Pam and I live near a building site, and many mornings, banging away at my ThinkPad, I hear the rumble of a big engine and the sound of a horn. It’s a lunch wagon.
This is marketing. Go to where the consumer is and make a joyful sound. This is marketing in its simplest, more elemental form. I am guessing, but I am pretty sure the guy who drives the lunch wagon manages without a marketing plan, a website, or, God knows, the advice of a consultant. He and his wife prepared sandwiches the night before. The next day, he drives by construction sites and blows his horn.
Ok, it’s not as simple as that. There are cultural rules even here. Some guys use the horn that comes with the truck. But I’ve noticed that some people have installed a special "lunch wagon horn." This horn has a lot more flourish in it than a conventional car horn. It actually sounds a little like a "horse and hound" horn. Considering how hard it is to make a living this way, it is a small miracle that anyone bothers with a new horn. But, hey, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. Culture has spoken. And the consumer responds (apparently).
Then there is the way you use the horn. You could simply give one long blast, in the manner of a fog horn. Or you could give lots of little blits. Or you could change it everytime. All you are really doing is announcing yourself. And it’s not like you are competing with other horns. Any sort of sound should do.
But no. The convention insists you give a "a couple of cheery blasts." Robust tooting. Apparently this sends a message. The guy who comes by "our" building site makes his horn sound beckoning, whimsical, and good natured. He actually makes the horn sound like break time: fun, indulgent, a break from drudgery and tedium.
Ok, so even this simplest commercial message is coded and symbolically purposeful. Even this is a promise, a contract and a message, an exercise in meaning management. I am sure these guys have done their tests. They blow this horn hundreds of times a week, plenty of time to see what works and what does not. Plenty of time to experiment and perfect. Plenty of time to make meanings and then to see which of them make money.
It turns out that the simplest form of marketing isn’t all that different from the more elaborate kinds we work on day to day. There is just "no percentage" in being all informational about it. There is no point in selling the function, stupid. There is no point in just blowing your horn to say, "I am selling something. Come here now." You want to communicate the value proposition beyond the utilitarian. You want to construct what’s on offer.
Do I ever go out and have a coffee? No, I’m too busy banging away at my ThinkPad. I should really. Next time. Maybe he can give me marketing advice.
I’m reminded of the horn language in India – where the traffic seems to be utterly random but eventually patterns emerge out of the chaos, rules for cooperation that don’t resemble our rules but still work, somewhat reasonably well. And the horn serves to tell other cars not “get out of the way, jerk!” but “I’m near you so be careful.” Certainly we saw more of the cooperative honking in Bangalore (Bengalaru?) than in the super metropolis of Mumbai…
And lots of bumper stickers that have combinations of the words “sound” “horn” “ok” in various sizes and fonts that colorfully indicate that the drive of that vehicle welcomes such communication from fellow travelers.
I once consulted to an internet start-up which rented an open-plan floor several storeys up in a new, anonymous office building in central London (UK). Within a few days of moving in, a very entrepreneurial young guy started arriving each mid-morning and mid-afternoon with a large wooden tray strung from his neck, filled with sandwiches he’d made that morning at home. He had no horn, but would enter the (un-manned) door to the floor from the lift and shout “Sandwich guy here!” He soon had a roaring trade, and people would end-up talking together about their work as they were served.
Soon, management noticed, and decided that he was a waste of staff time, and a security risk. Who knew what hi-tech plans he could steal while selling everyone sandwiches with a heavy tray around his neck! So, they banned him. Result — unhappy entrepreneur, hungry employees, and much less interaction among employees.
Of course, the start-up is now bust!
We were conditioned like Pavlovian dogs early on in life when the ice cream man used to coast through neighborhoods. The truck played a tune that would cause most every kid to scramble indoors to get cash and make it back out before the tune was out of earshot.