Law #15: The Law of Candor

(This entry is part of a series I am writing on The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.)

The Law of Candor says that "when you admit a negative, the prospect will give you a positive".  As usual, the examples from the book are mainstream consumer products:

  • Listerine did it when they acknowledged that their mouthwash tastes terrible.
  • Avis did it when they acknowledged that they are #2.
  • Volkswagen did it when they acknowledged that the "bug" is ugly.

Each of these companies gained a lot when they applied the Law of Candor.  People respect the courage and honesty it takes to admit that not everything is perfect.

Being Genuine

The Law of Candor is another one which is simply not intuitive.  Most marcomm people are terrified of it.  Conventional wisdom says that absolutely everything in your marketing message must be positive.  In fact, a primary function of the marcomm team is to sanitize all public statements, ensuring that the company never says anything it does not want to say.

The rules of "marketing speak" are fairly well understood around the world.  All marcomm teams speak this dialect as their first language, which means that all marketing teams sound basically the same.  Almost every press release starts out with a bunch of mumbo jumbo that nobody ever reads:  "Fiddlesticks Corporation, the leading provider of useless crapola, announced today that it is incorporating XML Web Services technology into its line of coffee mugs." 

In 2004, it takes a very "special" kind of marketing person to actually believe that customers cannot see through this kind of spin.  People today are being bombarded with so much advertising that traditional marketing is less effective than ever before.  Sanitized press releases are out.  Transparency is in.  Drowning in a sea of marketing mumbo jumbo, people admire companies that choose to be genuine.

An example from here at SourceGear:  Most of our sales are "direct", but we do sell through a number of resellers as well.  I don't usually think of our resellers as terribly strategic, since they account for a very small percentage of our sales.  However, lately I find myself wondering why SourceGear doesn't sell through Xtras.net.  Why am I wondering this?  Because their CEO has a blog, and a darn good one.  I can't say that I agree with everything he says, but the fact remains:  His choice to be genuine makes me want to do business with his company.

Credibility

Ignoring the Law of Candor can kill your credibility.  Whatever your negative issue is, everybody already knows about it anyway.  If you don't talk about it, then it will become "the elephant in the room".  When you issue yet another sanitized press release, your customers eagerly read it, hoping to see some evidence that you have any self-awareness at all.  They ask themselves, "Don't these people realize how awful their mouthwash tastes?"

As Ries and Trout say in the chapter, "Every negative statement you make about yourself is instantly accepted as truth.  Positive statements, on the other hand, are looked at as dubious at best."

These dynamics are going on right now for me with respect to SourceGear Vault, our source control product.  A few weeks ago, Microsoft announced Team Foundation Server, a really cool source control system which will be shipping sometime next year.  It's not too hard to figure out that this announcement was not good news for SourceGear.

On the day of the Microsoft announcement, I posted some remarks about Team Foundation Server here on my weblog.  While nothing on my blog is truly written in "marketing speak", this post was very positive, almost to the point of being sanitized.  And not surprisingly, a lot of people didn't believe me when I said that SourceGear is going to be okay.

Well, it would be silly for me to write about the Law of Candor today without saying more on this topic.  So, I've decided to "practice what I preach" by making some more remarks about The Future of SourceGear Vault.