Capitalism is a strange and savage beast. We all function within its boundaries. That is to say, we participate. Sometimes we love it. Sometimes we disdain its excesses. Lately, we’ve been laughing hysterically at the shameless characters it creates in films like ‘The Wolf of Wall St’ and ‘American Hustle’.
Other times we have to stop and think for a moment. Like when a friend of mine came back from Canada where her husband had commented ‘People don’t seem so desperate here.’ Meaning, if you lose your job in the Maple Leaf nation, there’s a safety net to catch you before you fall too far, too fast.
The bottom line for every business (and in fact for every individual) is that it all comes down to selling. I used to tell my classes at Art Center ‘it’s all marketing’. I still believe that’s true. Where it gets interesting is when you try define what great selling truly is.
A recent New Yorker article tells a story of what may be the original ‘confidence man’. In 1849, William Thompson would dress nicely and then approach strangers on the street. Somehow, Mr. Thompson would persuade people to trust him with their watches until the following day. As you may have expected, the owners never saw their timepieces again. What’s intriguing is that a play about the story called ‘The Confidence Man’ followed shortly thereafter, and Thompson became a classic American antihero. (Con man is short for confidence man).
From the Jan. 13 New Yorker: As the sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism. As Mel Weinberg (the model for Bale’s character in “American Hustle”) put it in Robert Greene’s book “The Sting Man,” “It’s my philosophy to give hope. That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.”
The ability to sell is everything. But brands (and managers) also have to know what kind of selling works best with each audience. You have to tailor your message to the target. And that’s where true selling talent is always revealed. There is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ marketing. It’s the size that fits the potential customer that works.
Selling isn’t about lying, although it is sometimes perceived to be. Bernard Madoff anyone? It’s about creating the likelihood of a better outcome. A more positive experience. It taps into our myths and dreams. And that’s why it can be so powerful. And why it also has the potential to do great harm.