failure-to-communicate

Three Marketing Communication Lessons from “Cool Hand Luke”

There are nine words uttered not only about an iconic movie hero but also by many of us engaged in the delivery of marketing communication.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

It was my daughter who suggested we watch the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” because she had heard many cultural references and wanted to see what it was about. As a movie lover, I’m always up for a classic flick, especially if it features a young Paul Newman (who, with his southern drawl and devil-may-care attitude, continually reminded me of Matthew McConoughy in his day).

In case you haven’t seen it, Newman plays the title role, a man sent to a southern work jail for vandalizing parking meters in a drunken haze one night. Luke is an irrepressible rebel, who first provokes, then gradually earns the respect of his fellow inmates. The quintessential quote from the movie occurs in a scene when Luke smarts off to one of the overseers, “Captain”, played by Strother Martin. Captain roughly shoves him down a hill in an attempt to discipline him and then explains to the men nearby who are looking on as a way of explanation, “What we have here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.”

You can’t help but feel the corners of your mouth twitch upward. It’s a dark, comedic moment. There was no communication problem, of course. Luke heard everything the warden ever said, including a speech about how he “better get used to those chains clinking” and never try to escape. (Luke also reprises the quote right before…well, I won’t spoil it for you!). The problem was not the communication, but the fact that the communication was ignored. Luke heard, but didn’t obey. (Nor would he ever, which is why he was such a great character to watch!)

But if you’re an entrepreneur, in sales or even on a marketing team in your company, you can understand the frustration of dealing with “one-way” communication. When you send a blog post, social media message or eblast into the world and nobody replies (or only a small number do) you can easily become disheartened. Did you waste all that time, effort and budget for nothing?

The answer, in my opinion, is always “no”. Anytime you communicate, even if it is one-way, you make an impression, which can be the beginning of a meaningful dialogue. But how do we move the needle from our audience “hearing” our message to actually “acting” on it? It’s the $64 million dollar question isn’t it? It’s never in our complete control…but there are a few things we can do to move the needle.

Tell them again and again. I read a statistic once that it takes 5-7 impressions of your brand for people to recognize it. Repetition is key, which is why any communication effort is never wasted. While it may not garner an immediate response, it can indeed make the all important first impression, or it can be the final impression that convinces them to pick up the phone. Either way, it is never a wasted effort.

Telling them “again and again” requires a marketing strategy. The specifics of the what, where, when and how all play into the success of the communication and should be carefully considered. In Luke’s case, he received the message that he better not try to escape from the jail repeatedly, but it fell on deaf ears. This may happen too, but we never want people to call your competitor because they were not aware of your offering. They need to be told…many times.

Tell them in different ways. In the biz, we call these the communication channels. Your website is one channel you are probably already using to give everyone your message, but how else can you reach your audience? Are they on social media? At the trade show? At special events? A new marketing piece? Your message will only be effective if you place it where your audience will see it. For example, choose your social media channels carefully; if your audience is on Twitter, rather than Facebook, that’s where your message should be.

Tell them what to do. This is an incredibly simple yet overlooked principle by many entrepreneurs or marketing newbies. We call it the “call to action.” After you deliver your message, tell your audience what to do next, i.e., click here, call today for a consultation, fill out our quote form. A call to action does more than just reap your reward. By offering a suggestion, you actively engage the reader to make a conscious decision to act or not act, rather than just go on to the next thing. For a split second, they need to consider the validity of your request in regard to their situation. Otherwise they just read or hear your message and think, “that’s nice” and go on to the next thing. It only makes sense that you would be more concerned with their reaction to your message than they would be. Ask for what you want or you may not get it.

All things considered, the Captain wasn’t a bad communicator. He delivered his message repeatedly, and through the use of clubs, tracking hound dogs, armed guards, etc. he subtly told Luke in many different ways that if he tried to escape, there would be consequences. He also was clear about what he wanted: unconditional subordination, which was something Luke couldn’t give.

We too will craft beautiful blogs, amazing marketing campaigns and the most dynamic, interactive website you can imagine and the engagement statistics may fall short of our expectations. But we should remember that while we may not actually see the full effect of our efforts, we will have undeniably accomplished one very substantial goal. Contrary to what the Captain may say, we will have skillfully demonstrated our ability to communicate.

Karen Dix is the owner of Big Ideas Writing, a content development and marketing strategy firm. Visit at www.bigideaswriting.com.

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