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Six Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Childhood Fables

Reading bedtime stories with my dad is one of my most treasured childhood memories. Every night, my brother and I would take turns picking out a beloved book and pile into his bed. My dad would then lie in between us so that we could both see the pages and act out the voices before sending us off to sleep.

These stories usually had a moral of some kind—such as the importance of sharing or trying your best. But if you read between the lines, they can also offer valuable lessons for marketers.

So, here are six of my favorite childhood stories accompanied by the lessons marketers can learn from them.

The Little Engine That Could

For those unfamiliar with this childhood classic, The Little Engine That Could is about a little blue train that agrees to pull a group of abandoned toys over a mountain so that they can be enjoyed by boys and girls in the next town—even though several bigger and stronger trains declined to help the toys before.

What marketers can learn: There are always going to be challenges in marketing, whether it’s sorting through big data, taking on a difficult client, or getting a campaign out the door. The important thing to remember is that challenges are learning opportunities, and there are always going to be consequences, whether people choose to take them on or not (think of how disappointed the children would have been if the little blue engine had turned the toys down).

So the next time your organization has a mountain in front of it, evaluate how taking that challenge on will affect your customers, technology partners, and staff. Also, don’t be afraid to tackle a predicament that others in the industry were too afraid to try to solve—those successes can be the most rewarding and offer the most valuable lessons. Remember, just think to yourself: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

The Giving Tree

This Shel Silverstein story is about a boy’s relationship with a tree. As a child, the boy would climb the tree’s trunk, eat its apples, and swing from its branches, which made the tree happy. But as the boy grows older, he starts visiting the tree less, which makes it unhappy. And every time he does visit the tree, he takes more from it, such as its apples to sell for money, its branches to build a house, or its trunk to construct a boat. Finally, all that’s left of the tree is its stump. When the boy revisits the stump as an old man, the tree offers itself again as a place for the boy to sit and rest.

What marketers can learn: Marketers can certainly learn from the tree’s generosity. After all, sometimes it’s important for marketers to offer customers value without expecting anything in return, such as a token of appreciation after an unpleasant customer experience. At the same time, the overall relationship between marketers and customers has to be mutually beneficial. Marketers should be able to offer customers value (e.g. products, services, content) in exchange for data, purchases, or advocacy. If the mutual exchange isn’t there for either party, then it may be time to move on.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie follows a series of events that one boy experiences after he (you guessed it) gives a mouse a cookie. Every action produces a chain reaction. Consider the following text from the book:

“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he’s finished, he’ll ask for a napkin. Then he’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.”

What marketers can learn: The boy doesn’t know what the mouse will ask for next; in the same way marketers don’t always know how a customer will move down the path to purchase. Sometimes a customer will take a more linear approach and other times he’ll totally jet off course. The key is to know how to react—because each brand action will result in a different customer reaction. Therefore, it’s important for marketers to map out all possibilities—as much as one can—and to provide opportunities for engagement at each touchpoint. Predictive analytics can also be a useful resource.

The Cat in the Hat

One of the most famous Dr. Seuss tales, The Cat in the Hat is about a cat who surprises two bored children on a rainy day and unveils a bunch of wacky games and a few crazy friends (a.k.a. Thing One and Thing Two). But what starts off as fun and games for the Cat quickly turns into trouble for the children as they watch their house become a mess. With their mother on the way home, the children throw the Cat out of the house and are left with a mess. Thankfully, the Cat returns with a cleaning machine to dispose of the mess before the mother returns.

What marketers can learn: Given today’s crowded industry, it can be tempting for marketers to pull a bunch of crazy stunts to get customers’ attention. But in those instances, marketers—much like the Cat—are thinking of their own wants and needs, as opposed to those of their customers. This can cause shoppers to turn brands away—similarly to how the children toss out the cat near the end of the story. That’s why it’s important for brands to keep  customers at the center of their marketing and to act on their pain points—just as how the cat cleans up the mess at the end.

In the words of the Cat in the Hat: “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” 

Bread and Jam for Frances

It’s hard not to love this little critter. Bread and Jam for Frances is a story about a badger named Frances who only likes bread and jam. She turns away her mother’s soft-boiled eggs at breakfast, trades her chicken salad sandwich at lunch, and discards the veal cutlets her family eats for dinner. But after her family gives into her picky eating habits, Frances grows tired of bread and jam and learns that it’s better to eat a variety of foods.

What marketers can learn: Frances’s tale is a perfect lesson on customer preferences. For one, it reminds marketers that there can be different customer preferences within the same household. So while Frances’s father enjoys the veal cutlets, Frances does not. It also exemplifies that preferences can change. So even though Frances is hung up on bread and jam one day, she could be into tomato soup the next.

It’s crucial for marketers to stay on top of customers’ evolving preferences and to adjust their marketing accordingly. Preference centers can help them achieve this.

Strega Nona

Strega Nona is a story about a “grandma witch” who warns her assistant Big Anthony not to touch her magic pasta pot. But Big Anthony doesn’t listen and ends up cooking so much pasta in the magic pot that it nearly takes over the whole town.

What marketers can learn: Strega Nona emphasizes the importance of listening. If marketers fail to listen to what their customers say explicitly and implicitly then they—like Big Anthony—can end up in a lot of trouble. It’s also important for marketers to practice their listening skills inside of their organizations. Make sure to pay attention to the CFO’s reasoning as to why you can’t obtain a bigger budget, or to the IT head’s instructions on how to trouble shoot problems with your email campaigns. Listening to your coworkers the first time can break down siloes and avoid big (and usually unsavory) messes.

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