When On-message Marketing Makes for Off-trust Sales

Being “on-message” is a sort of  First Principle for marketers.  (You may be more aware of the term through politicians, who in recent years have become astute consumers of marketing technologies).

The “on-message” concept is closely allied to the broader strategic term “alignment.” The core idea is—if you get all the parts humming in sync, you will certainly avoid contradictions, and probably create synergies.

Who could argue with that?

Well, like any good concept taken to excess, it can turn nasty.  That’s what happens when marketing pushes the “on message” concept too hard onto sales.

What caught my eye was the cover story of the September 2007 issue of PharmaVoice (though it’s not an issue unique to Pharma—it can be found in professional services or technology as well):

The pharmaceutical industry can no longer afford to be off-message—not even once—in this exceedingly competitive marketplace…
Innovative pharmaceutical companies are redefining the communications process by tearing down the walls between the different factions: agencies, sales, marketing, and public relations.

By including “sales” with agencies, PR and marketing in a broader process called “communication,” sales is potentially being set up for lowered trust.

Sales should be about dialogue between seller and customer. That means two-way conversation—synchronous—at the individual level. PR and marketing by contrast are largely one-way—asynchronous—a monologue, and almost always one-to-many, rather than individual (one-to-one marketing is largely aspirational).

Customers have no problem with marketing, as long as it doesn’t claim to be personal and synchronous. Customers have no problem with sales, as long as it is a true personal dialogue.

Trouble happens when one mode pretends to be the other. And that is what happens when sales is forced to operate mainly in the “on-message” mode. For a salesperson to be “on-message” means they are “off-dialogue” and asynchronous—while still pretending not to be. Result: customer disconnect.

Basically, we don’t trust people who insist on mouthing ad slogans at us.

That doesn’t mean salespeople should be random content-generators, or that they should shy away from marketing dialogues. It simply means that, past some point, treating sales as an extension of marketing will erode sales effectiveness.

What that point is, is hard to define. Just where do the plains end, and the mountains begin? The fact that the transition point may be hard to define doesn’t mean mountains don’t exist.

Think of it this way. If marketing is in charge of all your sales collateral materials—you may be an “on-message” abuser. If marketing is scripting selected sentences at the individual word level—you may be an “on-message” abuser. If marketing gives sales a list of “don’t-talk-about” topics—you may be an “on-message” abuser.

If you believe sales could and should be replaced by significant improvements in targeting and delivery via alternate media—then you probably are an on-message abuser, because you don’t believe in the unique value of human one-to-one contact.

Humans have their own message wave-length. And if you want your message to be heard, you’d better start with hearing theirs.  Being on message isn’t much good if it means no one’s listening.