If Sex Sells, What Markets?

October 25, 2023

The phrase "sex sells" is used across advertising and media to capture the idea that sexual imagery or themes are an effective way to attract attention and persuade consumers to purchase a product or service.

It's not clear who first coined it, but the concept has been around for a very long time.

Ancient civilizations, including the Greeks and Romans, often incorporated sexually suggestive or explicit imagery in their art and literature.

As advertising became an industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the use of “sex appeal” became more pronounced.

The rise of mass media—first print, and later television—provided the platforms where provocative images could be widely disseminated.

While sexual imagery can be effective in grabbing attention, its actual impact on sales is harder to establish.

There is often backlash due to perceived inappropriateness or sexual exploitation—complex topics for marketers and salespeople to navigate.

Even the phrase itself has been heavily critiqued, with some arguing that it leads to desensitization and perpetuates a harmful stereotype.

So, if a “sex sells” strategy is too risky, what’s an equivalent phrase that describes the most effective way to market your brand, product, or service?

We have a few to choose from…


Content Is King

As specialists in B2B content marketing, we’d be fools not to throw this one out first.

It underscores the primordial importance of sharing high-quality, relevant content to attract and engage your audience.

Bill Gates popularized the phrase in a 1996 essay where he predicted the pivotal role content would play in the digital age.

His assertion has only grown in relevance as digital channels and tools have proliferated.

For a marketing manager, understanding and acting upon the idea of content being “king" comes down to a several key considerations:

Prioritize quality over quantity: While it's essential to maintain a consistent content production cadence, it's even more important to produce high quality material. Poor or irrelevant content can seriously hurt your brand's reputation and credibility.

Invest in content creation: Recognize that quality content often requires investment—whether in hiring skilled writers, designers, videographers, and editors, or investing in the tools that aid content creation and distribution.

Invest in search engine optimization (SEO): Search engines like Google and Bing prioritize content that is original, relevant, and delivers value to users. Understanding and implementing SEO best practices will help you to ensure that your content is discoverable.

Produce diverse content types: Content doesn't just mean articles or blog posts. To be king, you need to rule over a wider kingdom that includes videos, infographics, podcasts, webinars, and interactive content. To successfully implement a comprehensive content strategy, you’ll need to produce material in different formats that cater to different audience segments and distribution platforms.

Engage and interact with your audience: Content shouldn’t be a one-way street. Encourage audience interaction, whether through comments, shares, or feedback. Engaging with your audience can give you insights into their needs and preferences and will help build a community around your brand.

Experiment and evolve: The digital landscape evolves rapidly, so it's essential to stay abreast of industry trends, emerging marketing technologies, and shifts in audience behavior. Then, update and refine your content strategy accordingly.

Overall, place content creation and strategy at the forefront of your digital marketing efforts and recognize the power of content to build brand authority, drive engagement, foster trust, and ultimately, drive conversions.


Emotions Drive Purchases

There’s a common misconception that B2B purchases are based exclusively on data, specs, price, and logical evaluation.

In practice, research finds that 90% of B2B buying decisions are based on emotions, with data and logic applied after the fact to justify the choice that’s been made.

While buyers must take product features and price into consideration—in other words, they aren’t completely irrelevant—emotional factors play a pivotal role in their choices.

Brands that evoke a strong emotional connection, engendering trust, nostalgia, joy, and a sense of belonging, have a more significant influence on buying behavior than those that focus exclusively on solution performance and cost.

As a marketing manager this means you should:

Develop emotional branding: Understand and document your brand’s voice and image in a way that resonates emotionally with your target audience.

Employ storytelling: Use narratives in your messaging that evoke emotions (more on this in a moment).

Engage your audience emotionally: Use visuals, music, and strong narratives in your marketing materials to further boost your audience’s emotional response.

Showcase social proof: Publish testimonials, reviews, and case histories that feature real customers to help build trust and reinforce the emotional connection with your audience.


