04/01/10

By Doug Richard

George Lakoff, a Berkeley cognitive linguist with a particular interest in politics, has made a fairly remarkable discovery. People buy their identities. This is true in two senses, people purchase products, services, policies and politicians that are consistent with their view of themselves and the world they live in, and they build the identities people see and create the environment around them by making economic and political decisions. Lakoff uses the term “frames” to describe these meaningful pictures we have of ourselves and the world. Frames are metaphorical, emotionally charged, moving images. They are populated with people and objects and they represent interlocking and interdependent stories that govern human behavior.

For example, in a Hospital frame, there are doctors, nurses and people which have very clearly defined levels of authority. These people also have assigned “duties” that are strictly enforced. The patient must need help, the nurse must provide care, the doctor must solve problems and make decisions. Within a hospital there are various location-based scenarios. There’s the surgery, the psych ward, the labor and delivery room, all of which call upon people to behave in very specific ways.

Entrepreneurs can call upon frames to communicate with their customers. For example, if you run a computer repair shop, you might run ads featuring a repairman dressed as a doctor with a laptop sitting on an examining table. That single image would communicate several aspects of your business very quickly. People bring you sick machines and you fix them. If you delivered repair services on site you might have to change your image to show your Emergency Medical Technician sitting in an ambulance treating the broken machine.

In order to use frames effectively, you need to know your target market very well. You need to understand the frames your customers want to live in.

If you produce sports cars, your customers’ frames probably don’t include toddlers. They probably do include attractive men and women, perhaps wearing sunglasses, wind ripping through hair, long open roads and dramatic sunsets. Because when people buy a sports car, that’s likely to be the picture they see in their head. From a marketing standpoint, your job is merely to put your car in the picture. Put a kid in the picture and suddenly people will be quite confused.

A sports car is an easy product to frame because people have been selling them or years. Billions have been spent deriving that context. But when you are selling more nebulous things like business courses, courier services or child care centers the “frames” become a little more complex. In your courses, do you “lecture to students” or “share insights with peers”. Is your courier service delivering things early in the morning or delivering them around the clock around the world? Is your child care center filled with fairy princesses and pixie kings, or with tomorrow’s leaders looking to get a head start on their future achievements. To use frames well you must know how your customers want those questions answered.

There is a common misconception that businesses “create” their frames. One of Lakoff’s most important insights is effective communicators slide their products, services and political policies into widely known existing frames. Creating a new frame requires the work of many businesses over many years as a rule.

So how do you go about finding a frame for your products?

•Evaluate your customers. and identify exactly what need your product meets within that market. You must know exactly what solution you deliver to customers in order to find your frame. A sports car delivers the ability to drive away to romance. A Volvo family car delivers safety in an accident.

•Identify the moment when someone decides to purchase your product. A man might be in the car dealership trying to choose between practical cars and sports cars.

•See those moments as part of a larger story that incorporates those people and your product, wherein those folks look like heroes (or lovers, or saviors, or good parents or whatever other archetype they’d like to be). The man is looking at economy cars. He glances at his girlfriend and there is a fleeting moment of fantasy as he sees them both riding through the sunset to a weekend retreat. The next moment he’s signing the agreement for the convertible. Alternatively, a man might be in the car dealership looking with longing at sports cars. Those days are long gone . . . when suddenly his little girl peaks her head around a headlight, and the next thing you know he’s happily buying the Volvo. After all, there are some great days ahead.

That story you create through this process is your frame. It will become a part of every ad you write, every letter you send, every face to face pitch you make. For all intents and purposes, it is your product or service. When people buy your product or service, they are buying this vision of the world and their assigned position in it.

If this ’story telling’ methodology seems like a strange way to market your products and services, take a moment to think about ten of your favorite products and services, and you’ll see you have a “story” to go with each one. FEDEX when it absolutely has to be there overnight. Coca Cola, its the real thing. Volkswagen. Small is Good.

Those products are successful, those brands are successful, because those stories are true and those product make them true.

You may believe that your customers actually make purchase decisions based on facts and figures, statistics and customer ratings, but the fact is that people don’t start looking at that data until they are in the last stages of the decision-making process. They use details to help them differentiate between their final selections. If your product or service is “out of frame” you don’t make the first cut and no one cares what your stats are.

A final note. You will know when your products and services are not fitting in your customers frames when you spend a great deal of time explaining what it is your product or service does.

When you “pitch” a product or service, it should take less than 30 seconds to explain what your business offers even if your product or service is something that has never existed before. For example, “The iPod is like a walkman, but it has 30 gigabytes of your favorite music and videos”, “the iPhone is like an iPod, only you can make phone calls on it”, “the Android is the Google iPhone.”

The first step in selling any product is putting it “in frame”, and the first step in doing that is understanding what fundamental need it meets for your customers.

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