Harnessing Customer Mood: the Oh-So-Wrong Way.

Yesterday I caught some targeted ad’s in my social feed. I feel sorry for the advertising agency that put it together, and for the marketing team that now have to own the blowback. Entrepreneurs and small business owners can learn some lessons.

The campaign is for Hewlett Packard, which is in the home printer business among other things.

It’s clear that the brand marketers at HP wanted to tap into a perceived mood in their customer base: nostalgia for the good old days (presumably when photos were printed rather than uploaded), and dissatisfaction with the current world of social streaming formats and the overabundance of tech in our lives.

The tactic they chose was to post factoids along these lines to social media, with a questioning caption, obviously hoping to tap into a zeitgeist and encourage sharing using the hashtag #getreal.

On the surface this seems intuitive and reasonable. At some point, we’ve all opined about how much time we spend on our phones and how we are all becoming socially detached zombified automatons.

Unfortunately for HP, this “almost successful” campaign is like being “almost pregnant”. It just misses, and in doing so, misses entirely. Check out these comments on my social feed.

This campaign, which wanted to leverage a digital photo sharing platform to critique digital photo sharing, is missing badly because they’ve made three mistakes.

  1. They Appear Inauthentic
  2. They Appear Petulant
  3. They Appear to Not Know Their Customer

I say “they appear” because it’s possible HP are deeply sincere about the wellbeing of the customer. They may be totally empathetic rather than stubborn and judgmental. They may also have excellent data on their customer and a clear persona in mind. The execution feels opposite to that, though, and perception is reality when it comes to marketing tactics.

They Appear Inauthentic

Everyone knows that HP sell printers, and that their customers are using Instagram instead of printing at home. The #GetReal hashtag should apply to them: get real, we know you don’t care about our online lives and just want to sell more printers.

In marketing, trumpeting false virtues will come across as sickly-sweet, and the customer’s finely tuned bullshit-detector will start ringing the moment something inauthentic is dished up. This has the effect of spoiling any part of the message that may have been genuine, as we consumers recoil at anything that seems intended to trick us.


The answer here is transparency, openness, credibility. It serves you well in your business, because customers generally know what’s going on anyway. By being frank you get ahead of cynicism and the pain point can become a common ground issue.

HP could have instantly garnered trust by being more overt about what they offer: a solution to the subtle pain-point of tech-heavy life in the form of a good quality photo printer that’s easy to use and provides a tangible memory to cherish. They could have found a way to communicate “Isn’t it nice to sometimes slow down, and really hold these memories in your hand?”.

They Appear Petulant

While it’s true that the avoidance of pain is a stronger motivator than achieving pleasure, you still need to tread lightly when illuminating a pain point and offering your product as the solution. If there’s ambiguity, it can seem as though the negative being discussed isn’t a recognition of a shared problem but of the business being out of touch and irrelevant.

Because we know that HP want to sell printers, and it seems like they are bemoaning our online photo sharing habits that are hindering that ambition, their negativity feels as though they are being sore losers and blaming us for their troubles.

It doesn’t feel like HP is empathizing with a shared or mutually recognized problem, and are ready to offer a solution. Instead, it feels as though they have a problem and are blaming us, their customer.

I’m certain this isn’t what the HP creative team intended to communicate. They wanted us to gather around a common pain-point and feel motivated to change our behavior toward something more in line with what their product can provide. The problem is, their choice of message and platform came off as exclusively self-serving. The captions read accusingly and without any respect for the needs of the customer. That kills any chance of empathy or reciprocation.


To avoid coming off as petulant, and to ensure an attitude of reciprocation in the customer, HP should have proven empathy by making it clear that we are all in this together. Decent market research would have explored what language was the right choice to tackle the issue, and what words to avoid. Use of humor may have helped, or even a more hopeful tone that said “Look, we get it. We are all using technology so much these days that life feels rushed. Isn’t it nice to have some precious things that are tangible, more meaningful, which lasts for years?”

In your marketing, make sure that you communicate a needs pay-off that relates specifically to your Ideal Customer’s real emotional drivers. These insights can be uncovered during ethnography and surveys, and the words and images can be determined during concept and message testing.

HP could have rolled this tactic out to a small, discreet sample in an isolated geography and spent a day looking at the comments (rather than launch a nationwide campaign that misfired on a large scale). In the CORE Marketing Method we call these Tactical Tests, and these small trial runs are useful for limiting exposure to negative unintended results with a new execution.

They Appear To Not Know Their Customer

By using digital platforms to criticize digital platforms, HP played a risky game of subtly attributing blame to the customer who was willingly scrolling social media at the time of the ad being served.

