Episode #104: The Theater of Self Justification

Grad Conn

March 24, 202115 min read

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We’re talking about theater today. But not that kind of theater. Today’s episode is all about the theater we perform in our daily lives in order to feel better about ourselves and our decisions. We all do it. And, as marketers, it’s important that we understand why.

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All right. Welcome to the CXM Experience with Grad Conn. I am CXO, chief experience officer at Sprinklr, and today we’re going to talk about theater. But a different kind of theater than you might be thinking. Broadway won’t be back for a while, although signs are pointing to it eventually coming back. But definitely going to take a little longer for real theater to come back. I’m going to talk about the theater that we perform in our lives day to day to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

It’s a really interesting marketing concept. And a very interesting experience concept. Because this concept of theater as a way of presenting ourselves to the outside world is, I think, a pretty critical part of understanding how to sell to people.

I’ll tell you the origin of this, and this goes back to many years ago, when I was fresh faced newly scrubbed marketer at Procter & Gamble. And I learned this early early early in my career at P&G. I actually started on Tide. Tide detergent. And I learned this principle, probably in my first few months of the job. And it stuck with me ever since. And it applies to lots of other things. Then I’ll spend a second talking about how it exists in our lives, particularly in terms of the way the government performs theater for us. I’ll have a little bit of fun with that. And then we’ll talk about some of the theater that we have on a day-to-day basis. And why we have that theater, why it’s there. And how do you leverage that? But also, how do you understand it. This will be kind of a fun show.

And I’m going to ask you maybe to spend a second just opening your mind. I know that’s hard to do. So uncomfortable. Just try opening your mind a little, just a little bit more. A little bit more. Come on, you can do it. I know you can. Come on. Yeah, I know. It’s so hard. Just open it. Oh, that’s good. Okay, that’s perfect. Just to let maybe a new idea go in.

The reason you’re going to need to have your mind a bit open, is because you’re going to potentially see yourself in some of these scenarios. And when I describe them, you’re going to want to reject what I’m saying. Because the great thing about this theater is it’s deeply ingrained. And you’re going to want to reject it. Not me. That’s not me. And so, just open your mind a bit and be prepared to accept something that might be a little bit different. All right. Everybody good? Okay. Trigger warning, you might want to leave now because I might be challenging your self conceptions. Alright, okay, here we go.

Who buys no name detergents? You’d think that no name detergents… which were a significant and ongoing issue for Tide, which is a premium detergent. And the price points were — it was actually interesting — the price points are very glacial. So, Tide was always on deal at $3.99. And the mid-price brands like say Sunlight, these are Canadian brands, was $3.49. That was their price point, sometimes $3.69. And then the no name detergents like ABC and store brands were $2.99. And that was the range. It was basically $1. But that dollar made a big difference. And sometimes the no names would go down to $2.69 or $2.89. Those were tough price points.

My initial assumption coming into it is that then no name brands and the store brands were purchased by people who had less money. Quotation marks… poor people. Or people on lower incomes or whatever. That’s what I assumed. And I was interestingly disabused of that notion, because of a bunch of research that have been done at Procter & Gamble.

In fact, the most loyal buyers of Tide were some of the least advantaged members of society. And the poorer the neighborhood, the higher the Tide sales. It’s the wealthy that bought no name products. That was a shocking insight for me. And this is not an opinion. These are just the facts on how detergents worked. And it really challenged some of my conceptions of what pricing is all about.

Now, just to drill in a little bit more, part of the reason, when you do focus groups, the people who are very loyal to Tide and who may not have as much money as others is that it works all the time. They don’t have to worry about it failing. They can use maybe less of it because it’s a higher quality product. They can depend on it. So they, in some ways, they didn’t view themselves as spending more money. They viewed themselves as making the correct economic choice.

And they’re right, because if you buy a no name, product, or a product you don’t know — something new — there’s a reasonable likelihood that it won’t work. In that case, you’ve wasted $2.99. Whereas if you buy Tide for 3.99, you’ve got $4 of value, and you can consistently rely on that value. And P&G has done an amazing job over generations of always delivering extremely high-quality products all the time. It’s actually so boring, P&G has done such a great job of boringly delivering amazing performing products that are always great. Always work. You don’t even imagine that that wouldn’t happen. Imagine if your bottle of Downy somehow didn’t work. It’s inconceivable. People can’t even wrap their mind around it. So, good on you P&G.

