The art of shock marketing
By Laurel J. Delaney
Using traditional strategies for marketing a product or service overseas won’t always get the enthusiastic response you want. This article explains “shock marketing” — creative yet reliable strategies that demonstrate cultural and social sensitivity, gain customer confidence and respect, and generate steady sales. They offer valuable lessons to all who seek to do something different in order to get business from their customer.
What if you woke up one morning and decided that you would do anything to sell your product or service globally? How far are you willing to go?
Consider Madonna, a world-famous entertainer. Highly photogenic but not conventionally beautiful, she started out with a package of catchy dance-club pop tunes and crisp concert choreography, just like a thousand other acts. But she didn’t stop there. She exposed her navel, wore underwear as outerwear, took off her clothes for the camera, and made her private life very, very public. She teased her audience with hints and rumors of scandalous affairs: with the opposite sex, with the same sex, with movie stars and rock stars. She shocked her customers– and kept them coming back for more.
You can learn from Madonna without going to the same extremes. There are lots of little ways to shock your customers and make them take notice of you and your product. All it takes is a little spontaneity and determination:
— Show them your superior quality control. On the morning that my first export shipment to an Australian client was ready for loading, I got up early and drove to the plant, iPhone camera in tow. I took a number of pictures of the hand-loading of the product. I thought this would be an excellent way to monitor procedures, show interest and demonstrate that everything was handled with care. I emailed the pictures off to the customer so that they would arrive before the goods. He emailed back immediately to say that he had never had a supplier go to such trouble to ensure safe handling of his merchandise. Shock your customer. Do something better than any of your competitors, and make sure your customer knows it.
— Beat the odds and be there. A Japanese customer visited me in Chicago and asked me to accompany him on a tour of a supplier’s facilities in Boston — on a day’s notice. It’s standard procedure to accompany your customer to the supplier’s plant, so I immediately got on the phone to get tickets for myself. Lo and behold, there were no seats to be had! My customer said it was not a problem, and that he would make the trip alone. Then I checked another airline and found that they had a red-eye at 4 a.m. I booked the flight, but decided not to tell the customer. I arrived at the plant much, much earlier than his appointment time. You should have seen the look on his face when he showed up! He thought I had to be too good to be true. We’ve been in business ever since. Shock your customer. Take extraordinary measures to demonstrate your commitment and professionalism, and they’ll be back for more.
— Stay cool and go with the flow. On one of my trips to Japan, I had the pleasure of dining with five Japanese men at one of the finest Chinese restaurants in Tokyo. It just so happened that one of the men was very good friends with the owner of the restaurant, so we were treated like royalty. We were immediately seated in a private room, around a huge round table that had a large lazy-Susan-type turntable in the center. It was extremely hot in the room, so we started off what would turn out to be a sixteen-course meal with a round of Kirin beer. I don’t particularly like beer, but I didn’t want to ask for my usual glass of merlot, since wine is not the pre-meal beverage of choice among Japanese businesspeople. So I sipped dutifully at my beer. In fact, I even gulped it a little faster when nobody was looking, because I was pretty nervous. I knew I would be eating a zillion things I couldn’t identify, and to make matters worse, I’d be eating all zillion of them with chopsticks!
First, they served shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. I watched the men lift out chunks of meat with their chopsticks and then pick up the cup and sip. If you’ve ever had shark fin soup, you know that the shark bits are very, very slippery. For the world, I could not lift them up and out with my chopsticks! I started to panic, and then decided that it might be best to just pick up the cup and try to gulp it all down at once and hope nobody noticed. So that’s exactly what I did. I think it worked!
No sooner had we finished our soup than the waiter brought a beautiful platter full of what looked like itty-bitty deep-fried minnows, with heads. And eyes. I thought I was going to die. I immediately pictured how those things would pass through my system. All eyes were on me as my host turned the lazy Susan slowly around until all those fish were staring at me, too!! I didn’t hesitate. I reached out with my trusty chopsticks, picked one up, promptly dropped it on the tablecloth, picked it up again and finally landed it in my mouth. Everybody laughed. I felt sweat beading at my temples. I chewed gingerly, swallowed, smiled and proclaimed, “Delicious!” They were very pleased that I enjoyed their local treat so much. Then they dug in. While they were occupied with tucking away whole schools of the little staring fish, I picked up what was left of my beer and chugged it. I thought my appetite would be gone forever.
