Is marketing unavoidably manipulative, predatory, a necessary evil?
It’s a question that troubles more than a few health and wellness businesses.
Just this week both a yoga studio and a weight loss and nutrition program told me that:
“I love talking to people about what we do. But I hate marketing. I guess it’s a necessary evil, but it feels so manipulative and dishonest.”
Of course I had to know why they felt that way. They said:
- It feels like lying about what you do just to make a sale.
- It’s manipulating people into buying something they might not normally buy
- It’s high-pressure
- It’s about trying to hide the things that people don’t like
- It’s all about trying to grab people’s attention when they don’t want to talk to you.
- It’s always pushing people to “BUY NOW!”
I totally agree with them. If that’s what you’re doing, it is manipulative and unethical.
But is that truly the essence of marketing–or just a caricature of it created by door-to-door solicitors, telemarketers and late-night-TV commercials?
What is the greater purpose of marketing?
Here’s how Radial defines marketing:
Marketing is authentic, truthful and ethical communication whose explicit purpose is to help people understand your approach, programs and services, and customer experience so that they can decide whether or not it’s a good fit for them.The Radial Group
That means coming to terms with the fact that your business simply is not the right answer for 100% of the people who consider you. Some people are always going to want something other than what you offer.
Ethical marketing means letting people walk away without shouting and chasing after them. It’s based on transparent communication and the acknowledgement that your business is the perfect match for some, a good match for others, and just not right for everyone else. It’s about helping prospects decide whether to invest time or money checking things out and making their own choices–even though it means you won’t convert every prospect into a paying customer.
It’s right for your business, too. Relentless focus on the types of customers you serve best is hands-down the best way to get great reviews, repeat business, and excellent word of mouth. Trying to be everything to everyone simply guarantees mediocrity.
Must marketing conflict with a desire to serve?
Many health, fitness, and wellness businesses have a true passion for helping members, clients and patients find their own path to a healthier, happier life. They model servant-leadership in their beliefs and in their daily behavior, guided by core principles like mutual respect, integrity and transparency, and lack of selfishness.
Many say they’d actually give away services if they could afford to. Their angst about marketing reflects an existential struggle between wanting to give back to the community and needing to make money for all the things that only money makes possible.
Some wellness leaders even describe taking customers’ money as a necessary evil, something to apologize for. So it’s not surprising that proactively marketing their services seems especially undesirable.
But without marketing, you leave customers to guess what you do, to guess which customers you serve best, to guess your distinctive strengths. That consumes the time and energy of people you could be busy helping. You cannot help them if they cannot find you. And without outreach, your resources dwindle until they can no longer keep you afloat.
It is not kind to hide your light and remain silent, and it is not compassionate to undermine your own mission.
When does marketing become manipulative?
It starts with wishful thinking about what your business does, who you serve best, and why those customers value you. Then it’s fed by digging in on the narrative that your business is right for everyone. What’s often behind this thinking is urgency to get as many customers as possible, as fast as possible.
- Trying to convince folks that your huge, intimidating health club with very little personal attention will be the perfect fit for an overweight, body-conscious newbie who doesn’t know where to start
- Trying to convince men that your successful women-only weight loss program is exactly right for them, too
- When your bariatric surgery practice presses a patient to take advantage of a limited-time special offer despite obvious psychological issues likely to result in a poor long-term result
- Touting praise that no customer has ever actually offered
What does manipulative marketing look like?
- It sets false expectations, like a chiropractor who touts “relief in 3 sessions” but actually encourages patients returning for appointments as long as possible.
- It misleads, like a medical practice that says it accepts insurance without clarifying upfront that it’s not in-network with even one provider.
- It deliberately obfuscates pricing, like a health club that won’t quote prices over the phone because their go-to sales strategy is fast talk and scribbling a confusing array of membership options and prices on a scratchpad.
- It ignores customer concerns in order to get the sale, like a yoga studio that signs up a student with serious health considerations that they have no expertise dealing with.
- It downplays important terms and conditions, like a 30-day notice requirement for membership cancellation that doesn’t even start until after the current billing month ends.
- It cynically exploits unhappiness and desperation, like a bridal bootcamp that promises X pounds of weight loss even though virtually no client reaches that goal.
What does ethical marketing look like?
- It provides realistic descriptions of key programs and services—how they work, their features and benefits, and the customer experience, rather than aspirational language about what you eventually hope to offer.
- It spells out which types of customers it serves best, like prenatal yoga or self-massage for runners, healthy lifestyle change for people with Type 2 diabetes, and body-confidence programs.
- It illuminates why your “best-fit customers” think you’re worth paying for, like your strength in helping “weekend warriors” rehab or your fabulous mindful movement classes for toddlers.
- It sets clear expectations regarding prospects’ goals and objectives rather than making ridiculously overhyped claims or overpromising results to override their better judgment.
- It anticipates common questions and anxieties to help prospects quickly assess whether it’s a good fit or not, like a weight loss program that provides case studies on their website.
- It explains its approach to help prospects decide whether that sounds like a fit or they should keep looking.
- It reveals prices, price ranges or starting prices early in the process to avoid wasting prospects’ time.
- It uses easy-to-understand terms and conditions to avoid unpleasant future surprises.
Ethical marketing can also include community outreach that integrates your business practices with socially or environmentally responsible values, like an aquatics center that conserves water or a counseling practice that provides pro bono services to a local domestic violence shelter.
How do we ethically market our business?
These questions are a good starting point:
- What goals or challenges are we best at helping people solve?
- Which customer personas and temperaments are best-matched to what we offer? (picture a real person like Buff Bob, Newbie Ned, or No-Spandex-Sally, not a statistic like male age 30-45, median income X, or just “women.”)
- What questions, concerns and anxieties do potential customers have?
- Which of our programs and services matter most to them?
- What’s the best way to help potential new customers get a sense of our customer experience?
- What do existing customers say about the value they get for the price?
- What information do potential new customers need to make a confident yes/no decision?
- What else is special about our business that might make a difference to prospects?
- What’s the best way to help interested folks get a taste of our customer experience before they buy?
When you answer these questions confidently and honestly, you’re well on your way to developing an ethical marketing plan based on truth, your authentic value to customers, and your ability to deliver the customer experience you promised.
No lies, no manipulation, no angry customers or disappointed reviews.