That was an interesting insight. It’s essentially the people that could waste money were buying the no name products. But then the second question that comes out is, why are they buying those products? If they can afford… they can clearly afford the more expensive product, why were they buying the cheaper product? On the knowledge that if it didn’t work, they could toss it. They’re willing to take more risk with their purchase, to spend $1 less. Therein lies how we fool ourselves. And we’re going to come back to that in one second.

There’s a term that came up probably around the turn of the century, mostly following 9/11 and all the changes that occurred in airport security. I first read the term on Boing Boing. I don’t know if you follow BoingBoing.net, but it’s the most linked-to blog on the web. And my great friend, Cory Doctorow is an editor of Boing Boing and has been working on Boing Boing since the late 90s. It’s an amazing adventure that he’s been on for more than two decades now.

And the term they came up with at that time was that a lot of what we go through at the airports isn’t really security. It’s security theater. I remember when they took my pair of tweezers from me or something one time, I’m like, now the skies are now safe. Quite frankly, there’s a lot of ways bad actors can get in and do a lot of damage. Me taking my shoes off and losing pairs of tweezers here and there is not making a whit of difference. But you feel a lot better. Your sense of confidence is much higher. Because the theater of security makes you feel like, aha, look how secure this is. Look how much work they’re putting into it. Look how they’re making sure that we’re going to be safe.

There’s going to be a lot of COVID theater coming up. And there’s going to be a lot of pandemic theater as we go down the road. We’re all going to be vaccinated, it’ll be essentially disappeared. But a lot of things are going to remain because businesses are going to want people to stay in a mindset of being safe. So always watch for the theater. Theater is a very interesting mechanism people use to communicate something else.

We also create a lot of theater in our own lives. Let’s go back to these people buying ABC detergent for $2.99. Why do they do that? Because they want to look thrifty. So they take their ABC detergent and they put it in the trunk of their BMW. And I use BMW because I’m never going to drive a BMW so that’s a brand I can disparage slightly. And then drive off feeling like they’ve somehow been thrifty, they’ve been economical.

Sometimes listening to people talk about Costco is like this. They’ll go on and on about how much money they’re saving at Costco. But not really, because they’re buying 14 times the amount of what they would normally buy, right? They buy massive insane quantities of food, at definitely a deal for that quantity of food. But they’re probably never going to get through it. Or if they do, that’s not going to be good for them. And they’re still spending tons and tons of money. But they feel really economical. It creates a sense that they’re saving money. And then they drop ten grand on whatever. Right?

And it’s this need to reassure yourself that you’re economically minded, or that you’re spendthrift, or that you’re thoughtful about money, or that kind of stuff, that a lot of businesses can leverage. And it’s very interesting when you see some people carrying a $25,000 purse… believe it or not, that’s even low end of some of the things I’ve seen. And wearing a $1,000 pair of shoes, but they’ll talk about their scarf they got for $1 on the street. And another $100,000 of jewelry, right? But it’s the $1 scarf that they’re going to put everyone’s attention on.

And this, for me, is this really fundamental concept about humanity, in that we’re always looking for ways to justify what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s rare that a person can say, you know, I bought that because I really wanted it. And I felt like I deserved it. And I didn’t really care that it’s a complete splurge. It’s very rare to hear people say that. And if they do, it’s usually with some kind of justification.

There’s a great story about this exact same issue in “Ogilvy on Advertising,” where he talks about when they started doing the Mercedes account. And they introduced Mercedes to America. And Mercedes was at the time still a high-end car. It wasn’t like when Honda came in at the low end and then rose up the ranks. Mercedes came in as a high-end car, expensive German car. But they use this insight to focus the advertising in a different way.