Potentially, there was a very niched target segment who intend to get off the platforms or use it less in future. This group may have been HP’s target, but social is more blunt than we like to imagine when it comes to targeted ad placements. Instead of catching a mood of a targeted segment, this campaign reached a broad population and seems to judge the average social media consumer and attribute blame to them personally.

If they wanted to reach a group who are dissatisfied with technology and its impact on social life, they should have seriously thought about an alternative medium (or even, different digital placements that feel less within the scope of the critique).

Even though the campaign seems to draw from research statistics as shown in their report, there’s no immediate sense that the research subjects were representative of a specific customer. The campaign variously points to the impact of technology on parents, families, couples, friends, and job interviewees. It makes a blanket complaint about a ubiquitous issue that we all hear and probably repeat ourselves – that technology has come into our lives with some social costs – but it doesn’t really speak to one customer with specific language and an empathetic solution. The customer is also less likely to identify because the caption feels aggressive and accusatory, leading them to reject the message altogether. HP get closer with the parent/child dynamic and concern around kid’s screen time, but even still, these come off as condescending rather than empathetic and understanding.


In the CORE Marketing Method, entrepreneurs learn that their marketing efforts need to first achieve credibility (the C in CORE) and then originality (the O in CORE) in the mind of the customer. Then, based on research (the R in CORE) they can choose tactical executions (the E in CORE) to influence the customer’s behavior. For this case study, the research aspect should have uncovered language that would have evoked a credible, emotional response in a very specific Ideal Customer, and only deployed this in channels where that customer exists in a receptive mental mode.

For example, I could imagine HP discovering that parents were concerned about the amount of time that their kids were online. They could have spent some time checking where those worried parents spend time consuming media (this probably includes social media). They should have then conducted messaging research that probed for words and images that highlighted the pain point, in language that wasn’t blaming of the parent but deeply empathetic, and then offered a needs pay-off that seemed natural, generous-spirited and original. It could have said “We know you’re juggling a lot with being a parent, and you know these are all precious moments. There’s a place for social media, but don’t some of these moments deserve to have their own time, unplugged?”

I feel like I’ve seen this scenario played out before …

The death of Kodak is staple fodder in any business school. Every MBA student learns that this enormously famous, historically successful company failed to respond to the advent of digital photography, and as a result, went under. The take home message is that business leaders need to know when to be stubborn and stick to their guns, and when to pivot in the face of undeniable changes in the real world.

As head of market intelligence at Kodak, Vincent Barraba conducted market research in 1981 into the new digital innovations of competitors like Sony. His research clearly suggested that Kodak had about ten years in which to respond and that they should do so. Unlike George Eastman, who founded the company and made historical pivots from dry-plate photography to film, and again from black and white to color film, the contemporary bosses at Kodak refused to move from their dominant place in the film, chemical and photo-paper market and ignored the trend toward to digital. It’s an interesting story when told from Barraba’s perspective.

It’s even more intriguing to read this 1999 news article. It’s a snap shot of where Kodak attempted a too-late, half-arsed pivot to include aspects of digital by adding “a technological veneer to it” … while in reality remaining fixated on what they wanted to sell: film, paper, and chemicals. Even by 1999, they refused to accept that the customer knew what they really wanted and that their job was to supply it. The plans offered in this old news article have aged like a glass of milk left out in a heatwave.

Contrast this with Ilford Film. This British company decided that they would pursue a niche, and desire to own a segment (black and white art photography enthusiasts). They discovered an Ideal Customer who loved what they offered and who wanted to use the product. They didn’t stubbornly ignore digital, or even suggest that digital was a poor cousin of film to begrudgingly accommodate. Instead, they recognized that their Ideal Customer uses digital in all sorts of ways which can legitimately compliment their use of Ilford B&W film. It was a subtle, but meaningfully different approach compared to Kodak. And it has proven to be successful.

So, what’s at the heart of this difference?

It’s a recognition that the market always tells the truth.

If the customer wanted digital cameras and to save their photos electronically, Kodak either had to play that game, or chase a smaller segment who wanted paper processing for some other legitimate reason. As entrepreneurs we should remember that there’s very little chance of us changing the customer’s mind about what itch they need scratched, but plenty of room to persuade a target customer within the reality of their existing unmet needs.

Know what the customer wants. Give it to them. Ensure credibility and originality, based on research, and with tactical executions that make sense to the intended audience.

HP should simply recognize that for most of us social is here to stay, even with its problems. They should recognize that the market has declared this truth, and they should cater to this market by describing how their product coexists in some beneficial, complimentary way. Finally, they should be careful to find a tactical execution that includes the customer, not alienates them.

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