The ‘Crying Wolf’ Effect: Why You Stopped Caring About Relatable Marketing

Life would be pretty easy if it were an “as seen on TV” commercial. 

We’ve all watched those amusing product commercials where actors make overexaggerated, clumsy mistakes in the kitchen. Then, suddenly a whimsical kitchen gadget fixes all of the actor’s problems! There aren’t any hiccups with the new product, and now, the previously clumsy actor can live a perfect, productive adult life.

We might think: Hey, why wouldn’t I want an easy egg sandwich in the morning every day? 

Like most things in life, however, these commercials are best in small doses. Eventually, you’d get sick of watching clumsy actors who can’t get their act together without a “one low price” TV trinket. That’s why you can’t always follow one trend or one formula in your marketing forever, especially if you join the trend too late. And in today’s world, that includes “relatable” marketing. 

For this month’s Storytelling Week, let’s break down why too much of a good thing (being relatable) can be bad.

What is ‘relatable marketing’? 

There is no single definition for “relatable marketing.” In the marketing world, the term “relatability” tends to apply more to branding strategy and influencer marketing. However, for the sake of argument, let’s describe relatable marketing as the trend of utilizing common experiences and/or recent events to create content or communicate in a way that relates to a consumer’s experience. 

We’ve had plenty of experience with this in the past couple of years. At the start of the pandemic, Americans became exhausted from hearing the phrases “new normal” and “we’ll get through this together.” Every single brand — from automobiles to laundry detergents — sent out emails to comfort Americans and make it clear that they wanted to be “at our side” through these difficult times. 

No business wants to look like “the boy who cried wolf” — no one wants to attract eye rolls instead of positive attention.

Relatable marketing can actually be a very good thing. It’s smart for a business to address traumatic events like a global pandemic. But how do you address it in a way that actually stands out? No business wants to look like “the boy who cried wolf” — no one wants to attract eye rolls instead of positive attention. In a way, “crying wolf” ruins a company’s most relatable marketing. The good news is that you can totally fix it.

Recognize the ‘crying wolf’ effect.

to cry wolf word or concept represented by wooden letter tiles on a wooden table with glasses and a book

The news moves very fast these days. You might be in a situation where you’re addressing a common topic for the very first time, however, it might be the 90th time your customer has heard about this same thing from a company (such as the case with the pandemic). In your gut, you know that you’ll say the same thing everyone else has, and your customers will hate it. That’s when you know you’re battling the “crying wolf” effect, and giving a corporate response won’t always cut it.

One of the best ways to fix the “crying wolf” effect is to get creative. Let’s say you need to address a common issue, like the pandemic. You could: 

  • Get involved with a local nonprofit organization that needs the funds due to an economic fallout related to the pandemic, and create content that explains your involvement and why you chose it. 
  • Create an infographic that puts important, useful information in an easy-to-share image for your customers and their families. 
  • Write a letter or print newsletter cover article that shares a personal story about how you personally reacted to the topic and learned lessons from it — or share industry-related information on how the recent story affects your industry and how you feel about that.

A key part of storytelling isn’t just telling a story, but communicating in a clear, effective way. That’s why storytelling skills can make any response more creative and effective. Ultimately, any of these options will be more interesting options than what you’ll find as the “default” corporate response to any common lived experience, whether it’s a news story or a new cultural phenomenon. 

For example, during the pandemic, Krispy Kreme was able to combine great communication with great offers. Their free glazed doughnuts to healthcare workers and vaccinated guests received plenty of press over the past couple years. These days, the businesses with savvy customer communication tend to build the strongest customer loyalty, especially during the most unique or challenging moments of modern times. Make your business no exception. 

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