In the middle of the meal, the chef proudly brought out a cooked blackened chicken. The men were explaining in their somewhat stilted English how special this chicken was, but I hardly heard a word. I just stared because I could now see that it was a black chicken, not a blackened one. There was nothing to do but dig right in, and try to behave as if I found every bite absolutely wonderful. Meanwhile, my imagination was tormenting me with all kinds of ways in which that chicken could have acquired that extraordinary color! Morbid speculations aside, it actually was rather good, but I was thoroughly rattled by now — so much so, in fact, that I decided I liked my Kirin enough to ask for a refill!
So go ahead — shock your customer. Be enthusiastic, curious and adaptable, and don’t let fear of the unknown get in the way of building a business relationship.
— A picture tells a thousand words, but most of all it shows you care. Every time I make a trip overseas, I always take photos. I never have time for sightseeing and I don’t like to look like a tourist (remember, your goal is to become an insider!), but I do like to capture shared moments, for myself and the others involved. The first time I used my iPhone as a customer-relations tool, I set out to turn everyday business into pin-up art that would warm a home or office. I snapped pictures throughout my stay, during serious meetings, not-so-serious restaurant gatherings, and precious evenings in a gracious host’s home. When I returned to the States, I took each picture and framed it in a colorful notecard, wrote personal messages in each, and sent them back to Japan.
The reaction was most gratifying. Nearly every customer sent an email to let me know they had received the wonderful photocard. I knew I had touched hearts and made people feel good about doing business with my company. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out that handwritten notes, even in the digital age, are the height of professional etiquette when you are dealing with overseas associates.
Shock your customer. Show you care with gracious and friendly gestures. Make a positive first impression, and make it last.
— A journey of a thousand miles begins with a good map. When I had an appointment with a prospective customer in China, I went to the hotel concierge for directions on how to get there by train, took a cab to the station, rode one train for awhile, changed to another, then got off and walked for a mile or so before picking up a cab for the rest of the trip. It took about two and a half hours. When I finally arrived, a bit rumpled but nonetheless on time, my customer asked how I’d gotten there. I told him, and to my surprise, he responded, “So you’ve visited China many times?” “No,” I told him, “this is my first trip.” He was immediately impressed. It hadn’t occurred to me, but I suppose he’s right: How many people let the problem of “getting around” get in the way of foreign travel, to say nothing of conducting foreign business?
Shock your customer. If you head overseas determined to carry out your business itinerary and to work out the ways and means as needed, you will demonstrate competence and sophistication. Act with assurance wherever you go, and you’ll win their confidence too.
If you make a consistent practice of going above and beyond customer expectations, you may find that your customers will begin to shock YOU, in most agreeable ways — with their respect, trust and esteem, and with their business.
At my first meeting with the president of a major Korean importing wholesale company, I showed him my product line, but he chose not to order at that time. After that, every time he came to Chicago to attend a food show, I met with him to review the line and to show him new products. Sometimes we held formal meetings; sometimes we took Wendella boat tours on the river. Sometimes we talked business; sometimes we didn’t. I cultivated this relationship for six years without a single order. Then one day he called quite unexpectedly, on a day when I was booked solid for the whole day and well into the evening. I left a message indicating that we could meet in the lobby of his hotel and at least have a brief talk about whatever was on his mind. At that meeting, he placed his first order!
I have emphasized over and over again that there are no shortcuts to developing professional trust in the global arena. Financial returns on your efforts will generally come as a delightful surprise, and as a consequence of your having had the patience to persevere. You’ve just seen how one exporter’s patience paid off!
Shock marketing is about being different — about taking outrageous actions above and beyond what’s expected, actions that will make you stand out from the crowd. Count no time or effort as wasted. Showing your respect and commitment to your customers will benefit both of you far into the future.
©1998 and 2018 Laurel J. Delaney. All rights reserved.
For a look at Laurel’s most recent exporting book, visit here.
Photo credit: iStock/master1305