Yanny, Laurel & The Dress

First there was “The Dress” (white/gold or black/blue?). Then there was “Yanny” vs. “Laurel.” Each phenomenon bifurcated the internet. There was no debate to be had; you were either on one side or the other.

In both cases, experts weighed in to explain that either interpretation was valid — that, depending on how your retinas respond to certain lighting or what frequency range your ears attend to, you will see/hear one over the other. No matter. On these questions, one could only be right or wrong.

As we kick off 2019, marketers should take heed of what Yanny, Laurel and The Dress have taught us: That the customer is the judge and jury of what’s right, what’s good, and what matters. And no other opinion carries any weight whatsoever. Not even yours.

relevance marketing


“It’s all about the customer” is marketing cliché. Something we’ve known from our earliest days in the field. So why, then, do most of us ignore it?

How many promotional messages — TV spots, social media posts, display ads, podcast tie-ins — are little more than brands bragging about themselves or their products? Nobody cares about you, and few want to hear an opinion that conflicts with their own. What we want to hear is how a brand or product fits into our worldview, and why it matters in our lives. What we want to hear is how it’s relevant to us.

That’s why 2019 will be the year in which smart brands start getting out of their own way and focusing on the customer. It’s time to remember who matters. It’s time to place less emphasis on intuitive yet ultimately self-serving goals (e.g., brand awareness, demand generation, last-click attribution) — and instead get back to being relevant … because all success comes from that very thing.

relevance marketing


The simple fact is that people spend money on brands they like and trust. It’s the same unconscious process by which you choose your friends and other close relations. When your gut gives you a good feeling about someone or something, you draw them into your life. Everything else is academic.

The problem, of course, is that we work in mass communications. We can’t sit with each prospective customer over a beer and win them over with earnest conversation. We need to speak to tens-of-thousands, or even millions, of people at a time. The very nature of what we do makes building that kind of intimacy and trust very difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible.

The “big data” era sent a lot of marketers down the wrong path. They leveraged customer information to isolate targets, then plugged content into blank spaces for said targets, like they were playing a game of digital Mad Libs. But “targets,” let’s remember, are people. And relationships aren’t built on equations or games; they’re built on empathy. They’re the natural extension of one’s dedication to consider, and take care of, the other.


The modern consumer is more savvy, cynical and demanding than ever. Anything they want is at their fingertips. The acceptable minimum for a good customer experience continues to rise.

When the original “Four Ps of Marketing” were conceived, it was a different era entirely. Business was informed by logicians and economists. Customer experience was a concern only of luxury brands. The internet hadn’t even been conceived. And relevance couldn’t be found in any marketing textbook.

All that has changed.

So, as we go into 2019, let’s consider a new framework — a “New Four Ps” — that places relevance as a fundamental element for marketing success:

1. Personalization. Each customer should be treated like a one-of-a-kind individual, not a mere grain of sand on your beach.

2. Purpose. It’s not enough to sell great products or services anymore. You need to stand for something — something that matters to your customers.

3. Pride. Being cool never loses its cache. Humans young and old want to be associated with things that are exceptional, alluring and buzzworthy.

4. Protection. This applies to everything from safe online transactions, to protected data, to customer service that will go to any length to right a wrong.

These, of course, comprise only the basics, the fundamentals. To succeed in 2019 and beyond, brands need to engage customers in new and creative ways … remembering that the bar is always rising higher, and that the value of your brand is tied directly to how relevant it can remain in your customers’ lives.


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Originally published in the Jan/Feb 2019 edition of Philly Ad News:

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