When we practice to deceive (with content)

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk
  • By Peter Kelly
  • |
  • Nov 16 2016
Categories: |Ideas

When is a lie not a lie? When it’s a game.

Not long ago, my colleague Blaine came across a fascinating case study in deceptive content strategy.

The short story is this:

VanMoof, who manufacture and ship high-end street bicycles, had a business problem. The bikes they made with great care were too-frequently damaged during the shipping process. Since they did not own the shipping process, they were left to wonder, “what can we even do?” What they did was print a television on the side of each shipping box. Shipping damage dropped by 70-80 percent.

Ingenious, right? I thought so too.

But it’s also a lie.

Don’t get me wrong – it is a very smart lie. But it’s still a lie. There’s no TV in that box. And if you read the fine print on there, that would be clear. But who reads that stuff, right? Thus: lie.

It’s also something else, though. It’s also a game.

Play to win within the rules

If you’ve ever played Monopoly (or Chutes & Ladders, or Ticket to Ride, or Call of Duty, or any game at all, really), you’ll remember there are specific rules that govern what you can and cannot do. You can wheel and deal properties with your competition, but you can’t just grab money from the bank to get rich quick. That’s against the rules. If you did that, you wouldn’t be playing Monopoly anymore, you’d be playing “I Win.”

VanMoof did not steal from the bank. They operated entirely within the realm of things they could control and didn’t need to break it. But it was only but totally understanding what they could and could not affect that they arrived at a winning solution.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “game the system” before. It’s only by truly zeroing in on the limits of the game you’re playing and your capabilities within it that you can invent new ideas.


Photo credit: Sebastian Gerhards

Long-tail business goals above all else

The driver behind VanMoof’s strategy was a relentless focus on their key business goal. They needed to sell 90% of its bikes online by the end of the decade.

That’s a lofty and difficult goal, one that VanMoof would have a hard time hitting if their fundamental Customer Experience was breaking down during a phase they had no direct control over. To achieve their major business goal, they had to recognize its component parts. If enough bikes show up broken, those bad experiences turn into negative reviews, hurtful word-of-mouth, and slowly declining sales and brand impact.

They couldn’t land there. Something had to be done. But what?

So long as you are supporting your most important business goals, you can justify tactics like deception. And in this case, some mild deception was warranted if it yielded the appropriate end-result without sacrificing too much of anything else.

The cost-benefit analysis of trust

This may seem like much ado about nothing. That’s because VanMoof did a smart job analyzing and predicting the potential impacts to trust in their brand.

Critically, while they may have been deceptive, they weren’t deceiving their customers directly. Their deception was in SERVICE of their customers to deliver them a better experience. VanMoof also accurately predicted that they would be more likely to win the respect of its potential customer base rather than alienating them, so they discussed the idea and its success publicly.

Not every piece of deceptive content is going to succeed in this equation. It’s dubious territory to dive into head first and I’d caution against it in most cases as a firm believer that brand transparency is (usually) the best policy.

But if you’ve ever had to get content by Legal, Compliance, or a stubborn Product Manager and they just won’t let you say what you need to say, sometimes you need to get… “creative” with your messaging and articulation. Make no mistake – these are also examples of deceptive content. Yet as long as you are aware of impacts to your brand’s trust and stay focused on your key business goal, you can sleep at night knowing your little lie was necessary and justified.


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