A Marketing Lesson From An Alley Cat

Marketing is all about Perception

We’ve all heard the saying that “perception is reality”.  This statement is really a law in marketing.  If you don’t understand the perceptions of your audience or multiple audiences, you’ll have little chance of getting your message across.  It just won’t happen.

What does this have to do with an alley cat? 

It may be a bit of a stretch, but a story I recently heard about about our cat, Louie, got me to thinking about marketing perceptions and why they are so difficult to unmask.

Louie, The Alley Cat

Louie, The Alley Cat

The short version is that a couple of years ago, Louie, an alley cat, started hanging out on our patio.  He’d visit every day for months, bask in the sun, look adorable and do all of the things cats know how to do to worm their way into your heart.  As it started getting colder and wetter, Louie began checking out our living accommodations.  It was as if this big aging alley cat was saying to himself…

“Another winter is coming and I’m getting to old to hang out in the alley.  That sofa will do just fine.”

We opened the patio door one wet and cold evening, Louie walked in and he was ours or we were his.  This red tabby was home.  All 16 pounds of him.

Flash forward two years.  Last week, my husband is chatting with a neighbor who mentioned he hadn’t seen the big red tabby around and surmised  the coyotes got him.  My husband explained that Louie came inside and we are now his servants in waiting.

The neighbor expressed great surprise as his perception of Louie was he was one really tough cat.  A bruiser.  Seems our neighbor had witnessed Louie chasing after a deer in the garden.  We live near a large park so it is not unusual to see deer around, but it is highly unusual to see a cat go after a deer.

We had no idea our lap lovin’ love muffin was a deer hunter or what he thought he could do to a deer, but high marks for ambition.  I do recall a mental shift.  I saw our Louie in a different light.

The Point?

For some in our neighborhood, Louie has the reputation of being a bruiser.  To us, he’s a lazy lover.  The way these perceptions were formed are through the accumulation of our individual experiences with the identical cat.  In Louie’s case, these perceptions are polar opposite.

This is the same process that occurs in the minds of your prospects and your customers.  They visit your store, or your website, social media sites, call for information or customer service and every interaction, no matter how small, is consciously or sub-consciously etched onto their minds creating a perception of you, your staff, your product and your service.

Perceptions Matter

They really do, which is why the big boys spend so much time and money doing marketing research to uncover the perceptions in the minds of their audiences.  They understand the need to control and shape that perception in order to achieve sales and to continue to grow.

But one has to be careful.  Negative perceptions, if not nipped in the bud, can take on a life of their own and bring a company to its knees.  Creating a false perception to cover up bad product or lousy customer service can be disastrous as consumers see through phony pretenses.

What’s a Small Business owner to do? 

Assuming you can’t afford to outsource research, you can begin to uncover the perceptions of your audience(s) by doing your own marketing research.  I used to conduct such studies for the big boys, but here’s a rough outline of how you can do your own research

1.  Write down a list of personality attributes you would like your audience to use when describing your business.  Think of personality attributes needed in your business or industry such as honesty, integrity, fun-loving, courteous, leader, cutting edge, in-the-know, knowledgeable, etc.  Go ahead and make a long list.

2. Identify one other company you believe is your strongest competitor.  Think of personality characteristics that might be used to define them.  Be objective.  Every company is perceived in some positive way – even competitors.  Winnow the list down to 10 or 12 key characteristics.

3.  Create an online survey that includes your list of attributes using SurveyMonkey or whatever free online survey tool you want to use.  Design the survey so that each person will rate their IDEAL (fill-in your business.), you and at least one of your competitors.  This means they will have to walk through the rating process three times.

Ideal Rating = How important is this attribute on a 5 point scale (very important to not at all important)

Rating for you and competitors = How well does this attribute describe… (extremely well to not at all well)

4.  Pretest your survey by asking your staff or a trusted friends familiar with your business to complete the survey.  Ask if there are other personality attributes they would add to the list.  Make any needed  revisions.  If you’re concerned about the time factor, drop the rating of your competitor.  The comparison of your ratings and the Ideal are the most critical.  Time the final version.

5.  Randomly select customers and give them an appropriate incentive or enter them in a contest with a great prize to compensate for the time needed to participate in your research online.  Explain your desire to know how your business is viewed in the eyes of your customers and tell them how long it should take.  Most will appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback and many will take this one request as a sign that you really care about your customers.

The more who complete the study the more reliable your data, but  25 or 50 participants will begin to paint a picture.

6.  Here is what the research results will tell you.

  • the importance of characteristics that define your customers’ “Ideal”
  • characteristics that define your business
  • characteristics that define your competitor

Compare your ratings and those of your competitor to the Ideal attributes deemed important.

Remember, these results are the perceptions of you by your customers, which means this is their reality. If your customers want a lover (their Ideal) and think of you as an aggressive deer hunter, you have some communications work to do. Your next step is to figure out HOW best to communicate your loving nature or HOW to be more loving.

These research findings should guide you in all of your communications and business operations.  You want to highlight your strengths and shore-up your weaknesses where possible.  You also want to repeat this study in 12 or 18 months to measure your progress.

Louie will still be my lazy loving lap cat, but I view him with whole new respect.  There’s a deer hunter inside.  Who knew?

I hope this research outline will be helpful to you in your efforts to unmask perceptions.  If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or put them in the comments section below.

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Sheila Hibbard

Sheila Hibbard takes the fluff, hype and confusion out of marketing and social media. She provides small business owners with straight forward, no nonsense marketing guidance and techniques that produce results based on her 35 plus years in advertising, communications, research, strategic planning and social media. Author of Marketing Online Made Simple - WHO.

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  1. I agree with Michele, great post and you did lay it out in an easy-to-understand manner. thanks for sharing this… One thing that is so hard to define is people’s perception and companies do need to understand their client and how the company is perceived.

    • TY to you Jeff. The difficulty is that many business owners think they “know” how they are perceived, yet the missing link is to know what represents Ideal in the minds of consumers. Get this piece of the puzzle and the other pieces fall into place.

  2. I love your writing style! It’s really comfortable and easy to read. The analogy was perfect. Perception is incredibly important in marketing — as marketers, we often make the mistake of advertising or selling based on our own perceptions.

    We’re also a bit hard-headed at times, thinking our way is the only way even when we know that consumers perceive our brand/ad differently. It’s important to play to the consumers’ perceptions whether you think they’re correct or not. At least, if you want to make money :)

    • Thanks, Jonathan. I’ve been doing this 90 day blogging challenge…a post every day and it seems to be making the process easier for me.

      Your comments are so true. And thanks for taking the time for the feedback.

  3. I love the point you make in the post –>> “Our customers visit your store, or your website, social media sites, call for information or customer service and every interaction, no matter how small, is consciously or sub-consciously etched onto their minds creating a perception of you, your staff, your product and your service.”

    What I also love is how you give a great solution to business owners! Research is important and in this case, so are cats!

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Doina: Sometimes I’d take cats over research…but am often as obsessive about data as I am about felines. It is really hard to run a business without knowledge. Thanks so much for the feedback.

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