The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

What You Need to Know about Perception

Many people think marketing is a battle of products. In the long run, they figure, the best product will win. Marketing people are preoccupied with doing research and “getting the facts.” They analyze the situation to make sure that truth is on their side. Then they sail confidently into the marketing arena, secure in the knowledge that they have the best product and that ultimately the best product will win.

It’s an illusion. There is no objective reality. There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.

These are the words of Trout & Ries in their must-own, classic book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. And it’s a law that certainly applies to us more than ever.

I quote them today because there are constant reminders of this law around us. As well as cautionary tales about what happens when you do things to shake people’s perceptions in the wrong way.

Does Starbucks taste better that Pete’s or Caribou? Or is it the perception of its taste – fueled by the ambiance of their stores and their first mover claim to that perception – that explains why there are more Starbucks outlets around? Is growth slowing for Starbucks because the coffee tastes that much worse than before – or because it isn’t the perceptive experience that it used to be?

The great brands of our sector seek to own certain perceptions. is about directly helping another person with an hand-up. American Red Cross was about coming to our rescue – until that perception was shaken. They are still recovering.

The perception of former NY Governor Spitzer was that he was squeaky clean and ruthless in holding others to lawful and moral standards. When people learned something that flew in the face of this perception, he was finished – as a brand and certainly as a politician. The product – his work as governor – is secondary in most people’s minds to the more primary (and primal) issue of whether he lived up to what he projected and what we perceived.

So what do you do about it? You focus on your audience as much as your programs. You show why you matter to them rather than trying to convince them to listen to what you do. You seek to own a unique perception in the minds of your audience rather than trying to dislodge their perception of your competition. You can fine-tune your programs or re-brand all day long, but until you connect to what is in someone’s heart or mind and create a perception, your “product” doesn’t exist for them. If you do have a place in people’s hearts and minds, honor that perception with your actions. People don’t like to have their perceptions proved wrong. In fact, they hate it because they don’t like to be proven wrong.

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About This Blog

Connie Poulos
Senior Associate, Copywriter

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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