Mother-in-Law Marketing

I love my mother-in-law–I really do.  But I don’t like all mothers-in-law, or teen-aged sons or well-meaning friends when they whisper in the boss’s ear about what they think their son-in-law’s/spouse’s/friend’s marketing plan should be.  Has this ever happened to you?   

Once when I worked for a very large company, I was called into the CEO’s office and shown our ad in a very prominent women’s magazine that obviously contained a production error.  The ad was missing the yellow in the CMYK mix and looked terrible.  Even though I managed to get the make-good that we deserved, my boss’s mother-in-law wasn’t satisfied.  Her error-spotting gave her licence to make suggestions about what magazines we should be using, headlines, product shots–all elements of the marketing mix were now her expertise.

I unvented* the term mother-in-law marketing after this and subsequent episodes.  Mother-in-law marketing means taking your mother-in-law’s advice when she is not the target audience.  Or taking social media advice from your niece, because she’s a whiz on Facebook.  Or it can mean taking your friend’s advice because he uses the product–with free coupons that you’ve given him. 

The best approach to successful marketing is to pay attention to the target audience and only the target audience.  Demographics, psychographics, behaviors, attitudes, media habits and other attributes are all key drivers of what marketing strategies and tactics you use to reach that target market.  Your family and friends are giving you advice based on their likes and dislikes, rather than a global look at current and potential customers.  If your target audience consists entirely of your circle of friends and family, then listening to your mother-in-law is appropriate.  If you’re going for a bigger sales base, then focus on the customer.

The corollary to mother-in-law marketing is “I know the customer because it’s me.”  Yes, there is one customer like you.  No one else has the same biases and passion for the product as do company advocates.  Even if you (or your boss) developed the product, tested the product, successfully launched or managed the product, you are not the target audience.  This was my biggest epiphany early in my career as a marketer.  It’s like being in love: we all have blind spots for the object of our affection.  If we’re representing a brand, we have blind spots, too, even though we may know the product more intimately than anyone else.  In the larger universe, our customers don’t have those same biases and see the products with a different perspective than those of us “in love” with the brand.

How can we see our brands as our customers do?  Traditionally, market research (primary or secondary) has given us insight into other people’s perceptions about our products.  Recently, we’ve gained more tools to assess our target market’s attitudes: social media, website feedback, interactive programs and crowd-sourcing are just a few. 

You certainly won’t relish sitting next to your mother-in-law at Thanksgiving, explaining why the ideas she gave you didn’t pass muster with your 18-24 year-old male target whose number one activity is gaming on his newest mobile device–not reading Oprah magazine.   Be tactful, yet forceful, when turning down unsolicited advice from your spouse, father, friends, boss or whomever is not in your target market.  It’s difficult, but necessary, to explain that the thoughts of your friends and family don’t matter–the only opinions that matter are those of the target audience. 

* unvented:  (verb) to “invent” something that someone may have invented previously.  British knitting designer Elizabeth Zimmerman doubted that anything was really new in the ancient craft of knitting.  Instead of taking credit for inventing techniques, she used the term “unventing,” humbly acknowledging that what’s old is new again.  I’m not sure if I invented the term “mother-in-law marketing,” so I prefer saying that I unvented it.

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