose focus on how that fact will benefit the customer with whom you are sharing it.

The truth of Adam Smith’s observation about self-interest was brought home to me in the early days of my former occupation as a lawyer. When I was just getting started in my law practice, I walked into an elevator with Mr. Butler, a silver-haired senior partner at the firm where I was working. As the doors closed, Mr. Butler looked at me and said “Son, would you like a piece of advice about how to build your law practice.” Eager to hear it, I responded “Yes sir, I would!” He then put his hand on my shoulder and continued: “Here’s what it is. If someone asks you what kind of lawyer you are, you ask them, ‘What kind do you need?’

Mr. Butler understood the power of remembering your customer’s self-interest. And in my experience, it has turned out to be great advice.