Stories worth noting

As printed in The Marketplace – September/October 2017

This I Know: Marketing Lessons From Under the Influence. By Terry O’Reilly (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017, 320 pp. $34 CDN.)


Terry O’Reilly is a master storyteller. Even people who are uninterested in the worlds of radio advertising, marketing and branding are drawn to his tales about corporate successes and failures.

In This I Know, O’Reilly has drawn on more than three decades of award-winning advertising production, and 12 years of radio shows to put together a book brimming with fascinating insights about successful positioning, messaging, branding and customer service.

Carried coast to coast by CBC Radio in Canada, as well as on SIRIUS XM and WBEZ Chicago in the U.S., his Under the Influence radio program boasts over a million listeners per week in Canada alone, with a podcast that has been downloaded over 17 million times. The show also claims a following in Britain, Germany, France, Ireland, Sweden, Australia, Japan, China, Philippines and Mexico.

While many people find advertising to be a nuisance, O’Reilly argues that it is a fascinating business that studies human nature, offering “a granular look at what makes us tick.”

To succeed, companies must understand what business they are in, and have the sense to know that they need to sell a solution rather than a product, he writes. Great brands understand this. Coke succeeds not because of its formula for sugar water, but rather its ability to link its product to happiness. Häagen-Dazs sells not ice cream, but “sensual pleasure.” Apple is in the personal empowerment business. Nike is in the motivation business.

Marketers can only succeed if they can describe what business they are in and do so in a fashion that appeals to a client’s emotions, he says. Given that decisions are made using the heart 80 per cent of the time and with the head only 20 per cent of the time, he can’t understand why so many pitches are aimed solely at the intellect.

O’Reilly argues that the estimate of people being exposed to more than 3.000 advertising messages a day is “laughably low.” Of that flood of information clamoring for attention, people notice six messages and retain only two.

His assessment of the value of simple elevator pitches — “In a clutter world of distracted attention, complication is kryptonite” is an important reminder for anyone who has to make an argument for something — whether they are in sales or not.

Eric Schmidt, a former Google CEO, once noted that more information is generated every day now than all of civilization created before 2003. O’Reilly uses this story to buttress his case for the value of emotional content.

Companies that rely on trust should never ask customers to trust them, or they risk sowing doubt about their trustworthiness. Instead, “tell stories about trust,” he writes. “…Trust is meant to be felt but never stated. Like excellence, quality and reliability, those compliments shouldn’t be self-referential.”

The book contains useful advice for job seekers and people who are established in their careers. For the former, there is good thinking on resume preparation. For the latter, practical tips for anyone who must present to colleagues, clients or larger audiences. Each presentation needs to be viewed as “a piece of performance art,” with attention paid to creating an “atmosphere of approval,” proper structure, and as much attention paid to preparing the ending as the set-up.

O’Reilly values playing the “What If” game, where no idea is too crazy to be complicated, and banking on intuition. For him, successful marketing requires understanding that timing is persuasion, so knowing when to present a message can be as important as the message itself.

Likewise, he thinks it is crucial to understand the difference between a nudge and a push, how prospects can be drawn in by the former and repelled by the latter.

He views obsessive commitment to customer service as being the best way to retain and grow a customer base, as well as causing competitors to find you “really, completely irritating.”


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