Can (should) you connect with your clients’ values in your marketing?

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rhodesia tshirt
I've outgrown my "Rhodesia" T-Shirt purchased in Bulawayo in 1979, but the message carries weight today.

Recently the New York Times published a story about the booming sales of Rhodesian memorabilia. It seems business owners have discovered a lucrative market in T-Shirts and other items bearing the defunct African country’s flag and imagery. The market: Primarily, though not exclusively, young racists who have little first-hand knowledge or relationship with the country (now Zimbabwe) that fought, and lost, a costly civil war to maintain white minority rule.

I certainly had a connection to the story, with my own personal Rhodesia T-Shirt in my wardrobe. It’s a bit small for me now, and somewhat faded, but, heck, I lived there as a journalist in 1978-80.

Some of the Rhodesian clothing vendors emphasized in interviews with the Times writer that they weren’t racist themselves; they were just selling novelty clothing items. Their remarks were somewhat belied by hateful postings on relevant forums. While the Rhodesian memorabilia might represent novelty items or provide reference points for individuals interested in military or political history, most of the T-shirts are going to people who want to say they are racist, without putting that label directly on their chests.

My thoughts, though are on the product/value/market alignment issue between our businesses and clients. In the case of the Rhodesian T-Shirts, vendors have a perfectly legitimate opportunity to make money by selling clothing items to clients with generally unpopular values. Sometimes aligning with dangerous causes and issues can be profitable, sometimes risky; depending on your market demographics, because you can lose as much business as you gain from the anti-establishment perspectives.

Of course, it is almost never dangerous to align with values that most people respect; kids, family, nationalism (within your own country) and the so on. And that is why you see so many businesses lend their names to charities associated with children’s hospitals and the like (and relatively few with mental health institutions, though thankfully that is changing.)

I would argue that in some cases you can profit by going against the grain, especially if your personal values correlate with a significant percentage of your target market, and therefore you can relate well to it.

This isn’t a defence of businesses profiting from racists by selling symbolic T-shirts. It is, however, a reminder that money can be made by aligning with your clients’ values.

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