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I guess vanity's not technically a sin. It didn't make the list of the seven deadliest, anyway. But the "look at me" approach to messaging and copy is certainly one of the most common mistakes in marketing.

How many times have you seen a social media post with a look-at-me selfie and a headline like "We just got our product on Amazon!" Or the equally meaningless "My book's an Amazon bestseller." (For a five-hour period in a tiny, esoteric category.)

Who cares?!

Many people would argue that's what Social media is good for, but the "me, me, me" approach shows up everywhere in marketing, not just social media.

And, usually, it's more subtle than my exaggerated representation of it: The business owner or marketer isn't flaunting anything; he just puts his point of view ahead of the audience's point of view. Like that self-absorbed friend who always turns the conversation back to himself.

Instead of focusing on what's in it for the customer, his messages are a long list of irrelevant facts reflected via a vanity mirror. It's an internal perspective that revolves around the features of his product or service, past business accomplishments, ego, and one-upping the competition.

The "me, me, me" POV is the polar opposite of the most basic premise of marketing: Figure out what a particular group of people really want, and give it to them.

The customer first.

Not the other way around: You don't figure out what you can do or make—and then put it out there hoping to find a market. That's a me-first POV.

Marketing Myopia

In 1960, Theodore Levitt coined a term for me-first marketing: marketing myopia. In a famous Harvard Business Review article, Levitt encouraged executives to shift their focus from an inward-facing orientation (me, me, me) to an outward-facing orientation (what's in it for the customer).

It was revolutionary thinking at the time, and it sparked a 50-year boom in the market research industry. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what customers wanted! Because Levitt said short-sighted executives suffering from myopia will fail to see new opportunities and/or new threats.

He cited the railroad industry as a good example. After 100 years of unbridled growth, the railroad barons of the 1950s took their eyes off the ball. They saw themselves only as train men when in reality they were in the transportation business. The railroad guys never stopped to ask their industrial customers what they really wanted from a shipping company, and they failed to foresee the rise of air carriers as a legitimate competitor. Their strategy was limited to the product they saw right in front of them: trains and train tracks.

Even the biggest, most modern brands fall prey to myopia.

There was a period of time in the mid-80s when Nike lost its way and became too inwardly focused. In his book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight admitted that Nike was talking to itself. Then Jim Riswold came up with "Just do it," and Nike's point of view changed dramatically. It was a seminal moment for the brand.

Scott Bedbury, Nike's director of corporate advertising at the time, wrote, "Those three words simultaneously helped us widen and unify the brand. It was the essence of the brand personality, summed up in eight letters. The campaign transmitted a higher, more noble purpose. 'Just Do It' was not about sneakers. It was about values. It was not about products; it was about a brand ethos."

This song is not about you.

It's about your customers. More specifically, it's about your customers' journey and how they feel after they've worked with you or purchased your groundbreaking new product or service.

So, here's what you should do if you need to turn your current "me, me, me" POV into something more relevant and compelling.

Three Tips for Taking a Customer Focus

1. Start with a realistic assessment of your strategy

If all your marketing tactics are "me, me, me" oriented, it's probably a reflection of a poorly conceived marketing strategy.

For instance, many companies base their entire strategy on the goal of beating one main rival. So, right from the start, the POV is inwardly focused on a market category or industry, not customer-focused.

Or the goal is to become the "leading provider" of whatever. "We're number one!" That's a market share goal, not a customer-solution goal. Not much empathy in that.

If your strategy is myopic, your ad copy probably will be as well.

Strategy first, then tactics.

2. Mercilessly edit the language you use

Never underestimate the importance of language in your brand.

Any sentence that starts with "our" or "we" or "I" is a dead giveaway that you're in me-first mode.

"Our best-in-class software solution" is a classic inwardly focused cliché that should be deleted immediately. It's conceited salesperson speak, and it's probably not even true. There's always some other software solution that's packed with even more high-tech features than yours.

"We have a friendly, knowledgeable staff here to serve you" displays a POV that is both self-centered and lazy. A knowledgeable staff is not a differentiator, it's table stakes for doing business in any category these days.

"We're all about ____." Just fill in the blank, and you'll sound just like every other company in your category—and many others. If you want to stand out, you have to avoid language like that. Like the plague.

The language you use should be unique. Especially if your product or service isn't.

3. Carefully screen the images you show

You shouldn't look like your competitors any more than you should sound like them.

For most business owners, imagery is tougher to get a handle on than language. It's a matter of visual aesthetics and the subtle connotations of images, colors, and graphics. There's an art to it.

What you show is just as important as what you say. If all you ever show is your product, something's wrong. And using stock images of that "friendly knowledgeable staff" is just as bad as using the cliché in your copy.

A lot of time should be spent developing the visual language for your brand. It's a painstaking, never-ending effort.

There are always interesting new ways to display your customer-focused POV, just as there are always interesting new ways to say what needs to be said.

* * *

So, enough about you. If you want to maximize your marketing efforts and avoid the sin of vanity, you'll have to look outward to what matters most: the customer.

More Resources on Customer-Focused Marketing

Five Ways for Marketers to Implement a Customer-Oriented Mindset

Creating a Culture of Customer-Centricity: SAP's Chief Digital Marketing Officer Mika Yamamoto on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Four Tips for Customer-Centric Copywriting

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You're So Vain: The 'Me, Me, Me' POV—How to Avoid the Most Common Sin in Marketing

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image of John Furgurson

John Furgurson is the owner of BN Branding, a words-first branding agency. He's been helping business owners develop and articulate winning strategies since he was in high school.

LinkedIn: John Furgurson