Your company should be producing focused content that is relevant to a tightly defined group of ideal customers

Know Your Audience

Effective B2B marketing strategies are impossible to craft without a deep understanding of your company’s target audience. This includes audience members’ demographics, needs, wants, beliefs, and emotions.

Broadcasting a generic, one-to-millions marketing message is an expensive waste of time.

Instead, your company should be producing focused content that is relevant to a tightly defined group of ideal customers.

A deep knowledge of your audience ensures that your marketing efforts are both tailored to and resonate with the intended recipients.

A few tips for marketing managers focused on audience understanding include:

Do your research: Conduct market research using surveys, focus groups, and interviews to gather insights about your target audience.

Identify your ideal customer profile (ICP): Selling to B2B buyers means selling to companies for which your solution will deliver significant value, and which will consequently become large accounts for your business. Develop a detailed ICP that narrows your focus to a few tens or hundreds of companies, that you can then target effectively.

Develop detailed buyer personas: At each company described by your ICP, you will sell to a group of humans known as the buying committee. Buyer personas are archetypal representations of the characters you typically encounter on those buying committees. Understanding each persona in detail will help guide your marketing strategies and focused content creation.

Map the buyer’s journey for each persona: Buyer’s journey mapping is a technique for evaluating your target persona’s needs, wants, beliefs, emotions, and channel preferences at each stage of their journey from problem awareness to solution evaluation, purchase, implementation, and becoming a loyal customer. It can be a lot of work, but the information it yields can truly make the difference between effective B2B marketing and a big waste of money.

Gather and react to feedback: All of that analysis can still miss the mark. You will be selling to a diverse audience that isn’t perfectly represented by archetypal personas and business profiles. Gather customer feedback and reviews and listen to their concerns and preferences. Update you analyses and messaging accordingly.


Brands Don’t Sell Solutions—Stories Do

I’m sure you’ve heard versions of this axiom a lot in recent years.

The proliferation of information across the internet has allowed buyers of all types—business and consumer—to become much more discerning about the companies from which they purchase.

Whereas the investors, managers, morals, and values of companies used to be opaque—quite literally confined to a “smoke filled room”—these days they are searchable and shareable on social media.

Today, businesses that fail to effectively communicate why they are in business, what they value, and how they implement those beliefs everyday are out of the running for values-driven buyers.

Storytelling is a powerful tool in any type of marketing. Rather than simply promoting product features, a compelling story makes a brand or product memorable and relatable.

Stories help to humanize your brand and make it more approachable, creating a deeper connection with the audience.

As a marketing manager focusing on using storytelling to strengthen your marketing:

Apply narrative advertising: Create ad campaigns that tell a story, not just showcase a product. This often involves behind-the-scenes insights into your company, why it exists, your vision, and how your products do more than just solve the problem for which they are designed.

Share your origin story: A powerful way to engage audience members is to share the origin story of your brand or product. People love to know the "why" behind a brand.

Tell your customers’ stories: A potent form of the ubiquitous case study is one told in narrative form, recounting the buyer’s journey followed by a customer who has reaped significant value from choosing and implementing your solution.

Always, always be authentic: Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, banging on about authenticity in almost every post I write—but it truly is that important. The stories you tell must be genuine to avoid appearing manipulative or insincere.


The Bottom Line

Yeah, showing the line of someone’s bottom can titillate your audience and grab their attention, but “sex sells” is as likely to backfire as it is to light a fire under your growth plans.

For marketing managers, there are several other axioms that highlight essential principles that should be at the core of any effective marketing strategy:

> Content is king.

> Emotions drive purchases(even in B2B).

> Know your audience.

> Brands don’t sell solutions—stories do.

By internalizing and implementing these concepts, you can create effective B2B marketing strategies that are more impactful and resonate more deeply with your audience.

Ultimately, it’s the sharing of impactful, relevant content that will make you successful.


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Image credits: Adobe Stock


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