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FutureNow Article
Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007

The 7 Deadly Claims (Part Four) — “We’re #1″

By Jeff Sexton
December 19th, 2007

Now, here’s a claim that does for persuasive copy what Jonestown did for grape Kool-Aid: “We’re #1 in our industry.”

Not only will this particular (unsubstantiated) claim poison your copy, but the copywriter’s desire to use it stems from the same psychological principle that’s said to have caused so many Jonestown believers to have tragically drained their own deadly draught: Social Proof.

To paraphrase Robert Cialdini, we tend to view behavior as being correct to the degree that we see others performing it. (Salting tip jars works. Ask any bartender.) And though very few people willingly identify themselves as “followers,” marketers know that most of us are interested in or swayed by “best-selling” and “hot” items.

Sure, copywriters should want to leverage social proof — they just need to learn to do so effectively. Here are some things to keep in mind when tapping into this psychological principle:

a) The more people the reader observes performing the behavior, the more powerful the effect.

b) The more similar to your audience the observed people are – or the more admired they are – the more powerful the social proof.

Knowing this, I recommend you take a hard look at whether you have the chops to make this claim. And if you do…

Get specific with your claim

How are you defining your terms? Are you “Number 1” because you have the largest market share; the most highly rated products/services; fastest growth rate; or because industry insiders consider you the front-runner in terms of innovation and leadership?

Frame your statement so readers can picture it in their minds without blinking. Then…

Be Concrete. Get Substantiated.

Example: “Xenoic Industries is the preferred widget vendor to 15 of the top 20 Fortune 100 companies, including So & So, Inc.” Although it may seem counter-intuitive, that’s usually better than claiming “70% of market share.” Regardless, be sure to include similar figures for mid- and small-sized businesses if that’s also part of your market; otherwise, your bragging will backfire as they’ll feel excluded.

Also, “…has been favorably reviewed by The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Economist, and was the subject of a feature story in The Wall Street Journal. Read the reviews here” is far more persuasive than claiming to have been “reviewed by hundreds of top newspapers and magazines.” As Seth Godin said in his recent interview with Bryan, who is more important than how many.

The “Dust Cover” Principle

First printings of books can’t claim wide readership, so they rely on “dust cover” reviews by the most persuasive names they can find in their field. A few high-powered testimonials placed near your claim of market leadership can do wonders.

But what if you don’t have the hard numbers to substantiate your claim? Well then, forget the claim and just focus on providing Social Proof. Make sure you’re offering real examples — and in copywriting, examples come in the form of anecdotes, testimonials, and case studies that are “like” your audience.

Most importantly, make sure your proof also helps visitors reduce their uncertainty. Social Proof works best in situations where your audience is uncertain about the right — or appropriate — course of action. Social Proof provides a mental shortcut for relieving that uncertainty.

What does this mean for your anecdotes, testimonials, and case studies? They work best when they’re concrete, authoritative, and showcase people just like them.

Join me next time for “100% Risk-Free”! In the meantime, read more about the 7 Deadly Claims at your own risk. ;)

  1. Superior Customer Service
  2. Easy to Use
  3. Most Experienced
  4. We’re #1” (Read the addendum.)
  5. 100% Risk-Free
  6. Cutting Edge
  7. Best Value

[Editor's note: Does your Web copy taste like Kool-Aid? Sharpen up your virtual sales pitch at our Persuasive Online Copywriting seminar on March 28th in San Francisco. Jeff and Holly will be your instructors for this first-ever West Coast edition of our popular one-day copywriting crash course. Class size is limited so that attendees can get real advice and actually learn something. You'll even get $100 off if you register by 2/29.]

Add Your Comments

Comments (7)

  1. What about: “We’re #2. We try harder.

  2. I’m a big fan of the Avis claim, and have mentioned it in the blog a few times, including my first post in the series:

    Much of its power comes from the fact that it has the bold audacity to go directly against one of the Seven Deadly Claims.

  3. Back at the time the “We’re #2″ campaign was launched, it had many detractors. But the claim worked both for audacity and for smart strategy. There were then several car rental firms that could be described as Hertz and all others. The Avis campaign raised that company out of the all others category, creating an industry of Hertz, Avis and all others. My recollection is that Avis never exceeded Hertz in market share, although the campaign/claim was irritant enough to Hertz that they actually ran ads disputing Avis’ service claims and thereby raising Avis awareness and saliency even more. But beating Hertz was not the original objective for Avis.

  4. Jeff provides excellent examples of how talk can be cheap without adding the corresponding actions or signals to back the claim.

    The beauty behind Avis’ original campaign (the first of which ran way back in 1962) was that they had the guts to risk reputation and prestige by revealing themselves as the #2 car rental company in the industry. It was a risky move since most of us like to associate with a winner. Avis strengthened the message by giving concrete examples of how they try harder to win our business.

    The campaign skyrocketed the unprofitable Avis to the #1 spot over then market leader, Hertz.

    But over the years Avis lost it’s way, allowing upstart Enterprise to overtake them as champion of the car rental industry. Now after four decades of “trying harder”, Avis finds itself once again in the #2 spot, and has gone back to using the “We try harder” pitch in an attempt to regain it’s marketing mojo.

    But it won’t work.

    Why? Because, Avis curiously dropped the “We’re #2″ part of the slogan, and with it went all credibility. As Jeff has been teaching us, without concrete proof of their actions Avis’ claim remains unsubstantiated.

    Admittedly though, it’s hard to convince the public you’re trying hard enough when after 45 years of effort you’re still #2. It’s time for Avis to adopt a new strategy.

    Sorry for the long post :-)

  5. Thanks for all the great comments. I agree with the majority of them, and just wanted to say that you can read more about this particular Avis campaign in Ries and Trout’ little gem of a book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

    One of my many valuable take-aways from that book is that marketing claims can never successfully violate the audience’s perceived reality. If readers don’t see you as the “Number 1” in your industry, claiming to be the leader will only cause prospects to reject not only that claim, but your entire marketing message. Stated in the positive, it’s a simple principle: always acknowledge your readers’ reality in your copy!

    The #2 campaign by Avis proved effective and memorable not only for it’s audacity, but for it’s clever ability to stop fighting this dynamic and turn it to advantage through an emotional appeal. In other words, it changed what people felt about Avis position in the market, rather than trying to change what people already thought they knew about Avis. For more on this technique, see this post on Emotion vs. Logic:

  6. The biggest reason people don’t buy from you is because they simply don’t believe you.

    By giving specific proof as Jeff suggests you go a long way towards building that belief necessary to push your prospect over the edge to buy.

    If you listen closely to your own conversations how do you talk up a company or a product?

    Do you say “I’ve heard it was reviewed in a stack of newspapers” or do you say “I just read an amazing review about it in the Wall St Journal. Jeff Smith gave it his highest recommendation and he usually pans every product they put on his desk.”

    Understanding the way we communicate to real live people one on one is a huge key to understanding how to communicate effectively in a sales letter.

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

  7. People buy because of emotion. People don’t buy because of the facts.

    If you lose credibility on the fact dimension by claiming ‘industry leader’ or other unsubstantiated claim and don’t satisfy a need, you’re going nowhere fast.

    Avis’ #2 campaign simultaneously hit the emotional button with the perfect factoid. We like underdogs.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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