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New Zealand marketing consultant Harry Mills was on a flight from Wellington to Sydney, Australia, a few years ago, pondering how to develop a framework for his ideas on communicating better with customers, when a filmmaker mentioned his company was called Sauce.

Two hours later, walking down Pitt Street, one of Sydney's main thoroughfares, he started to ruminate about the letters of that word and how they could be applied to marketing.

S would be for simple, A for appealing, U for unexpected, C for credible and E for emotional.

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"I realized the acronym was more than useful. It was profound," he said in an interview. "The S and E are the key. When marketers fail, the weakness is at the S, simplicity, and because of that they can't get any emotional response."

SAUCE's five elements are vital because societal change requires reinvention of our message-making. What worked in the past won't work today because consumers have more information and more choice – and that adds up to power in their hands. When we used to go into a store, the seller had all the information and choice wasn't close at hand. Now you pull out your mobile, gather more information, scout alternative sellers or purchases and you can scoot.

Message-making, he believes, is about self-persuasion. If we're not listening to messages, of course, we are unlikely to persuade ourselves to purchase the marketer's wares. But if we are listening, it is critical that the seller helps us to find our own reasons to purchase – to choose that product or service.

So think of Secret Sauce, as his recent book is titled.

  • Simple messages have one central truth and are easy to grasp and picture. “Coming up with a simple truth is the hardest thing. How do you boil down what you want to communicate to one thing? Most marketers have several things they want to advertise and aren’t good at sacrifice,” Mr. Mills says in the interview.

    Proverbs are the example: simple and profound. Microsoft’s tagline – “Your potential. Our passion.” – doesn’t ring true, sounding like a corporation trying too hard. On the other hand, Las Vegas scores with “What happens here stays here.” Metaphors can be powerful, such as Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun.” – what more can be said? As for pictures, he notes Facebook posts with photos have 53 per cent more likes.
     
  • Appealing messages are different, valuable and personalized. Steve Jobs introduced his iPhone with these words: “What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has been, and super-easy to use.” That super-appealing pitch was matched by his concise description of the iPod: “1000 songs in your pocket.”

    Mr. Mills warns that research says you need to keep to no more than three positive claims for your product – after that, appeal declines, as skepticism rises. He adds that “product benefits, which are the sizzle that sell the steak, work better when personalized.”
     
  • Unexpected messages are surprising, intriguing and seductive. Unless there’s an element of surprise or intrigue, you limit your chance of capturing attention since our brain ignores the expected and familiar. Hathaway had been making shirts for 116 years and was little noticed until David Ogilvy put an intriguing eye patch on the actor in an ad; within a week, the company’s stock sold out and it became the best-selling dress shirt. Seductive involves lowering defences through encouraging self-persuasion.
     
  • Credible messages are trusted, transparent and verifiable. We live in a skeptical age, so it’s critical you heed those three dictums. Candour can be very disarming. Having fun with yourself can be effective, as with Volkswagen’s “think small” pitch in the 1960s. But when the company lied about its diesel engines amid an appeal to those interested in sustainability, it lost credibility – and sales.
     
  • Emotional messages are warm, arousing and plot-driven. Mr. Mills quotes Canadian neurologist Donald Calne: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusion.” You want action, so arouse emotions, display warmth and try to present a narrative that allows people to connect to your product or service as the hero in a story.

    Flip through a newspaper and magazine. Look at the stories and advertisements that catch your attention. He is confident they will all have the secret sauce that came to him on Pitt Street.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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