We had an ethics case today primarily oriented around the attempts by Shell to sink the Brent Spar, an oil rig off the shore of the UK.  Shell had done a lot of investigation of the most environmentally friendly and economic way to sink the oil rig.  They found, through scientific analysis, that sinking it was actually the best option.  Sounds contrary to belief, but it was the case.

33658Greenpeace decided it was a bad idea.  They boated out to it and had a PR campaign that showed them occupying the rig with ads saying to stop Shell.   They got a campaign to raise awareness and attempt to influence Shell into bringing the rig on land and dismantling it there.  They won.  It was not the best decision, but it was the one that took hold.

The reason?  They got the public on their side by a simple and pointed message:  ”Don’t Litter!”

Though this wasn’t the best option, it took hold with people.  The reason is that marketing and communication are often tied to lowest common denominators.  In math, that refers to a divisible numbers.  In marketing, this refers to the communication that can resonate with the most people.   This is the same reason that political campaign slogans are short, often rhyme and are also associated with imagery.  Same reason brands exists as logos.  Humans can remember these things very easily.

Of course, this situation also had a play on human perception of large entities and former thoughts on the parties.  It was a David and Goliath situation, at least in the eyes of consumers.  People tend to give a nonprofit the benefit of the doubt and are especially wary of larger corporations.  Those aren’t bad things either.

Not all marketing uses lowest common denominators.  Political campaigns thrive on them because they are often mass marketing, or trying to affect the largest group of people with the least amount of resources.  A politician could probably win a lot of votes if they walked up to every house in their area and asked for their votes.  But the resources are not in supply for such activities.  The same goes for large corporations trying to sell cereal; they are better off buying advertisements and touting their virtues than giving away a free sample to everyone.  It’s cost prohibitive to do the latter.  Hence the large cost for Superbowl ads.

Lowest common denominators rule marketing in certain kinds of marketing.  The opposite is true for large, one time purchases.  Someone selling a contract for large industrial engines or military supply will likely use a different approach to win over that one person who makes the purchase decision.

So marketers are faced with that choice.  Do I build my brand through lowest common denominators and lots of ads…or do I go to lunch with my buyer and learn about their business before presenting them with the reason that my company’s offering is a perfect fit?  Or, even better, do I meet with them first and tailor my offering to their needs?