The Surprisingly Little Known Secret to Reaching More People With Your Message

I recently talked to an executive who owns a number of car dealerships in Southern California. He said the central truth every good auto salesman knows is that the car has very little to do with the transaction. The single most important factor in selling cars is the buyer’s self image.

In other words, a good salesman doesn’t sell a car, he tries to discover what type of car reflects the self image of the buyer. That’s why a macho guy buys a Jag, an outdoor person gets an SUV, and middle aged guy desperate to look young buys a Corvette, etc…  Not long after I talked to a marketing team leader who created the latest advertising campaign for a major fast food company. She confirmed that thinking and mentioned it was true with other products as well. The actual tennis shoe has very little to do with selling Nikes. What they’re selling is LeBron or Stephen. Remember in the old days every kid’s self image was they want to “be like Mike?”

That issue is what branding and identity are all about. I’ve always known there were multiple factors at work, but it seems perhaps we need to focus our thinking less on the product, company, organization, or ministry, and more on the audience and the way they perceive themselves. This is why major advertisers spend so much money and effort on “Focus Groups” – to find out more and more about their audience – what they like, dislike, and more. Only then do they go back to the drawing board to see how to “tweak” the product to meet the needs of the audience. Not the “REAL” needs necessarily, but what the customer is looking for.

In the New Testament book of Matthew, he mentions how Jesus understood the principle: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  The focus of Jesus was on the people. When they were hungry He fed them, and when they were sick He healed them, and He did it first. In other words, before He gave them what they actually needed (the message of eternal life), He gave them what they wanted. And yet today, we spend most of our time on our message, our programs, or our solutions.

So think about these issues:
How can we know more about our audience?
How do we adjust our product or message to reflect their self image?  (Not to compromise, but to communicate in a way that they will be more receptive.)
What emotional needs are represented in our audience?
What are we doing right now to meet those needs?
What could we change to make us more effective?

Now I can hear many of you saying: “Yes, but what they want isn’t as important as what they need.” I agree. But they don’t realize that. So we need to understand what they want, in order to learn how to give them what they need. Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt put it this way: “Last year a quarter of a million quarter inch drill bits were sold but no one wanted a quarter-inch drill bit. They wanted a quarter inch hole.” In the same way, today’s phones come with quality cameras, but they actually advertise memories.

Most people don’t really think in terms of “needs.” We want a new car. We want a house that’s the envy of the neighborhood. We want the tools to fix our kid’s swing set. People rarely realize they need a spiritual solution, but they do want a way to fix their marriage.

Our challenge is to find out what they want, and figure out how to make what they really need, the answer…

Keeping the dialogue open with our audience is critical, and it’s one of the reasons why at Cooke Pictures we do so many focus groups with our church and ministry clients.  We’re often surprised and sometimes shocked at what we discover.  So in your own situation, think about these issues and what you can do that make that audience “connection” stronger – and how it can apply to your church, ministry, nonprofit, or product.

You may be amazed at the difference.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • "How can we know more about our audience?" – Listen more. The best salespeople do lots more listening than talking. When they are talking, it is usually asking questions to learn more about their customer. It's a process Steve Clark at New School Selling calls Servant Selling. Get this, you are actually interested in what is best for the customer, not in what is best for you. So you listen and ask long before you tell or suggest. Today there is a wonderful listening tool available. It's called the Internet. But, I see very few businesses or ministries using the web as a listening tool. Most websites are telling tools, but not listening posts. Find a way to ask your listener about themselves. Use web surveys for an opt-in group of people who sign up to give you their opinions on a periodic basis. Advertising has long been the domain of tellers. But, the future belongs to the best listeners. I think the same is true for all communicators using media. It's one reason Phil loves to read these comments so much.


  • Absolutely agree. Learning about your audience puts ministries in a better position to reach them more effectively.

    Sometimes running focus groups will uncover surprises we didn’t realize. Other times it will confirm a gut belief.

    In all cases, taking time to understand first ensures we’re pursuing the right strategy and not wasting time/resources running down the wrong path.

  • Gordon Calmeyer

    Great post Phil and very true, Maxwell says everyone communicates but very few connect

  • Matthew Davis

    Thank you…light bulb moment. Seeing applications for this principle in my current context

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