The subtitle of this post is: “What QR Codes Kill Kittens really communicates.” Because:
“The most essential gift for a good marketer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
Hemingway is the author of that quote, although he said “writer” instead of “marketer.”
But I think it applies equally well to marketing, because we have a responsibility to serve our customers first, and not our CEOs or bosses or clients. We need to call them on their shit, in other words.
But hold up: Those are the people who sign our paychecks. The buck stops literally with them. Who are we to argue?
Actually, we have every right. And a kind of duty.
Why: For a business to be successful, your customers have to love your products, certainly. And for marketing to do its job, you have to make your customers love your marketing, too.
Eww. Who loves being marketed to?
Well, my daughter Caroline did, when she was making Christmas cookies and Betty CrockerTV taught her how to separate an egg. My friend DJ Waldow did, when he was trying to hang a shelf in his new home and Lowe’s FixInSix showed him how to get it right. I could name many more organizations with marketing I love: Skype and Disney and Airbnb and political candidate Carl Sciortino.
All of those things were marketing, of course. But they were also useful, enjoyable, created with empathy for people at the heart of it. As my oft-quoted (by me) friend Tom Fishburne says, “The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing.”
Which brings me to QR codes. (Stay with me here.)
I don’t know how most of us feel about Crocs and cilantro, but I do know how at least one of us feels about QR codes: Scott Stratten hates QR codes the same way toddlers object to candy with a fruit center.
Scott sees QR codes as emblematic of a bigger problem: We need to say no to bad marketing ideas. He’s collected a bunch of them in his new book, QR Codes Kill Kittens (Wiley), as a kind of public shaming.
Why? Bad marketing at best confuses and at worst alienates your customers. And in a world where social media platforms and content and data have gifted us an incredible opportunity to create marketing that’s useful, inspired and empathetic, there’s simply no good excuse for bad marketing.
As I said above:
This is on us, Marketing.
We need to find the means to tell our CEOs, our bosses, our clients that their silly ideas are little more than gimmicks. And we’re not going to do it anymore.
We need to own it. We need to march into their offices and stand there in a confident power pose (feet apart, arms on hips), and say in a steady, sure tone:
“Listen. This has to stop. The real opportunity in marketing isn’t in QR codes placed in no-cell reception subway tubes or along moving walkways, both of which are ridiculous. No…”
(And here you might shift slightly—perhaps walk toward the plate-glass window and gaze out with an I’ve seen the future and I can get us there unfocused but intense stare…)
“No…” you say again, for emphasis. “The real opportunity is in creating marketing our customers with thank us for!”
Does it feel wrong to plot against the person in charge?
Well, one of the realizations of being a grown-up is that it’s all right to challenge what you’ve been told all your life.
Those silly examples are two of the many, many, many, many, many, many bright and shiny business tools that we “keep breaking, before we have a chance to figure out how awesome they can be,” Scott writes in his book.
A few select others:
- Companies that auto-synchronize their Facebook, Twitter, etc. accounts — effectively broadcasting the same message on very different social platforms
- Any attempt to produce a “viral” video
- Product placement at the bottom of urinals
- Attempts to schedule marketing emails according to a calendar, as opposed when you have something of value to share
All of those things kill metaphorical kittens, Scott says, because they are misguided, misinformed, and not-well-thought-out marketing programs. They have a corporate—not a customer—perspective.
But they do drive action: They alienate customers, dishearten employees, and ultimately drive your business into the ground. (I didn’t write that. That’s actually the subtitle of Scott’s book.)
To be clear, QR codes (and many others shiny social and mobile tools) DO have potential. But, Scott says, “I say, take a mulligan on QR codes and start fresh. We need to ask ourselves if you market is ready for them. Are we ready for them? Is our website ready for them?”
And (and this is my add): Is your content in general also in ship shape? Are such shiny things part of a broader content-based strategy?
The slim, humorous book is packed with real-life photos and examples of marketing and customer service gone bad. Heavy on the visual, it’s a quick read (or flip-through), with snarky commentary and advice to how to fix this mess we’re in. Philosophically, it’s like a marketing-inspired mashup of Sh*t My Dad Says and TLC’s What Not to Wear.
I asked Scott a few quick questions about QR Codes Kill Kittens:
AH: First, let’s talk about the kitten on the book cover. What gives a sweet, impish creature an expression so pained with grief? A global shortage of yarn balls? An empty milk saucer? Was Ratatouille newly appointed to the Supreme Court on an anti-cat platform?
SS: I definitely think the QR codes had something to do with it.
AH: The cover cat is acting though, right? Were you at all privy to the actor’s motivations?
SS: No. But do a “sad kitten” search on istockphoto. Amazing. Best $43 I ever spent for that cover kitten. (Edit note: I just did.)
AH: Why kittens?
SS: “Every time you use a QR code in your marketing, a kitten dies” just came out on stage and everyone lost their mind.
AH: Why not unicorns or puppies or velociraptors?
SS: Nobody cares about killing unicorns. Since we all know they’re immortal, it’s a bit of a stretch to say QR codes kill them. (Duh.)
I needed to be realistic. I can’t say “kill puppies…” I’m not a psychopath.
SS: The publisher said the stuff I wanted to put in about you was too violent and porny.
* * * * *
Scott’s last answer strikes me as a bit like blaming the victim: I’m to blame for his excluding me from his book? I see how it is. Whatever.
I kid, folks.
QR Codes Kill Kittens is a fun, quick read. Pick one up. It makes an excellent Thanksgivinganukkah or Christmas gift for the client or CEO whose name you unfortunately drew in the office swap—and still have, because no one will trade with you.
Post-script: I have one copy of QR Codes Kill Kittens to give away to the reader who shares the best example of bad marketing in the comments below. Chime in by December 1 for a chance to win (winner notified by email).