4028353766_1326313519Never ask a bar­ber if you need a hair­cut

- Cow­boy Wis­dom as quoted by War­ren Buffet

Your web­site, e-mail, and direct mail copy all suf­fers from a flaw that kills reader belief.  And there’s no real way to pre­vent that prob­lem — only workarounds and par­tial solutions.

It’s the nature of the copy­writ­ing beast to suf­fer the fate of the bar­ber telling peo­ple they need a hair­cut — the vested inter­est of the speaker works against his believ­abil­ity.

And that’s why sto­ries come in so handy.  While the right story won’t pre­vent the prob­lem, it will over­come it with a dou­ble whammy of psy­chol­ogy capa­ble of crush­ing this cred­i­bil­ity gap like an empty beer can. Here’s why:

1) Flat­tery works, even when you know the flat­tery isn’t sincere.

Or so says recent psy­cho­log­i­cal research titled: “Insin­cere Flat­tery Actu­ally Works”.  Even though we like to think that we’re too smart to be influ­enced by insin­cere flat­tery, our intel­lec­tual under­stand­ing of the intent to per­suade doesn’t stop the emo­tional influ­ence of the mes­sage.

And the same also extends to a story that flat­ters the lis­tener.  A story that flat­ters your prospec­tive cus­tomers’ sen­si­bil­i­ties, sus­pi­cions, judge­ments, or aspi­ra­tions will emo­tion­ally influ­ence them, even when they rec­og­nize your vested inter­est in telling the story.

This stands in sharp con­trast to brag­ging, which never works regard­less of how sin­cere it might be. So why does most copy brag instead of flat­ter? In the words of Bryan Eisen­berg, why is there so much we-we copy?

While emotional-directed adver­tis­ing has his­tor­i­cally per­formed twice as well as purely ratio­nal ads, the key to mak­ing those ads work is to focus on the buyer’s emo­tion, not the seller’s.

2) We uncon­sciously “see” things through the eyes of the story’s protagonist

When lis­ten­ing to a story, we under­stand the nar­ra­tive by pic­tur­ing the expe­ri­ence as it occurs to the pro­tag­o­nist.  When we hear a story, we iden­tify with the pro­tag­o­nist, not just visu­ally, but emo­tion­ally. That’s why we love happy end­ings, and why watch­ing an authen­tic tragedy leaves us feel­ing dev­as­tated and drained.

Put these two psy­cho­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples together with the right kind of story and you’ve got per­sua­sive dyna­mite.  Here’s a per­fect case study demon­strat­ing just how effec­tive this can be:

Beck­ley Automotive’s 30% Sales Jump

My friend and col­league, Chuck McKay, works with a 15-bay repair shop in Des Moines by the name of Beck­ley Auto­mo­tive.  Steve Beckley’s shop works on the Euro­pean Imports he loves and dri­ves him­self: Audi, BMW, Mer­cedes, Land Rover, Mini, Volk­swa­gen, Saab, and Volvo (along with Acura, Lexus, and Infinity).

For years Steve has pur­chased lists of Euro­pean Import own­ers in Des Moines and has used mul­ti­ple post card mail­ings to remind own­ers that some­one in town under­stands all the ins and outs of the cars they drive. Over the years those cards have payed off handsomely.

But the cards suf­fered from the “bar­ber telling you you need a hair­cut” prob­lem: it’s just not very cred­i­ble when any­one brags about how great they are — espe­cially when they’re out to get your business.

So Chuck advised Steve Beck­ley to do two things with his mailings:

  1. Stop appeal­ing to Euro­pean Import own­ers and start appeal­ing to own­ers of spe­cific brands.  In the words of Chuck: “A Range Rover owner doesn’t think of him­self as a ‘Euro­pean Import Owner.’  He thinks of him­self as some­one who dri­ves a Range Rover.  Speak directly to him.”  In other words, appeal to emo­tion& self-identity.
  2. Stop speak­ing like an adver­tiser and start com­mu­ni­cat­ing more like a good friend.  Start telling sto­ries.

So to Steve’s immense credit, he took that advice, ditched his old copy, and wrote awe­somely effec­tive sto­ries for each of the Euro­pean mar­ques he works on.  Sto­ries like this one he sent to Mer­cedes owners:

Beckley Imports

Wouldn’t You Feel Smug?

Can you just imag­ine how self-satisfied you’d feel upon read­ing this story if you owned and drove a Mer­cedes Benz? You might just feel down­right smug after read­ing that story.  And even though you’d know, in the back of your mind some­where, that Beck­ley Auto­mo­tive was try­ing to flat­ter you with that story, it wouldn’t mat­ter: you’d still walk away a heck of lot more likely to call them for your auto work.

Indeed, that was exactly the case for recip­i­ents of these story-based post­card mail­ers, whose increased patron­age of Beck­ley Auto­mo­tive led to a 29.9% increase in sales this March over March of last year.

And that’s the power of smug.

It’s also a great way to sell a man a hair­cut when all the world can see that you’re a barber.

P.S. Chuck McKay does a lot more than advise clients on mes­sag­ing and copy.  He’s also a superb Busi­ness and Mar­ket­ing Strate­gist who man­ages to com­bine those rare-enough-on-their-own traits of clear think­ing, small busi­ness savvy, and cre­ative exe­cu­tion.  If you’re look­ing to grow in spite of the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate, do your­self a favor — check out Chuck’s blog and drop him a mes­sage.


  1. Ken Brand on 04.19.2010

    Awe­somely insight­ful. Thanks Jeff.

  2. Bruce Alles on 04.20.2010

    Very good! I sent it to my group.

  3. Caroline Barry on 04.20.2010

    Thanks for shar­ing this with us last week Jeff! You really got us thinking.

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