Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

Customers Can See Right Through You

Customers deserve more respect than marketers give them.

If there’s one cliche I’m tired of hearing from marketers, it’s:

Perception is reality.

No, it’s not. Basic human experience proves it: We know that mirages, optical illusions and other perception tricks exist. We train ourselves to see through them, because we must deal with the world as it really is. We always start with perceptions: but we’re capable of higher-order reasoning that keeps us from stupid moth-to-flame mistakes.

Yet this cliche persists. I wonder if those that believe it have a deep-seated disdain for their customers. One must think people awfully stupid. It takes a certain hubris to believe oneself immune from it, yet claim the public is easily duped. It’s why every time I hear this cliche, I wonder if I’m not actually watching it play out: A marketer who appears to know something which turns out to be only a tired bromide.

For example: Someone recently argued to me that the public didn’t know the difference between an online “portal” and a local real estate broker. Since online aggregators got more news, dominated web traffic and were easily recalled in polls, it was believed they held more cred in consumers’ minds. This assumption presupposed that consumers didn’t know the difference between a mere website and a trained professional – between popularity and actual outcomes. Well, ask WebMD about that: Their portal only made local doctors more valuable.

Ironically, some marketers don’t even believe their own hype: I seem to remember the CEO of a for-sale-by-owner website listed his own house with a local real estate brokerMarketing cred isn’t the same as a real track record.

Marketing professionals who still believe this inane phrase are merely fooling themselves, rather than perceive an important reality:

Today’s customers have x-ray vision. They can see through the hype.

They have plenty of online and mobile tools to investigate, analyze and pull back the curtain on marketing than ever before. They used to laugh, but now wrinkle their noses, when they see a mortgage ad on Facebook featuring a busty-beautiful-blond. Why?

Because they’re tired of being thought of as stupid cavemen who respond only to crude stimuli. 

Every time reality doesn’t match perception, customers feel cheated. They complain loudly when singers lip-sync on stage, expensive smartphones feel chintzy, and television interviews reveal experts who don’t actually know anything. Consumers practice with their x-ray powers every day; they detect hype long before clicking or placing an order.

Is it possible that consumers might perceive and believe a lie? Certainly, but nowadays it won’t last long. There are too many ways to to x-ray the  evil slime: Consumer Reports, Tripadvisor, Yelp, Facebook, Amazon reviews on every product. Perception-marketers don’t stand a chance. It’s a shame they even try.

Here’s my advice to marketers who believe they can win this game: Get reality. Stop promoting lies, half-truths or even slim truths. There is always a day of reckoning. Stop marketing to be the highest, most comprehensive, powerful, wonderful, amazing, largest anything if it’s only fleeting, momentary.  If you can’t sustain it, it will take one customer to ignite your your gas zeppelin.

Galileo proved centuries ago that wishing for a thing does not make it so. Stop trying to market your way to the center of the universe. Focus on what you have done, can do, will do, without sleight-of-hand. Consumers won’t stand for it, and will use their power to discover the reality of your claims, then bring you back down to earth, hard.

That’s the gravity of the situation, a constant that never changes.

It’s time for marketers to see consumers for they really are: Smart.


  • Well I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Consumers want to be empowered and heard! They are not morons. They are tired of the gimmicky BS advertising of yesteryear. Reality is shaped by the individual perception BUT there are some basic truths that need to be accepted ~ The proof is in the pudding. ALL of the BEST marketing in the world won’t matter if the service/product is crap and thus creates a less than optimal experience. Check out The Naked Brand documentary >

  • I agree; consumers are just people looking to fulfill a value. They will willingly pay for something if they are treated honestly. When marketing treats them manipulatively, it’s not only bad for the consumer, but the company, because people tell others when they have felt ill-used.

  • There is a sustainable clothing company mentioned in the documentary (the name escapes me) that boldly posts where they are not succeeding in terms of their environmental footprint. Their transparency was scary for them but of course in the end it built trust and the consumer rewards them for being included in the knowledge. No longer will the consumer stand for having the ‘wool pulled over their eyes’.

  • Intriguing! Imagine a company that openly talks about what they need to do better; and what they plan to do about it; and asks their customers for help doing it. THAT’S marketing. More than all the spokespeople, ducks, geckos and whatever else people throw at customers…..

  • ducks and geckos haha 🙂

  • “They will willingly pay for something if they are treated honestly” could not be more true. I enjoyed perhaps my most enjoyable round on a golf course ever when I had the opportunity to play Pebble Beach Golf Links. I was excited to play this iconic course but still shivered a bit when I smiled and handed the cashier my credit card so she could charge me $295. (I believe it is not closer to $495 for a round).
    Why then was it one of my most enjoyable days ona golf course? Because the EXPERIENCE was made better by every employee and represetative of the course that i encountered. They used my name, they said please and thank you, they smiled at me. They were genuine. They took care of their golf course, pro shop, bathrooms. They actually acted like they knew this was a once in a lifetime moment that people pay lots of money to experience and so they made it memorable.
    I’ve played plenty of courses for under $100 that the product and service and experience sucked because they tried to get me to look past the poor condition of the course, blaming it on weather or bad insecticides or irrigation issues. They told me to “pardon their dust” while remodeling the clubhouse. The apologized for their restuarant being closed or tried to overcome our complaints of slow play with an offer of a 10% discount to return again.
    You’re right Matthew – I don’t mind paying willingly when I get what I expect. I just wish more people would strive to not only meet my expectations but exceed them. As the sign hanging in my office says,
    “Doing what’s expected only prevents customer dissatisfaction. You must do more than is required to truly satisfy a customer.”

  • Charlie Faure

    And everything you said–and then some–applies to our politicians who all seem to think we’re as dumb as stumps and that we believe all the twaddle they spout!