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Is Your Company Guilty of Using Digital Lipstick?

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What You Need to Know

  • What customers do you want?
  • Are you really listening to those people?
  • What do those people think of you?

By now most everyone has heard the phrase, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” It was used by Barack Obama at a campaign event in 2008, and there is also a book with the same name by Torie Clark, an author with a strong opinion about communication “spin.”

When we hear this phrase, we typically know right away that it means someone is trying to make something attractive when it is inherently unattractive, and it can’t possibly work. So, the “right” answer is to not have it be a pig in the first place. Just for clarity, my personal favorite definition of a pig comes from the 1944 song made popular by Bing Crosby.

“A pig is an animal with dirt on his face. His shoes are a terrible disgrace. He has no manners when he eats his food. He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude.” — Johnny Burke

However, the unfortunate news is that sometimes people charged with making improvements to customer buying and service experiences are unaware that they are working with a pig. They invest large sums in digital technologies to modernize an experience that was ugly in the first place, and possibly made even uglier when human interaction isn’t smoothing over the flaws. Then they are questioned when the investment isn’t yielding the return that the business case said it would.

We must be very careful when we throw around “digital” as a synonym for modernization. Yes, it is a part of the puzzle, however it’s a delivery mechanism, and not a transformation in and of itself. When you hear “customers expect to be able to transact digitally,” it’s not because consumers like to play with their iPhones; it’s because they are trying to get something done on their own terms.

The life insurance industry is notorious for having complicated processes, which is a headwind when it comes to modernization. These require a full unpacking of the customer journey and looking for ways to simplify (e.g. underwriting requirements, applications, delivery, etc.) But there are also other “watch outs” for marketers and executives who want to make sure they don’t inadvertently agree to put digital lipstick on a pig. These are:

  1. Ensuring that you really understand the voice of your ideal customer (today’s customer, and tomorrow’s). Not just their needs relative to your product/service, but also the relevant other parts of the ecosystem that impact it.
  2. Determining what aspects of your brand promise are really different from those of competitors. And, which ones matter most.
  3. Examining each and every touchpoint communication (emails, letters, narratives from service reps, ads, etc.) to determine how they are perceived. So many of these are still unfriendly, off-putting, irrelevant, uninteresting and/or confusing.

The investments that companies have made and are continuing to make in digital technology are by far some of the largest and most scrutinized ones for any organization.

Those responsible for maximizing ROI must have a set of tools and weapons to beat back the enemy of doubt in the minds of senior leaders and boards (and even you).

These include:

Marketers’ Tool/Weapon What It Does For You
1. Clear profiles of ideal target customers, where they are and how many. Creates alignment around who you are serving, so you can set realistic expectations around market share AND avoid internal pushback from other leaders who are tempted to make decisions based on what THEY think is attractive.
2. A rank ordered list of customers’ priorities and unmet needs, stated in their own voice. Allows the organization to know what to emphasize and avoid “kitchen sink” customer ads and messages that say too much.
3. A competitive blueprint comparing key differentiation criteria between your company offering(s) and those of your top competitors. Answers the question of where your company is clearly better, and gives you the right to say it in your messaging with the confidence that the experience will back it.
4. Campaigns and key touchpoint communications that have been evaluated and scored using specific criteria and identified ones for redesign, rewriting or elimination. Puts a solid, defensible analysis behind the decision to fix things that others may believe are not broken, or not worth fixing.
5. Alternative strategic directions that were left on the cutting room floor, and why (i.e. considered and discarded). Demonstrates due diligence…that multiple directions were considered, and there is a clear rationale for choosing the right one.

Sometimes there is urgency to meet an artificial deadline, or unwillingness to invest additional money as the reasons why these tools are not developed as part of any digital project or campaign. More often though, it is a lack of awareness that they can act as an insurance policy against failure.

Spending a little more time and money on the front end of a large investment is the way in degrees of risk can be reduced, and confidence can be increased.

Consider this the next time you are challenged to create a new digital asset. Or…

“Unless you don’t care a feather or a fig, [it] may grow up to be a pig!”


Maria Ferrante-Schepis, CLU, is president, insurance and financial services, for Maddock Douglas in Elmhurst, Illinois.

(Image: NAR Studio/Shutterstock)