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Why Marketing Is Like Giving

'Tis the season for gift-giving. Which makes it the season for gift-buying. Which makes it the season for gift-selling and, by extension, gift-marketing. December is the biggest advertising month of the year as marketers spend billions of dollars to encourage recession-weary consumers to spread the joy. Marketing is itself a lot like gift-giving; to paraphrase the textbook definition, it's finding out what people want and providing it to them. Below are five general principles you might ponder over a cup of hot cocoa.

You can't give to everyone, so begin with those you love. Despite what our children may think at this time of year, nobody—and no company—has infinitely deep pockets. While it would be nice to give something to everybody at Christmas, it's simply unaffordable. (To my friends who are only getting a card this year: Um, hey—times are tough.)

You can't advertise to the whole world either. If you try, you won't make an effective impact on anybody. Just as your gift-giving is "targeted" toward the people you value most, your advertising efforts should be targeted toward the customers and prospects you value most. It's the surest way to make an impact.

It's about them, not you. Have you ever picked out a gift you really wanted someone to have, only to be disappointed that they didn't welcome it as you had intended? That might be because you gave them what you wanted to give them, not what they wanted to receive.

The best way to create effective advertising is to do it with the audience's needs in mind. You'll get not only their attention, but their appreciation and affection as well. Do this repeatedly and you'll be someone they want to hang around. Do it often enough and you'll get a reputation as a great gift-giver, which will get you invited to a lot of parties.

Cash is nice, but it's not very thoughtful. It's easy to slip someone a wad of money. It's also lazy. The problem with cash is that its value is transparent: It is what it is, nothing more. You don't get credit for being thoughtful and understanding—because you haven't been.

Perhaps the worst thing about giving away cash is that it establishes a benchmark If you give less of it next time, your gift will be greeted with diminished enthusiasm. Advertising is a tool to enhance relationships, not cheapen them. Don't use it to bribe people.

Appliances aren't gifts. The other day my wife and I were strolling the aisles of our local home-improvement store. She remarked that perhaps it's time we got a Shop-Vac. When I joked that I'd put it on her Christmas list, she didn't laugh.

When you're giving something, you're not conducting a transaction. (Here's your new toy; go vacuum the car.) You're investing in a relationship that will be mutually beneficial over time. Similarly, if your advertising is always accompanied by an expectation, it may not be received as you would like.

Wrapping makes a difference. A gift swathed in beautiful paper and sporting a colorful ribbon is a lot more enticing than something stuffed into a brown paper sack. What you might call a gift's "production values" not only make it more visually appealing, they communicate to the recipient that you value them enough to spend the time and money to make your presentation special.

Sure, it costs more to deliver a "well-wrapped" ad. That's exactly the point: The less attractive the package, the more likely your intended will be to leave it unnoticed and unopened. That's a waste of money.

Advertising, like living, really isn't all that complicated. If you give joyfully, consistently, and thoughtfully, your giving will not only bless others. It will bless you, too. Give to give, not to get, and you're likely to find that you benefit most of all.

McKee is president of McKee Wallwork & Company and author of Power Branding and When Growth Stalls. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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