Your friends may be marketing to you.
I know: I'm taking the internet-shocking tactic I hate seeing elsewhere, but if I didn't have evidence in my very inbox from (as I'm writing this post) three minutes ago, not to mention The New York Times and other well-regarded media, I would still have all the stuff that's not headline material. You probably know it as “keeping up with the Joneses” or “being cool”; it's the reason I carried a screen-printed canvas Esprit tote bag in high school even though I had extremely limited disposable income and the tote bag was a really uncomfortable way to lug my books, and the reason I used those over-sized butterfly clips in junior high even though they made me look more “insane human-alien love child” than “supercool Valley Girl.”
The word-of-mouth feel-good cycle
Often your friends are marketing to you by word-of-mouth marketing, every small business owner's or corporate marketer's wildest dream. “This Dove makes my skin so soft!” is what the corporate folks are hoping to coach you to say. “The service at Open Space Coffee is amazing!” is what the local folks are prompting you to say with their kind ways.
And the thing is that this is kind of an ethical trap. Great service notwithstanding (I stand firm in my endorsement for the coffee shop, they really are super nice), we're getting a high when we tell our friends about a product's positive characteristics. We're saying through our glowing reviews of a skincare product or a diaper or a brand of energy bar, “I'm informed about this topic and I am someone whose opinion people seek out and I'm willing to share my opinion with you.” We're saying when we listen to a friend or buy on a friend's recommendation, “I have smart friends and I care about their opinions and I am going to be more like the people I admire when I spend money like they do.”
The reason this is an ethical trap is that we are both buying into the belief that our consumption habits are integral to our personhood and that imitating consumption habits will transform us to someone else (even if that transformation is slight).
Marketing is about selling a new you
This is now obvious to most of us but still a pretty big deal, in my opinion: what marketing is selling is not a product but a new you the product will make out of the existing you. You know the one. It's the you whose skin is not perfectly soft and smelling of “botanicals,” whose hair does not always bounce and glow and shine, whose kids do not clap their hands gleefully every time you serve them a snack in the back seat of your clean, comfortable, dual-DVD-equipped minivan.
(Side note: A few years back, J.D. posted this guest post about “Personal Marketing”, using advertising tools to convince yourself to save. What a great way to create the new you that you really want!)
The thing is that, more and more often, the you that you want to be is not an actress on a commercial but a friend of yours — either a real-life friend, or a “friend” whose blog you read and you've come to think of as a friend. (As a long-time blogger, I have blurred the line between these two categories; I actually have lots of real-life friends who started out as people-whose-blog-I-read, so for me this is, as they say, a “meta” phenomenon.)
The new you is the author of a blog
As The New York Times pointed out last weekend and I've certainly observed myself over the past few years, corporations have really keyed in to the fact that the blogger (especially women bloggers, and especially women bloggers who are moms) is the new influencer. The mom blogger is the new you you want to be — if you're a mom, of course, and often if you're a young woman who hopes to be a mom one day. She's very seductive, as she's able to create a world populated by the best bits of her life with her kids (most of us don't take photos of the kids refusing to eat kale chips or the mess in our minivan's back seat).
And the reason even the men among the readership should take note is that this does not, by any means, occur just among females; it's just in sharpest relief with mom bloggers, who are first making their blogs into mini-businesses (or not-so-mini) and then second being recognized for their role as a highly critical and powerful market force. Even in the age of two-income families and the at-home dad revolution, it's still women who make more purchase decisions for their household.
Here's how McDonald's thinks of you and your mom blogger icons
“Bloggers, and specifically mom bloggers, talk a lot about McDonald's,” says Rick Wion, director of social media for McDonald's USA, told The New York Times. “They're customers. They're going to restaurants… We identified them and said, ‘These are our key customers. These are our influencers for our brand.' We need to make sure we're working with them.”
They're working “with” them by working through them. It's a savvy ploy, and I've been watching this for years, thanks to my aforementioned real-life blogging buddies/buddies who are bloggers. McDonald's, or another company — I just got a persuasive email from Pampers; a few months ago I went to a fancy blogger shindig for Whole Foods — does not necessarily pay bloggers to write blog posts about them. That can be illegal and it can also create bad “buzz.”
