What’s in a love letter?

Simplicity is often wrong, writes Giles Lury

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I am a firm believer in the power of stories. I tell tales all the time. As a marketer, I’m a professional storyteller. Stories come in many shapes and forms and cover a wide variety of genres. But I have a predilection for the parable – the marketing parable. I tell short stories about brands and how they go to market, how they came into being, how they tackle challenges. Each ends with a moral which – in my case – is normally a thinly disguised tip or technique which the reader can use in their day-to-day work.

Occasionally the stories are a little more personal. This story combines a personal tale with a marketing moral. In 1979, over 20 years after they were married, my father gave my mother a Valentine’s card. It was an old 1920s style illustrated postcard of a boy giving his girl a big envelope with ‘To my Valentine’ on it. It was originally mailed in 1923, but Dad had bought it at an antiques fair. Both Mum and Dad loved antiques.

I found the card sorting through my mother’s things after she died many years later. Along with the card, there was a piece of paper on which my Dad had lovingly typed an imaginary discussion between an aspiring poet and creative writer. It concerned the matter of what salutation should be used on a Valentine. It bought a smile to my lips, and tears to my eyes.

“Be mine, Be mine, Please be my Valentine.”

“An ardent lover would not bother with please.”

“Be mine, Be mine, Be my Valentine.”

“As your poem will arrive on 14th February, you reflect adversely on your recipient’s intelligence by referring explicitly to Valentine.”

“Be mine, Be mine”

“Poetry should concentrate and distil. Why this repetition?”

“Be mine.”

“This possessive attitude is outmoded; an unpleasant residue of male chauvinism.”

“Be.”

“Ah, I like this. Concise, but full of implications. Yes, I think this will do.”

Message sent: “Be mine, be mine, Please be my Valentine.”

In the end, the lover chose not to oversimplify.

The morals for me were on a personal level, a little more thought in choosing gifts shows just how much you care; and on a marketing level, you should simplify as much as possible, but not any more.

Too often in marketing there is a tendency to oversimplify, to try to distil and distil and reduce everything to just one word, one thought. If I think of my father I can’t sum him up in one word; he was my father, a husband, a university professor,
a lover of jazz, a knowledgeable lover of wine.

Human behaviour is not simple, and – as it is the basis for much of marketing – there is a real danger in oversimplification.

Today’s brands are no longer ‘one product, one brand’ – they have portfolios of products and services. They need to cross boundaries of category, country and audiences. They need a broad emotional repertoire. Brands that can do this are complex – not complicated. Brands that manage this multiplicity can talk about different things to different people at different times, without being seen as schizophrenic. They have depth and sustainable appeal.

I believe that there is a real danger that, in a drive to become single-minded, a brand can become narrow-minded. So to finish and to simplify – but not oversimplify – I’m not a fan of marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout’s famous suggestion that, “In an over-communicated society you need an oversimplified message.” Rather I prefer the more realistic thought of US satirist HL Mencken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple …and wrong.”

Giles Lury is director at The Value Engineers and author of How Coca-Cola Took Over the World: and 100 More Amazing Stories About the World’s Greatest Brands

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