Pandering in marketing

From Pathos to Pandering in Marketing: How Much Is Too Much?

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, I usually wake up at 3 a.m. with my pregnant wife in my New York City apartment and wonder what the hell I’m doing. People are dying, and many more are losing their livelihoods and struggling financially. I worry about my loved ones and agonize over what the future may hold for them and the rest of the world.

Fortunately, my family is safe for now, and I still have a job to do. It’s not the heroic effort of frontline workers, but it is something. As the economy slowly opens up again, content marketers face the human challenge of being helpful without being salesy. We want to let our clients and customers know we are there for them and that we are aware of their financial and health hardships. At the same time, we aim to market in a way that does not come off as tone-deaf or smarmy. Or pandering.

Striking the right balance can be tricky. Katie Martell, our favorite “unapologetic marketing truth-teller,” is working on a documentary, “Pandermonium,” about marketing’s relationship to social causes. We asked for her advice on how to avoid pandering in marketing as the world comes out of this crisis.

Operate With Authenticity

Sure, “authenticity” is a marketing buzzword that can seem as real as an Instagram filter. But content marketers get into trouble when they don’t stay in their lane. That's when they run the risk of pandering in marketing.

“The long and short of it is if you want to be authentic during a pandemic, respect your place in the world of your buyers already,” Martell says. “Don't operate as if you're within a bubble and make the mistake of trying to be top of mind for a buyer. There is no being top of mind in a pandemic. What’s top of mind is survival and dealing with child care and dealing with concerns around job security.”

A strong company mission can help brands figure out what authentic content they can produce in the coronavirus aftermath without pandering in marketing. “Understanding your company's purpose, having a mission, all those words we often mistake for fluff in marketing,” Martell says.

Martell points to the business impacts of COVID-19 research done by advisory firm Topo as a good example of a B2B company following its mission, which is to help marketing and sales organizations grow their revenue faster.

“Content right now is going to show how well you understand the world of your buyers and how well you understand the whole ecosystem that you operate in,” she says. “You have to show that you have something new to add to the conversation, that you've got guidance and expertise.”

Show, Don’t Tell

A company’s mission shouldn’t just resonate in the content, but in its actions too, Martell says.

For instance, Atlassian, which makes project management software Jira and Trello, is providing many of its collaboration tools to small teams for free because its mission is "unleashing the potential of every team." “It's how marketing can help to direct companies in a way that prioritizes action over the expression of virtue,” she says.

From a content perspective, showing not telling means content marketers will have to get creative with data-driven stories, guides and compelling personal or customer narratives. “What do you have uniquely that you can offer your buyers that can be a helpful resource and not just more noise in their inbox?,” Martell asks. She likes the customer data that the research company dscout shared about what people think about life during the pandemic.

Avoid Pandering in Marketing: Simplify Your Message

People will continue to be stressed out as the stay-at-home orders are lifted and some sort of normalcy is restored. Content marketers should be aware of the extreme demands on their customers’ attention.

One easy way to have your content fit the stressful times without pandering in marketing is for it to be scannable, relatable and simple. “Stress in on the buyer's mind doesn’t allow them to make thoughtful, complex decisions with ease,” Martell says. “The lizard brain goes in effect right now, the one that's in survival mode, the one that's obsessed with gathering information and is then stuck in information overload. We've got to make content both simple and prescriptive.”

Don’t mistake simple for dumb-downed. It’s about breaking down the buying process in an efficient way that helps people under stress make smarter business decisions.

“Simple is hard, especially with B2B,” Martell says. “It's our job right now. We can’t just dump information on people who are already dealing with a 24-7 news cycle and the immense stress caused by this pandemic.”

Tom Anderson is a senior content marketing consultant at Rep Cap and managing editor of Managing Editor magazine. His work has appeared in CNBC.com, Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Money, Monocle and Wired. He was a 2008-09 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economics and Business Journalism at Columbia University. He was born in St. Louis, but his heart is in New York.

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