What the corporations do is to butter up the bloggers by inviting them (I feel special!) to fancy events and one-on-one chats with high-up managers and celebrities (I feel listened to!) and then send them links and offer resources “in case” they want to write about their experiences, with a request that they send links after the posts go up (I think I might even get a new audience!). As that New York Times story said of the McDonald's headquarters boondoggle, “The posts that followed — each accompanied by a disclaimer noting their sponsorship by McDonald's — were overwhelmingly positive.”
Why would the mom bloggers — and your friends — talk pretty about big brands?
The reason mom bloggers and the people you meet at an investment club meeting or coffee shop talk up the big brands is for a lot of reasons, but I think there are three main psychological cues at work here:
- After having a personal experience with a company, we don't want to let anyone down. I've been in this very situation and can say that I worry about what the marketing rep or PR agent or social media outreach person will think of me if I accept an invite or a free product and don't write positively about it. I also worry about their feelings.
- If we get something good, we subconsciously react in a way that will ensure we keep on getting that good stuff. Whether that “good stuff” is freebies, or fancy trips to corporate headquarters, or lunch invitations, or very positive feedback, we're going to want it to happen again and we're going to act in a way we think will keep it coming.
- We want to be associated with the thing we admire. Even if we started out with a somewhat critical opinion — say of McDonald's marketing to kids, or the high expense of a brand of soap — once we meet an admirable executive connected to the company or are persuaded that the soap makes our skin so soft and fragrant, we want to be thought of as possessing these admirable qualities. Presto: we talk nice about the brand, subconsciously thinking that the admirable qualities will automatically rub off on us.
Hidden Valley Ranch and Knorr and how I said to myself, “no.”
I have an MBA and just am interested in product marketing, so I am automatically skeptical about such things. I am not shy about expressing delight in things I love, with or without freebies (I'm still hoping, though, that Theo Chocolates or Icebreaker will see my gushing over them and send me some promotional goodies), but I do try to hold myself back if I am indeed still critical after a brand's full-court-press.
Two examples of packaged food (salad dressing and chicken stock, in this case) blogger outreach are, I think, a perfect case in point. At BlogHer's 2011 conference in August, I was invited to cook with a celebrity chef. We made asparagus risotto, coached by Marco Pierre White, and were sent home with coupons and cookbooks. In another occasion, several friends of mine were invited to a very fancy several-course dinner utilizing Hidden Valley ingredients. One afternoon I sat in a coffee shop (ironically, the shop is connected to the farmer-direct food buying club of which I'm a loyal member) watching two of my friends tweet and Instagram the beautifully-presented concoctions some California chef had whipped up with this rather non-gourmet ingredient.
The fact is that, in both cases, I didn't think the prepared ingredients were any better (and certainly not cheaper) than my own homemade variety. And in both cases, I said to myself, “this is just not good.” And I did not “like” the photos — even though they were gorgeous! — and I decided not to blog a word about Knorr's cooking class.
Observe and abstain
The best way to deal with this, when your friends get caught up in marketing — going on a “Twitter tour” for some brand or bringing home freebies to share or having a giveaway for something you wouldn't ever buy, is to first observe. “This is clearly an effort to influence me,” you can say to yourself, and think about where it started, probably the Midwestern office complex of some huge corporation in a conference room filled with my business school classmates. And how your friend is the unwitting passer-on and buyer-into this quest to make a new him or her.
And just say (in your own brain), “no.” I suggest not getting angry or trying to convert your friend or writing a blog post about how insidious this brand is. I suggest not taking photos of the package or using the hashtag the brand asks you to. I suggest not commenting on the blog posts or entering the contest. Just say, “no,” to yourself, and go on spending your time in a way you value. Learn a language. Study up for your investment club. Make chicken stock. Earn $20 selling your old CD collection on eBay.
Just observe, and abstain.
Have you been marketed to by your friends, either aggressively or with every well meaning in the world? How have you responded?
Sarah is a blogger by trade and a finance geek at heart. She cut her teeth on her first Excel spreadsheet full of financials at the tender age of 21, when she began her investment banking career in First Unionâ€™s Loan Syndications group. She went on to get her MBA from Wharton, work at Merrill Lynch and fall in love with analyzing company strategy and endless rows of numbers. She got into blogging as a marketing strategy and the blogging took. She now is a freelance financial and (award-winning!) literary writer, working in between baking bread and finding socks for her three little boys in her beloved 1912 Portland, Oregon, home.
Sarah's even-more-personal blogging about being an Army wife, parenting, food, biking and life can be found at urbanMamas and Cafe Mama.