A few years ago, a fellow marketing colleague from back in my days at T-Mobile educated me on the Pirates vs Ninjas debate. He sported a t-shirt that proclaimed,  "Pirates are way cooler than ninjas," which featured a cartoon depiction of a cocky pirate giving the finger to a somewhat dejected ninja.

I was not yet well versed in the meme of pirates vs ninjas, but the shirt, my friend explained, met two important criteria for him: (1) It had high geek value, and (2) it connected with his inner pirate.

The great debate of our time.

The great debate of our time.

When presented with the pirates and ninjas debate, most people seem to fall strongly on one side or the other, although this is often contextual. There are also areas where everyone can agree. For one, pirates and ninjas are both pretty cool. And there are clearly situations that demand pirates (pillaging comes to mind), and others where ninjas are warranted. 

So what does this have to do with small business marketing? (Yes, we will actually attempt to understand small business branding through the lens of pirates and ninjas in this post... We are professionals, please don't try this at home.)

Pirates and Ninjas Illustrate the Importance of Needs and Context

Few would argue that a core aspect of strategic marketing is understanding customer needs. Yet many small business marketers make the mistake of over-generalizing their audience. People can be pirates in one situation and ninjas in another, for example.

Do a search on 'marketing to millennials' and you'll find a ton of articles telling you how millennials think and behave and purchase. And if your target demographic includes the millennial generation, they say, you should adjust your marketing messages and product attributes accordingly. 

While there is certainly some legitimacy in understanding audience attributes, keep in mind that attributes such as demographics are just proxies for the real drivers of purchase behavior: needs and context. Needs can fall anywhere on Maslow's hierarchy from basic primary needs up to highly aspirational, and they may not even be perceived directly. Context has to do with everything surrounding the purchase. What are the emotional triggers? How do I go about narrowing down options? Who and what outside influences impact my decision? What is my frame of mind leading up to purchase? Etc.

Needs and context are what unify your audience across demographic and lifestyle attributes, and are therefore a more relevant and predictive means of audience targeting, product positioning, and branding.

The Psychology of Audience Targeting

Carl Jung, in his book Psychological Types (which led to the later development of Myers-Briggs profiles), talks about what he believes are the two major attitudes, or modes of human psychology: introversion and extroversion. Both of them are at work in each of us, although most of us feel the pull of one more than the other.

To grossly oversimplify: Extroversion is wild, creative, freeform, loves change. Introversion is structured, stable, reliable, and prefers things just the way they are.

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These two internal forces manifest themselves in our cultures as concepts like Yin and Yang, Order and Chaos, Binah and Kochma, Apollo and Dionysus, Laurel and Hardy (OK I'm taking a gamble here as I've never seen Laurel and Hardy, but I bet it works), etc etc ad infinitum. 

And, of course, pirates and ninjas. The pirates are your extroverts: loud, drunk, no qualms or reservations, happy to burn and pillage on a whim. The ninjas are introverts: detailed, meticulous, good at getting a pre-planned job done with maximum efficiency and structure, all behind the scenes.

Brand Voice is the new Brand Image

Before social media and online marketing, organizations got their message out via traditional branding and advertising. The focus of yesterday’s iconic brands was largely on image-building. This practice still happens of course, but today, smart companies tend to focus more on trust-building, and this is done increasingly through online interactions. Your social media pages and posts reveal who you are and what you value as an organization.

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As such, the way in which a company conveys its brand promise–that is, what makes the brand uniquely valuable and relevant to the intended audience–is more and more through the brand voice. This is just as true for small businesses as it is for mega brands. In fact, social media levels the playing field by shifting the marketing mix away from expensive mass media to scrappier digital channels that are more scalable and easily localized. 

Are your Customers Pirates or Ninjas?

Courtesy rockstarenergy.com

Courtesy rockstarenergy.com

If you're selling mountain bikes or energy drinks, think pirate. Not because mountain bikers and energy drink drinkers are millennials and millennials are pirates. But because the context is all about freedom, thrill, and action. 

If you're selling mutual funds or day planners, think ninja. Not because all mutual fund owners and day planner users are older conservative professionals. But because the aspirational need being sought is stability and reliability. 

You may need to sell both — a smartphone should have a lot of cool, flashy features (pirate), but it also needs to be reliable, efficient and secure (ninja). You may need to speak pirate to some customers, ninja to others. Hey, it's all in a day's battle metaphor.

It’s an Article on Branding so Here’s the Obligatory Apple Example

Remember those Mac vs PC ads from back in the day? (Loved those.) It’s a classic pirate vs ninja play.  Mac is pure pirate. He offers you freedom — sailing the open seas of the internet with nothing but adventure on the horizon. Now that PC is another story — pure ninja. He has rules and regulations. He has tradition. He wants to tell you what you can and can't do. 

Apple knows its audience. Creatives, freelancers, digital nomads. Aspiring entrepreneurs stuck in corporate jobs. Pirates!

Are we Taking this Pirate - Ninja Thing Too Far?

Okay, maybe all marketing doesn't boil down pirates vs ninjas. Perhaps we should throw in some knights and samurais, too. 

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Some First Steps Toward Establishing Your Online Brand Voice

The point is, as social media marketing has enabled vastly increased conversations between brands and consumers, companies (even SMBs) need to have a strategic brand voice. Start with answering these three questions: 

  1. What are the aspirational needs/desires of my target audience related to the product or service? 
  2. What aspects of brand personality–values, tone, style, voice–connect with those needs/desires?
  3. How can the brand interactions on social media and other channels consistently reinforce those aspects with the content it features, stories it tells, and style in which it communicates?

A special thanks to Brent McLean for the original concept and contribution to this article.