Real Street Marketing

The weather has been unseasonably warm here, culminating in a record 25.5°C on March 22. It’s like Christmas in July for one of Toronto’s much maligned and marginalized groups; the panhandlers are back out in force.

These other boys of summer may be underrepresented, but they are highly vocal.

On my 10 minute stroll to and from work through the Annex, one of the city’s prosperous but still gritty hoods, I get a snapshot of marketing at its rawest.

Panhandlers don’t have MBAs or Clios; they have a split second to engage you.

Selling yourself is never easy and as with any trade there’s a knack to it, maybe they can even teach us marketing sophisticates a thing or two.

A Sherlock Holmes story, The Man with the Twisted Lip tells of a protagonist leading the double life of a London beggar while making enough income to also be a respectable country gentleman.

He accomplishes this by virtue of, “A facility of repartee, which improved by practice and made me quite a recognised character in the City.”

The Holmes story chronicles a practitioner at the pinnacle of his trade.

Unlike the first guy I usually pass.

A 20 something, who gruffly demands “Spare change?” and whether you give him any or not, follows up with “Nice day” making both phrases sound like a proposition.

He certainly lacks the silver-tongued delivery of the man with the oversize white cane.

 “Can you spare a nickel a quarter a dime or a dollar?” delivered in the breakneck rhythmic sing-song, if not the accent of a Kentucky horse auctioneer.

I appreciate his attention to syntax, in putting quarter before dime to improve the flow, almost enough to overlook his breaking one of salesmanship’s fundamental rules, by asking a yes - no question.

Then there’s the nondescript guy although that’s not entirely accurate, because I can describe him as the guy with the best tagline.

“Something is better than nothing.”

A line I appreciate enormously for being both optimistic and philosophically unassailable.

I usually pass the 40 cent guy on the way home.

His strategy is one of deceptive simplicity.

“Do you have 40 cents?”

I admire the cleverness of this, because first, by asking for a specific amount he legitimizes his request to some degree.

(A specific amount surely infers a specific purpose.)

Second 40 cents cunningly requires a minimum of 3 coins, greatly upping the probability of getting more, because who is going to search for exact change?

Do I give them money?

Sometimes yes sometimes no.

I side with the character in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, who asserts:

“Begging is a profession, like dentistry, like shining shoes. It’s a service. Every so often you need to get a tooth filled or your shoes shined or to give alms. So when a beggar presents himself to you, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I need a beggar today?’ If you do, give him alms. If you don’t, don’t.”

Put another way, if I’m not in the market for what you’re selling, it doesn’t matter how good your presentation is, I won’t be buying.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate a good one.

And I can think of a few brands that don't handle their messaging with such smarts.