Memorizing vs. Knowing

By Ron Rosenberg

When you were in school and you wanted to do well on a test, you paid attention in class, did your homework, and studied for your exams.

It's no different in marketing - you need to pay attention, do your homework, and prepare as best as you possibly can to communicate the benefits of your products and services to a market that needs them.

And just as in marketing, there are some instances where you need more specialized training and advanced skills to master the task at hand.

The "Eyes" Have It

For example, we have a friend who is an ophthalmologist - and a fairly specialized one at that - he's the guy you go to when you have a very specific type of retinal problem.

He studied for many years to prepare for medical school, put in four years there, and then did internships, residencies, and additional specialized training to reach the level of expertise that enables him to successfully handle certain types of procedures that other doctors wouldn't even attempt.

But if his training only consisted of studying the theory of medicine, reading a lot of literature about the eye, and observing other surgeons performing similar procedures, you might think twice about letting him near your eyes with a scalpel or laser.

You can reach a certain level of knowledge that way; but in most cases, you need the wisdom that can only come from experience.

Be Careful Who You Listen To...

A humorous example is the 1989 comedy, She's Out of Control, staring Tony Danza. In this movie, a widower's 15-year-old daughter, with the help of a friend, transforms herself from "plain-looking" to an absolute beauty, much to the surprise and concern of her father.

Looking for help on how to deal with her new-found popularity, he begins to get advice from a radio therapist (played brilliantly by the character actor Wallace Shawn) who has written a book on how to parent teenage girls.

The father dutifully follows the advice with comically disappointing results...only to discover near the end of the movie that the so-called "expert" doesn't actually have any children of his own!

Needless to say, there's an entertaining conflict when this previously hidden fact is finally revealed.

How Well Do You Know Your Market?

We frequently see similar "disconnects" in people's marketing and promotional strategies.

For example, we were at the popular "Saturday Market" on a recent trip to Portland, Oregon. There were hundreds of vendors selling various handmade items from clothing to artwork to household items.

One booth had lots of products for wine lovers, including beautiful wooden wine racks, hand-carved corkscrews, and wine bottle stoppers like the one in the photo to the left.

There was no doubt about the quality of the craftsmanship - but we had quite a chuckle about the stoppers.

You see, oxygen is the enemy of wine. When the wine is bottled, the air is removed, and a cork (or sometimes a screw top) is used to seal the bottle and protect the contents. If this seal is broken (usually by a faulty or degraded cork) oxygen enters the bottle and, given enough time, even the finest bottle of wine will turn to vinegar.

So if you open a nice bottle of wine and don't finish it that day, you probably don't want to use one of these bottle stoppers because it's only marginally better than just leaving the bottle open. Instead, you need something that will remove the air from the bottle - either with a vacuum-pump system or by spraying the inside of the bottle with a heavier-than-air gas like nitrogen that expels the air.

The point here, though, is not to give a mini-lesson in caring for wines, but rather to illustrate an important marketing point: you have to know your market.

Some of these bottle stoppers were beautifully made - works of art in and of themselves. But functionally, they were worthless, and while someone might buy one for us as a thoughtful gift - knowing that we enjoy wine - we'd appreciate the kind gesture...but we'd never actually use it.

How Can You Learn About Your Market?

The best way, of course, is to already have experience in the field. Barring that, the next best approach is to get some experience by spending time in the industry - shadowing someone, talking to people, and paying attention.

For example, in the early 1960s, Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony Corporation, decided he wanted to expand the company and sell its products in the United States.

To make sure he understood the market, he moved to New York City in 1963 and lived there for three years to personally run the US operation, and, more importantly, to learn first-hand about the people he would be selling to.

He held frequent mid-week parties and built an extensive network of personal and professional contacts. And he also built the brand and helped expand the company to its current position of global dominance.

Are You Willing to Invest the Time?

In one of the "corporate" jobs I held earlier in my career, I ran the Quality department for a division of a large multinational telecommunications company. I had the opportunity to interact with our customers from NTT - Japan's largest phone company.

One of them spoke flawless English, with only the faintest hint of an accent. I had studied Japanese in college, and this came in handy for some of the meetings, but with this individual, his English was so far superior to my Japanese that we conducted all of our business easily and naturally in English.

When I asked him how he had learned the language so well, his answer startled me. He explained that when he was selected to work with our group, NTT had sent him - on company time - to take English lessons for four hours a day, five days a week, for six months.

And remember - he was the customer! On our team, I was the only one who spoke any Japanese at all, and I promise you, it wasn't at a level of complete fluency.

To Be Successful You Have to Live in Your Customer's World

You must understand their business, their lives, their motivations, their hidden fears, and their secret desires. You need to understand what gets them up in the morning and what they think about when they go to bed at night.

And while you can acquire a certain level of knowledge through research, there's truly no substitute for spending time with your customers.

That's the difference between memorizing and knowing.