Selling nuts to squirrels

In All Marketers Tell Stories, I argue that most organizations shouldn't try to change the worldview of the audience they're marketing to.

Worldview is a term popularized by George Lakoff. It's the set of expectations and biases that color the way each of us see the world (before the marketer ever arrives on the scene). The worldview of a 45 year old wine-loving investment banker is very different from that of a fraternity brother. One might see a $100 bottle of burgundy as both a bargain and a must-have, while the other might see the very same bottle of wine as an insane waste of money.

Worldview changes three things: attention, bias and vernacular. Attention, because we choose to pay attention to those things that we've decided matter. Bias, because our worldview alters the way we filter and interpret what we hear. And vernacular, because words and images resonate with people differently based on their worldview.

It's extremely expensive, time consuming and difficult to change someone's worldview. The guys at Opus One shouldn't spend a lot of time marketing expensive wine to fraternities because it's not efficient. Sell nuts to squirrels, don't try to persuade dolphins that nuts are delicious.

There's an exception to this rule, and that's the necessity of changing worldviews if you want to become a giant brand, a world changer, a marketer for the ages. Starbucks changed the way a significant part of the world thought about spending $4 for a cup of coffee.

Or consider Facebook. It started by selling nuts to squirrels. At first, Facebook was social crack for lonely (all college students are lonely) college students. Over time, the social pressure it created snuck up on and surrounded those with a different inclination, those that would never have signed up on their own. These folks had a worldview that privacy was valuable and that time was better spent elsewhere. But once a sufficient number of their friends and colleagues were online, they felt they had little choice. Converting those people (often against their short term wishes) is where Facebook's most recent 300 million users came from.

The interesting truth in both the Starbucks and Facebook example is that a different worldview was at work. The latecomers to each company were sold a very different story — the story of, "you need to be here because all your friends are." That worked because it matched the latecomers' worldview, the one that includes an imperative, "don't be left out." Different nut, same squirrel.