Marketers have a harder job than most of us realize. They have to overcome issues of information asymmetry, trust, competition for attention and resources, and simultaneously discover a deep understanding of what people care about. That’s why Unreasonable Mentor Paul Polak stated, “Building a radically transformative technology or service is 20% of the job of an entrepreneur. The real challenge, 80% of the job, is the marketing and distribution.”
Building a technology or service is 20% of the job of an entrepreneur—80% of the job is marketing and distribution. Tweet This Quote
So in the field I’m interested in (creating social and environmental impact), what works? There’s absolutely no formula or simple answer—if there were, it wouldn’t be so hard.
But in the past few years, I’ve encountered three stories that make me think there’s one remarkably overlooked aspect of getting people to change their behavior, especially when it comes to promoting life-saving services: dignity.
1. Show, don’t tell
My friend Blake Angelo told me a story about a Peace Corps volunteer working in a small village in Africa. The people of the village would “take care of business” in a large pit in one corner of the village each day. The smell was overwhelming, and the Peace Corps volunteer repeatedly tried to explain that the pit was the source of serious, life-threatening illnesses across the community.
An overlooked aspect of getting people to change their behavior, especially when it comes to promoting life-saving services, is dignity. Tweet This Quote
When the villagers said, “How can that be?” the Peace Corps volunteer explained that flies would sit on fecal matter in the pit, get covered in harmful germs, and then land on exposed food the villagers would eat.
Without a concept of germs, the villagers found this very difficult to believe or understand, so they ignored the Peace Corps Volunteer. Racking his brain on how to get the message across, he eventually had an idea. He went to the local market and bought 10 heavy bags of flour, which he transported to the uncovered pit. Holding his breath, he tore open the bags of flour and emptied them all across the pit, covering it entirely.
Then he waited. Over the next few days, the villagers began to see white flies—which had rolled around in the flour-covered, feces-filled pit—all over the village. They finally understood what the Peace Corps Volunteer was trying to tell them and began making plans to cover the pit and install latrines.
What’s most credible to us is when we can see the consequences of our current behavior and understand there’s a need to change. Tweet This Quote
Ultimately, people trust their own judgment most of all. Even when experts tell us of threats to our health, it’s hard to change behavior (take a look at smokers, for instance).
What’s most credible to us is when we can see the consequences of our current behavior (like Body Worlds Museum Exhibits making it possible for people to see the shriveled, blackened lung of a smoker) and understand there’s a need to change.
2. Aesthetics matter
Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen, wrote a story about one of Acumen Fund’s investees, A-Z Textile Mills, working to sell mosquito nets in Tanzania. In an “Avon Lady” like model, A-Z Textile Mills hires and trains saleswomen from the villages where they are looking to sell nets.
Upon reviewing their sales records one quarter, they discovered that one of the saleswomen had dramatically outsold her peers. Curious to understand why her methods were so effective, the A-Z Team followed her as she went on her daily sales visits.
People will choose to buy products because they feel honored by the intention put in to make them beautiful.
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Most of the salespeople would knock on doors, greet the woman of the house and begin explaining how effective these mosquito nets were in decreasing the incidence of malaria—how they could make the difference between life or death. But this particular saleswoman barely mentioned that.
Instead, her pitch went something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “Look at these colors! Look at how beautiful these nets are! You can hang them from your ceiling here. Think of what your neighbors will say about your taste and about how much you take care of your children. Think how much better you’ll sleep at night without those mosquitos buzzing in your ears. And yes,” she added as though it were an afterthought, “the nets also will protect your family from sickness.”
What’s illuminating about this story is I would have thought most certainly that “life-saving” would be the key selling point for these nets. But as 2010 Unreasonable Fellow Zehra Ali of Pakistan beautifully put it, “In aesthetics, there is dignity”—and dignity is what moves people to act. People will choose to buy products, whether they are MacBooks or Mosquito nets, because they feel honored by the intention put in to make them beautiful.
In aesthetics there is dignity, and dignity is what moves people to act. Tweet This Quote
3. Feeling significant matters
Similar to the desire to feel the dignity that comes from using aesthetic products, people—whatever economic background they come from—also want to feel significant. Ad genius Rory Sutherland tells a fascinating story of how King Frederick the Great convinced the Prussian peasantry to adopt the potato using this aspect of human psychology in this TED Talk (around minute 3:25).
At the time, the Prussian economy relied almost solely on wheat as a staple crop, putting the people in danger of famine in the event of poor rainfall, infestation or crop disease.
People, no matter what economic background they come from, want to feel significant. Tweet This Quote
He began by mandating that Prussians begin to grow and consume the potato. However, it didn’t work. The peasants thought the potato looked incredibly ugly, they didn’t know how to cook it or eat it, and they weren’t in the habit of eating many vegetables. Frederick the Great apparently even ordered the execution of people who refused to eat the potato, but it made no difference in adoption rates.
So, he tried a different approach. He declared the potato a “Royal Vegetable” to be eaten only by the Royal Family. He had it grown exclusively in a Royal Potato Patch, which he enlisted guards to protect. He secretly ordered them, however, not to guard the patch very well. In short order, peasants, eager to taste the Royal Vegetable, snuck into the Royal Potato Patch, helped themselves to their share of potatoes, and within a few years, the potato became a staple crop in Prussia.
We may develop products and services that really work in improving people’s lives. But our customers won’t adopt our technologies if we don’t find ways to help them clearly see the problem and solution for themselves, if we don’t show them we honor them by putting intention into the aesthetic design of the solution, nor if we don’t make them feel significant.
If you want to get people to use your product or change their behavior, make dignity your selling point.
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Think about your own marketing strategy. Do you view marketing as merely getting the word out about what you have to offer? Or does your marketing help the people who use your product or service feel dignified in doing so? If you want to get people to use your product or change their behavior, make dignity your selling point.
A version of this post originally published on UNREASONABLE.is in July 2013. It has been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.