How to win more customers than you can handle

Peter Whent
October 20, 2018

The talk

In the 1950s, Marlboro was a cigarette brand marketed to American women. Sales came in at about 1% of all tobacco sales in the USA.

By 1972 it was the number one selling cigarette in the world.

We’ll return to how that happened a little later.

But first, this thrilling plot is going to take us to the opulence of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) building in London’s West End.

The date is 31st July 2012. London is in the grip of Olympic fever. I’ve taken an enforced break from watching men in tight lycra sending patriotic Brits into a very un-British frenzy. Instead I’m caught in the grips of a tricky speaking engagement.

The lecture theatre in the RIBA building is like a bear pit. Three levels of seating ascend almost vertically in front of you, which means every pair of eyes look down at you.

I was there to speak to a convention of 400 young entrepreneurs.

I’d been to the same event the previous year and I’d hated it. It was a willy waving swankfest. I watched a procession of speakers. Successful grown men dropping names and zeros like hormonal teenage boys competing for the attention of the class beauty. You could have cut the testosterone fuelled atmosphere with a set of Porsche keys.

So I was hesitant when the organisers asked me to speak. I really wasn’t up for doing the “Mine’s bigger than yours” routine. I told them I’d speak if I could speak about failure.

I figured 40 minutes on my very best solid gold cock ups would be entertaining. And there was a sporting chance that it would teach people more than they’d learn from another talk about 50% year on year growth.

The organisers reluctantly agreed.

I think it went well. I was the last speaker of the day, and considering I was all that stood between my audience and the Pinot Grigio, I thought I held their attention.

The mysterious queue

As the audience was filing out and I was packing up, a strange thing happened. A queue formed.

I wasn’t sure what they were queuing for. But as the first person in this growing queue was standing a few feet from the lectern I’d just been speaking from, I guessed they were queuing for me.

What followed was a dozen or so conversations that went along the lines of:

“Peter, that story you told about almost sinking your business by taking on a customer that overwhelmed you? We may be in a similar situation and I don’t know how to handle it. Would it be OK if I gave you a call or bought you a coffee to discuss my options?”

Curiously, during my talk I hadn’t mentioned my company or what I did, and I certainly hadn’t done a sales pitch. But there they were.

Everyone in the queue, and a few who contacted me over the next week, had listened to me speak and somewhere in the wreckage of my spectacular cock-ups they’d seen their own problem. Often problems that were causing them sleepless nights. Now here was someone who had been in that same hole and may just know the way out.

They couldn’t engage with me fast enough.

It was a big, fat, gold-plated “Aha” moment for me.

I had inadvertently given an Olympic standard demonstration of one of content marketing’s most precious principles.

The inner conversation

As I stood on that stage saying: “After my cock up, I feared for my business. But what I really feared for was having to say to my employees, my investors, my friends, my parents, that I’d failed” there was someone sitting in the audience listening.

The person listening had just cocked up and was lying awake at night saying to himself: “My business may fail. I am shitting myself about having to say to my employees, my investors, my friends, my parents, that I’d failed.”

I had replayed his innermost fears back to him. Suddenly in his mind I was elevated from: "unnecessary sixth speaker of the day who was blocking my path to the bar", to "someone I need to have in my life".

Once he heard someone reciting his own inner conversation out loud, he was in that queue, faster than you could say: “Mine’s a perfect pint of Peroni”.

Here’s what that little section of this thriller means.

People don’t engage with us when we shout at them “Buy my stuff”.

People engage with us when we show them that we understand what is keeping them awake at night. When we’re able to decipher their inner conversation.

Hello Marlboro Man

Which brings me neatly back to Marlboro.

Cigarettes were causing problems generally in the 1950s and 60s. Marlboro weren’t selling enough of the damn things. At the same time, people were being introduced to some of side-effects of smoking. Bad breath, smelly clothes and death.

Men were being persuaded to switch to cigarettes with filters, which were healthier.

In case you missed the obvious implication there, in those day men smoked filterless cigarettes. They were strange days. Gender fluid was something you cleaned the floor with, and a man was no more likely to smoke cigarettes with a filter than he was to put on a dress.

Marlboro saw their chance.

They only sold filter cigarettes, so their challenge was to give the filter cigarette a masculine makeover. And that’s exactly what they did. They designed the iconic red packet and changed the filter from white to brown. All they needed was an avatar of the perfect rugged smoking man.

Enter The Marlboro Man. A cowboy. A cowboy who had a Marlboro in his hand.

The effect was almost immediate. And far from The Marlboro Man being a figure who gave reluctant converts a reason to switch, he became cool in his own right.

Kids start smoking because it’s cool right? It not the taste and presumably it’s not the fact that the first ten cigarettes you smoke make you vomit. It’s the cool.

Kids smoke because of what they tell themselves they turn into when they light up a cigarette. They tell themselves: “I’m cool”. Now here was a cowboy, the 1960s epitome of rugged and cool, looking down from billboards and confirming their inner conversation to them:

“When you light up a Marlboro, you look fucking cool”

Once you convince men they look cool, most other considerations go out of the window.

And that my friends is what catapulted Marlboro from a niche ladies cigarette, to the biggest selling brand on the planet.

Today Marlboro is still the biggest selling brand in the world. In the USA it out sells the next seven brands put together. In my opinion it’s the greatest ever example of exploiting the “inner conversation”

The lesson

Whatever you’re selling with your content, before you say anything to your customers, first work out what they are saying to themselves.

Don’t settle for what they are telling you (“I’ve made a cock up and I’m worried my business might fail”)

Dig a little and figure out what they’re telling themselves (“My business may fail. I am lying awake at night shitting myself about having to say to my employees, my investors, my friends, my parents, that I’ve failed)

And as you write that piece of killer content that you know will make your audience go weak at the knees, take a second to tip your hat to The Marlboro Man

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