When the economy struggles, most companies are forced to reevaluate their marketing strategy. The key questions everyone asks are these:

  1. How do I get people to buy in this time of uncertainty?

  2. How do I get them to buy from me?

So what can you do? Here are a few ideas.

1. Don't sell features

Most companies emphasize the features of their product or service. That's like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The fundamental principle of psychological marketing is this: “People do not want what you are selling.”

Instead, they want to satisfy a personal set of complex buying motivations, some logical and some emotional. That's why they buy.

Your product or service is just a means to get that satisfaction. For example, people don't want to buy a car radio, they want the entertainment and news it will give them. And they don't pay $50,000 to own a noisy, cramped Porsche Boxster sports car. They pay for the opportunity to go fast, look cool and appear rich while having fun behind the wheel.

Although features are important, they're primarily important as a way to convince buyers that the product or service will be able to deliver the benefits they really want. Features are the way to prove that you can deliver on your promise to satisfy their true buying motivations.

2. Just a little extra can tip the scale

Buying is always a matter of degree of persuasion. In the customer's mind, there is always a war between “I want it” and “why I shouldn't buy it.”

When the scale is tipped the slightest bit toward “I want it,” the customer reaches for his or her wallet. By giving just a little extra value, such as a small discount, a freebie or some additional customer services, you can tip the scale.

3. Use positioning to get customers to buy from you

When fewer people are buying, you must sell a higher percentage of those who do show up. How? Focus on positioning your company in relation to your competitors. After all, customers whose mental scale tips over to “I want it” are ready to buy from someone—the company that offers the best value. But they judge value on the basis of both reason and feelings… about both you and your competitors.

How do you position your company? You must know what your competition is doing. Where are the holes in their offer that you can exploit? What problems do they create for buyers while trying to meet their needs? (Remember, Scope took market share from Listerine by emphasizing that Listerine gave users “medicine breath” and tied that phrase to images of people looking revolted by the smell—the emotional power of the campaign was key, not the logic!)

Your marketing messages—advertising, in-store displays, direct mail, promotions—should be designed not only to sell your product but also to make your company seem like the best place to buy it. Marketing messages that help competitors make the sale are less than worthless.

4. Treat customers like friends

Most of us deal with customers in a traditional manner: “Hi, what are you after? This is what I've got that fits that bill. Here's the price. Are you interested?”

That's the way you treat a stranger, not a friend.

Talking to customers like friends means taking the time to find out more about what they want, why they want it, what they liked and didn't like about other places they've looked, what little extras they think would be nice in a deal and so on. When you talk to people like friends, they see you in a different way, and they want to do business with you a little more. That is often enough of a nudge to get the sale.

But even more valuable is the information you learn about how to sell them and others like them. Treat customers like friends, and they'll respond in kind. They'll help you look out through their eyes and understand their heart's desires as they look around your store.

It's an axiom in the car business that if you let customers talk long enough, they'll tell you how to sell them. But customers won't open up if they believe you're just after their money. Would you?

In hard times, we all draw inward. But this is a time that requires your marketing to reach out, to get inside your customers' minds and promise to satisfy the inner needs, wants, fears and desires that drive their buying decision. You can only do that by opening yourself up to new thinking, new ideas and new approaches to marketing.

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Gary Witt, PhD, is principal of the Marketing Psychology Group (www.marketingpsychology.com).