The early Mercedes ads did not say, this car is a really great sign of prestige, and that you’ve made it. And here’s a good way to snub your neighbor’s noses in your success. Which is exactly why people are buying the car. But that’s not how they sold it. And they didn’t sell it based on, you want to make sure that when you go valet parking, the valet treats you with respect because you pull up in a car that’s clearly higher class. Nope. Also another good reason why people buy the car. Not how they sold it. Did they sell it by saying, here’s a way to make your ex-wife jealous of where you are in life right now, by rolling up in a great Mercedes when you drop off the kids. No, although again, another great reason why people buy that car.

What they did is they advertised its safety. They advertised the safety. Which is also a very true thing. It’s not untrue. They advertise the safety of the Mercedes and still today, if you ask someone who owns a Mercedes… I know someone who actually has said this to me. Actually, many people have said this to me. Say Hey, nice whatever… SL, SE, BCD, whatever. Why did you decide to buy a Mercedes? And… try this out, like try it out, okay? Inevitably they’ll say, Oh, well, it’s just such a safe car. Such a safe car.

I had one person actually tell me one time… he exclusively drove in Rolls Royces. When he had money he had one, and when he didn’t have money, he rented them. And when he really didn’t have money, he borrowed them. But he’d never go anywhere except in a Rolls Royce. I once said to him, What’s with the Rolls Royces all the time? Even when clearly it made zero sense financially. Why are you always in a Rolls Royce? Now, the answer obviously is he had an appearance, and he had an image, and he wanted to show everyone that he was really successful. So he always showed up in a Rolls Royce. And I think a lot of his success actually stemmed from the fact that he always seemed successful. And so that attracted people to him. That’s a great reason. That’s a great rationale. There’s nothing wrong with that. He never said that. What he actually told me with a straight face is… and this is also true. The thing is, for theater to work, there’s got to be an element of truth to it. It can’t be completely false. He said to me with a straight face, the reason that I’m always in a Rolls Royce is that Rolls Royce is the only car brand that nobody has ever died in. Which amazingly is true. No one has ever died from an accident. I’m sure that people have had heart attacks and stuff, but no one has ever died in a Rolls Royce in a car accident. Pretty enviable record. And that was the reason why he was always in a Rolls Royce.

I just love that kind of stuff. I love people. And I love humanity. Start thinking about why people buy your brand in the self-interested way. And then think about the thing that you can tell people about your brand that makes them justify that self-interest. I’ll use one last example, it’s also Rolls Royce. But again, this is from David Ogilvy. And he wrote an amazing classic ad for Rolls Royce, which again said nothing about how amazing you’re going to look at it, and how jealous everyone’s going to be. And what he said was, at 77 miles per hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the sound of it’s clock. And jokingly, one of the engineers said, we’ve got to start working on the sound of that clock. The idea being it’s a very, very quiet ride, supported by the sound of the clock being… you can hear a clock ticking inside it. It’s a great way for people saying, I just really need quiet while I’m driving. I need a quiet ride. So I have to have a Rolls Royce.

Now there’s also a reverse way of doing it. And while I’m thinking of Rolls Royce, there’s one more, just to do a trifecta here. If you remember the original Grey Poupon ads. Grey Poupon, a mustard, very good mustard. I’m a big fan. A bit more of a Maille fan, but Grey Poupon is excellent. Nothing wrong with it. You remember the first ads, two people in Rolls Royces pulling up beside each other, and then one person offering the other person Grey Poupon. In this case what they did is they took something that was a very utilitarian product, mustard, and then they upgraded it by putting it in a fancy jar and having the Rolls Royces being the way of communicating it. In this case, you knew that the people driving the Rolls Royces were a certain kind of person with a certain kind of attitude. And that actually reflected correctly on the jam… sorry, on the jar of mustard. But the flip side is that if you are selling Rolls Royce, you would want to do the reverse, which is the people driving Rolls Royces. we’re just making good solid economic decisions about ride quiet and safety.

I think you get the point. Examine in yourself… this is where you need the open mind… examine in yourself where you’ve justified things that you do that are not necessary, and not necessarily practical, but sound really good when you position it a certain way. And then think about it for your own product. Where is the resistance to your product? Because people might view it as something they don’t want other people to know they’re doing, or it seems superfluous. And how do you justify it in a way that makes it seem like they just being good, solid citizens making great economic choices in a super practical way. Which is, you know, a form of bragging as well.

For the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you… next time.

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