Vanity marketing, and why it’s bad for business

“You’ll have to send it out again.”

Rewind to the bad old days of working as an in-house copywriter and a colleague — let’s call them B — had just stomped into my office.

“I don’t think you understand how big a deal this is.”

I did. It wasn’t.

I’d put a press release out about B’s pet project a week earlier. It was completely off-message for the organisation, but my boss wanted to keep B on our side so had volunteered me to write something about it.

Unsurprisingly, it hadn’t been picked up by any major publications and the local paper had published a heavily abridged version of my original as a filler piece.

B was not impressed.

“Tell them they need to publish it. In full.”

The height of bad practice, of course, and something I flatly refused to do.

B huffed and puffed and eventually we reached a compromise. I’d schedule some social media posts about the project for the next few days (and keep my fingers crossed they got enough traction to keep B happy).

The problem is, B didn’t care about bad practice. He didn’t care about our team’s carefully devised marketing strategy and how his demand aligned with it (or not, in this case). Nor was he concerned about how much of my time he occupied or about listening to my professional judgement (I was junior and female, he was senior and male, go figure).

He cared about one thing and one thing alone: self-promotion, at any cost.

And that, my friends, is vanity marketing.

Why is it bad?

A less extreme example of vanity marketing I’m sure you’ll be familiar with is when someone slaps a big old photo of their face at the top of their website. Followed by a list of their achievements, accolades and years of industry experience.

All the things that make them great.

In some cases, this is justified. Or at least the photo part is. Like if you’re a personality-led brand, or Obama or Oprah or someone else famous enough to be known by only one name.

It doesn’t work for Nigel Smith, MD of DIY Supplies, your local hardware store though.

People aren’t visiting DIY Supplies’ website to find out more about Nigel. They’re visiting to find out what products the shop stocks, if they can place orders online, how to make an enquiry or what time the shop opens.

In other words, they’re coming to DIY Supplies’ website with questions. UX expert Paul Boag concurs:

“When we use the web we have questions and are looking for answers. The job of a website is to provide those answers.”

So, when Nigel puts his flashy headshot and industry awards at the top of his homepage, he’s putting his ego before the needs of his customers. And that’s bad for business.

Customers don’t care how long Nigel’s been in the game. They care about whether his business can solve their problems or meet their needs. And if he doesn’t bother showing them how he can do that, they’ll go to someone else who does.

How can you fix it?

Like many things in life, the first (and often hardest) step to solving the problem is admitting it exists in the first place. And convincing others of this too.

Unfortunately, a vanity marketing problem often stems from senior management (like Nigel) — the very people you need to get on board with a change of strategy to fix it.

There’s the old saying that you can’t argue with statistics so this should be your first line of attack. Put together a report demonstrating how your marketing is under-performing and find some case studies showing how a more customer-centric approach could improve things.

If you can find successful examples of businesses within your industry, all the better.

Once you’ve got everyone on board with a change of tack, the solution is fairly straightforward:

You need to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

And this is where Nigel’s years of industry experience come in handy.

Nigel speaks to customers every day. He knows what questions and needs they have at each stage of the buying process (sales funnel, pipeline, whatever), and has intimate knowledge of their preferences too.

So, to fix his vanity marketing problem, Nigel needs to:

  • examine each element of his business’s marketing.
  • identify what stage or stages of the customer journey each bit of marketing is relevant to.
  • make sure every element addresses customer questions, needs and preferences at the stage(s) it relates to.

For example, prints ads are generally intended to raise brand awareness, catch attention and hook people in (top of the funnel type stuff). So, work out what the most appealing aspect of your business is to your target market and make sure your print ads align with this.

Hint — it probably isn’t the MD’s 1995 Leader in Business award. Sorry, Nige.

Work through every element of your marketing until you’ve turned it all around from “look how great we are” to “look how much we get you”.

Two handy side-benefits of this exercise are that it’ll also give you a:

  • messaging framework (an overview of key messages and whereabouts in the buying process they are relevant) to help keep your future marketing consistent
  • deeper understanding of your customers’ journeys (from browser to first-time buyer to brand loyalist) which will perhaps illuminate ways in which your processes can be improved to better support them

The positive ripples of adopting this sort of approach should not be under-estimated. It helps with customer retention, brand loyalty and boosts referrals too. All the good stuff.

As for our friend Nigel, perhaps suggest he gives LinkedIn a go for building his personal brand and let you get on with the marketing?

Originally published on

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