by Magnus Shaw
I'm in America. Staying in Kissimmee, Florida and genuinely delighted to see things looking a lot better. Last year I was alarmed at the number of boarded up stores and saddened by the prevalence of regular Americans soliciting money from stony faced drivers at traffic lights. Both these aberrations have improved greatly. It's election year, and Obama's hopes of re-appointment rest almost completely on economic recovery. By some distance, foreign conflicts, taxation and even security all trail prosperity as the burning issue for most voters. Without accusing the White House of cynicism, the current administration would be foolish had they not constructed their policies to bear fruit at this crucial point.
However, there is one aspect of the US economy which will act as concentrated rocket fuel once the recovery really gets underway. And it doesn't come from government.
In the southern United States the culture rests on four pillars: faith, fuel, firearms and food. Whether one focuses on the ubiquitous evangelical churches, the seemingly endless parade of gas stations and meal stops, or the illuminated posters for 'family' gun shops, one thing stands out - America's natural passion for marketing.
Not content with simply establishing Christian temples the size of colleges, the devout of Florida engage in an impressive competition to uncover which congregation can erect the largest neon cross. Some of these structures stand 20 feet, blazing out from the side of Interstate 4. To the English eye, this is more crass than 'cross', even coming off as a bit scary, but to local citizens it speaks to their inclination for declaration. Should they have something to say (and they usually do) a proud Floridian considers it his or her duty to say it in the most noticeable and flamboyant way possible.
Today I drove past a restaurant called Fishbones. It wasn't particularly large or well appointed, but it did have a giant silver fish's head suspended above the door, exposing its metal, spiked teeth in an unforgettable grimace. Half a mile further and a store specialising in cowboy gear appeared. Outside stood a replica western boot, some ten feet in height, painted bright red. Neither business had to go to such dramatic lengths, but clearly they wanted to. Proud of their businesses and keen to announce them to the passing world, they pushed the boat out. Or at least the boot.
Happily the American urge to promote isn't restricted to oversize footwear and sea creatures. My brother-in-law, who lives out here for part of the year, has a favourite US department store. I say 'favourite', it's actually more an outlet to which he has become addicted. By his own admission he keeps returning, often to buy stuff he doesn't know he wants until he's there. Why? How does the retailer manage to drag him back through the door time and again? Because every time he buys something, they present him with a reason to come back. He spends $50.00, they give him $25.00 discount on his next purchase. He buys a pair of leather shoes, they offer him another pair, half price, on the spot. For this store, the marketing never ends. Persuading a punter (or my brother-in-law) to buy something isn't the end of the advertising process, it's the beginning. That's very American.
On a more subtle level, the visiting Englishman can see this constant marketing in action simply by eating out. Take a seat in a US diner like Denny's (why do we not have such splendid places in the UK, by the way?) and within seconds a server is at your side, introducing themselves, asking how you are and what they can do for you. They're happy to talk you through the menu and once you've ordered, the food will arrive in good time and taste amazing. Have a coffee or a soft drink and it will be topped up constantly and without further charge. True, your server is keen for a tip but by the time you've finished, they've earned it. More importantly, you feel respected, wanted and welcomed, so you'll be back. Is this all an insincere charade? Maybe, but it doesn't really matter. Everyone wins, diner and server are happy and the soft marketing succeeds. What's more, I'd take excellent, insincere service over surly, miserable, honest disdain every time.
When you see US marketing and customer service in action they put their British equivalents into sharp relief. Our creativity exceeds the Americans' by some distance. Our advertising is more nuanced, witty and innovative - no doubt about it. But we also suffer from a timid reluctance. All too frequently UK businesses see marketing as an expensive, necessary evil. In the States, lively marketing is in the DNA of every business and at the forefront of commercial activity. In short, marketing comes naturally to the Americans because they love it.
We can't switch our national character for the US psyche and nor should we want to. But when a fiery enthusiasm for marketing and CRM is helping pull a mighty nation from the jaws of catastrophe, it wouldn't do us any harm to look across the Atlantic for a smidgen of inspiration.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
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