Marketing by Design (3/4): How to gain credibility through proximity


Most doctors were deeply opposed to the idea of peddling prescription drugs on television. As if their resistance wasn’t enough, the FDA imposed stringent guidelines on any such ad: a “brief” summary of contra-indications and side effects that would last up to ten minutes. Too big a challenge for most pharmaceutical companies, the marketing team of Vicks Cough Syrup came up with a clever idea.

Why go through the hassle of advertising with real doctors if you could hire a well-known actor instead. And to keep things clean, he would say right at the beginning “I’m Not A Doctor, But I Play One on TV”. What made this move so ingenious was the fact that although he had no medical expertise whatsoever, the mere fact of playing a doctor on TV had a similar effect on the audience.

The proximity of the actor to the role of a doctor transferred a lot of their credibility to the product. A lot of credibility was transferred from doctor to the actor just playing a doctor through the proximity of their role.

You can use the principle of proximity in your own marketing, too

Let’s look first at how proximity works in design, before we transfer that knowledge into marketing and then into you own marketing strategy.

  1. Proximity in design
  2. Proximity in marketing: Credibility
  3. How to apply Proximity in your marketing

1. Proximity in design

In design, proximity reveals the relationship between objects. If two elements are close to each other, we automatically assume they have something to do with each other. If they are close enough, we even perceive them as a single visual unit. If two objects are far away from each other, we assume they are not related.

Placement through proximity helps the designer to organize information: By just looking at it, we understand how it relates together. Let’s see hot that applies to marketing.

2. Proximity in marketing: Credibility

In marketing, the principle of proximity is most prominently used to transfer credibility. As a prospect, we don’t place a lot of trust in what a salesman or advertising tell us. They don’t have our best interest at heart–their purpose is to sell the product. Naturally, we take everything they say with a grain of salt.

Our perception changes if there is a third party vouching a product. This could be a close friend or an expert in their field, or even just someone that we know. Then it’s no longer “us versus them”, but now we have an independent opinion. And through their endorsement, we transfer their credibility to the product. All that sounds great in theory, but how do you apply that to your own marketing?

3. How to apply proximity in your marketing

While the process of transferring a third party’s credibility remains the same, you can tap different sources of credibility. Let’s look at each, starting with the strongest:

Direct referrals: Nothing is more powerful for your marketing than a happy customer. If there would be any risk of a backlash for them, they wouldn’t risk recommending your product. It’s almost like a personally guarantee from them to their peers.

Testimonials: Testimonials work in the same way, but without the personal connection. The attestant represents the exact target audience, and shares their fears and problems. If they are happy happy enough to say so, the product must have worked well for them.

Endorsements: Endorsements are another type of testimonial. They are less focused on the actual experiences with the product, but more about generally using it. The most common types of endorsements are through experts or celebrities.

Trust symbols: If none of the above is an option, there are still trust symbols available to transfer their credibility. Think of a badge from the Better Business Bureau. Or the logo of an industry association you are part of.

That means even if you’re a new business, and have no celebrities or experts to endorse you, with testimonials and trust symbols your can start gaining credibility instantly.

Gaining credibility wins half the battle

If you can’t get your customer to believe you, not a single word you say matters. And since you’re the one selling, you have an ulterior motive. One of the most potent ways to gain credibility short of trying the product for themselves is to have a third party speak out for you.

As an independent source, they transfer their credibility to you and your product. And with options like direct referrals, testimonials, endorsements and trust symbols, you don’t need a actor in a white coat to gain the trust of your future customers.

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