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Ever heard the expression “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”?

How about “People buy from people that they like”?

These two ideas represent polar opposites of marketing strategies used today by many small and mid-sized businesses.

The IBM quote reflects the idea that a ‘big business image’ will make prospects more comfortable buying from you.  This thinking leads to lots of letterhead, a shiny facade, and a highly ‘professionalized’ image.  It also leads many companies to try to look like they think people think they should look.  Sometimes this strategy works.  But often, it creates an impersonal, sterile, and generic brand identity.  Just the opposite of what makes people take notice of and appreciate a business.

On the other extreme is a simple formula for success: “be liked!”  In today’s business environment, where authenticity and uniqueness tends to be rewarded (when all other things are equal) give this strategy a little extra thought.  That’s where Wabi-sabi comes in.

How To Be Liked

We all know that it can be hard enough to have people like us, so what can you do as a business to be liked?  Other than loving your customers to death, and delivering outstanding value, the best thing you can do is be yourself.

Don’t be afraid to let the world know what you’re really like and what makes you unique.  Imperfections are real and people respond to real. Your prospects (or people in general) aren’t perfect.  The people that they like and associate with aren’t perfect.  There’s obviously got to be some redeeming quality, but it’s rarely a person’s polish or perfection.   In fact, polish and perfection often make people wary.  What is this person trying to cover up?

That’s why authenticity is such a powerful marketing tool.  Authenticity doesn’t set off the consumers’ BS meter like slick, hyped, or phony images do.  Authenticity doesn’t get you lost in the sea of me-too mediocrity.

The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi is built upon this premise.  Wabi-sabi, which has no direct English translation, simply means that there’s a beauty or poetry to anything that makes something unique.  Ever notice how traditional Japanese furniture often has large cracks or knot-holes?  Or a noticeable lack of symmetry?  That’s Wabi-sabi.  It’s the way nature made the wood and what makes it different from all the other furniture of similar function.  Wabi-sabi teaches that scratches and dents shouldn’t be covered up – they should be embraced – as long as the thing itself is useful.   Wabi-sabi is also about simplicity:  it teaches that things should be reduced to their essence – what makes them useful.  That’s all that’s needed.

From a marketing perspective, businesses that avoid pretense are Wabi-sabi.  They strive to be presentable and demonstrate that they’re conscientious instead of erecting fancy or phony veneers.  For example, firms that put their owners or real employees front and center in their ads (instead of models or actors) are using Wabi-sabi, particularly when those people don’t look like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.    Frank Purdue, the founder of Purdue Farms, was a great example of this.  The business that keeps things super-simple instead of having a lot of ‘professional’ forms and processes to impress clients is Wabi-sabi.  The business that proudly uses its 30-year old delivery trucks (impeccably cleaned and waxed of course) instead of buying a shiny new fleet is Wabi-sabi, particularly if it fits into a responsible, customer-centric image (i.e. we’re proud to drive a 1989 vehicle if it helps us keep customer prices down).  In your ads, talk like YOU talk, not like the ad agency that knows little about your business would talk.  That’s Wabi-sabi.

And when it comes to marketing, look for opportunities to be felt, and understood, as an authentic entity.  Avoid media and marketing opportunities that don’t allow you to express your uniqueness clearly and in emotional terms – just like real people do, especially the ones who are well-liked.  If a media demands that you have to be shinier or brighter, or use bolder typeface to stand out, look for other media that allow you to communicate more genuinely and directly.  And remember, none of this requires compromising on the things that matter most:  treating your customers well, delivering value, and standing behind what you do.  How do you think IBM got its start in the first place?

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