3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

A popular commercial for shaving products gives us three ideas we can use to make training memorable and motivating. Learn more.

3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

By Cathy Moore

Marketers and trainers have the same goals: They want people to do something. But they achieve those goals in vastly different ways, and I think marketers often do it better. Let’s look at some techniques we can steal from a successful marketing video.

Here’s our role model, the immensely popular commercial for the Dollar Shave Club. Not allowed to watch YouTube? Watch the same video here on Vimeo.

Put on your headphones — inappropriate language is bleeped out but could still offend.

The video was so effective that the influx of traffic knocked the Dollar Shave Club site offline. The commercial has been featured in several publications as an example of highly effective, low-budget marketing.

Now for the “training” version

What does the Dollar Shave Club guy want us to do? He wants us to go to his site and sign up for his service. Let’s look at how an instructional designer might try to inspire the same action.

Here’s the training version, without audio. Many elearning developers would have a narrator read the screen to you, but I couldn’t make myself do it.


What does the Dollar Shave Club guy do differently?

Here are just a few differences.

1. “I think you’re smart.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy uses a fast pace, he mocks other commercials because he knows we see them as dumb, and he lets us draw conclusions rather than telling us everything explicitly. He says, “I think you’re smart,” and that makes us like him.

The training version plods and spoon-feeds us predigested information. It doesn’t let us draw any conclusions on our own. It says, “I think you’re dumb, so dumb that I have to lead you by the nose through the most basic of information.” Who wants to be told they’re dumb?

2. “I’m an actual human being with a personality.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy really is the Dollar Shave Club guy. He’s talking about his business. He’s also an underdog in the world of shaving products, and we tend to root for underdogs.

Who’s the person behind the training version? There’s no one there. It’s the tiresome Omniscient One, the faceless, personality-free voice of the nobody who knows everything. It’s no underdog, it’s Big Brother.

Also, in the video we meet Alejandra, a person who’s real and therefore memorable. In the training version, she’s replaced by a forgettable abstraction, an “order fulfillment position.”

3. Surprise!

The Dollar Shave Club commercial is one huge surprise filled with many smaller surprises. Big surprise: “This can’t be a real ad! Wait, it is!” Smaller surprises: Everything else.

The training version, like most training materials, has zero surprises. It’s a dry, predictable conveyor belt of dry, predictable information.


You or your stakeholders might already be saying the following.

“We don’t have that kind of budget!”

It’s not the budget, it’s the ideas. I’m not saying, “Produce a funny video commercial.” I’m saying, “Treat your audience like they’re smart,” “Use a real person with a personality,” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

“But we’re not selling anything. The comparison is unfair.”

Marketers want to inspire a specific action. It can be “Buy the razor,” but it can also be “Sign up for our email list” or “Test drive our car.” Just like marketers, we want people to do something. We want them to encrypt emails, use the 5-step Difficult Conversations model, stop standing on chairs to reach high shelves… Marketing has tested a bajillion ways to get people to act, and we should steal the good ones.

“Obscenities are a low form of humor and we could never use them.”

I’m not suggesting you use any obscenities. I’m suggesting you look at the larger picture, such as the three ideas listed above that separate lively marketing from conventional training.


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21 comments on “3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

Comments are closed.

    1. Viv, thanks for your comment and for the useful link. “Sanitised” is the perfect word. Happily, it can be possible to de-sanitise our stuff if we show nervous stakeholders prototypes or examples of what we’d like to do.

  1. Cathy, have you poked around their website? It’s got awesome examples of how to layout “quick start guides”, too – they’ve got great comparisons of their products (also humorous, but informative, too). AND… the whipped topping on the cake? Video #2 – One Wipe Charlies – buttwipes for me. You must watch it. Now.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the other stuff on the Dollar Shave Club site. I think that second video is great proof that humor is risky, because I loved the first one and, um, didn’t love the second. I liked the product comparison chart, though!

  2. Great post! It really makes you wonder why we as instructional designers agree (or think we have to) make training so dull. Your painful (but funny) recasting of the commercial as a PowerPoint presentation reminds me of the famous Gettysburg address as PowerPoint:

  3. That video is hilarious!!! And, loved the lessons you drew from it.

    I’m thinking about it in regards to the content I’m writing for my new blog. I can tell the difference between the engaging versus dull posts I’ve written over the past few months.

    For me, it boils down to just having fun with it and being free to experiment. Sometimes I get caught up in “I have to do it this way” and don’t really explore different ways of creating content.

    Thanks for the inspiration! I’m off to check out some more marketing videos for ideas!

  4. This is excellent! Thank you for sharing such an entertaining video, and how it can make learning even better. Learning should be FUN!

  5. Ha – the vibes between the two are totally different!
    But some things ARE similar:
    Same ‘characters’ throughout
    Consistent theme, object type, language style
    Lead with Intro and end with summary
    Just saying…

  6. Your post and takeaways really resonate! I’m working on a project now (a series of process training courses) where we’re trying to steal techniques from TV commercials, TV shows, Movies, Radio, Marketing, Websites and in fact anything we can. We are not always spectacular at it yet, but even a little bit of stealing is making a big difference. If any of you would like to brainstorm / share ideas, I’d welcome the opportunity to talk.

  7. I love Dollar Shave Club. The commercial sold me on a monthly subscription to razors, which is something I never imagined signing up for.

    “he lets us draw conclusions rather than telling us everything explicitly.”

    I think this makes a big difference. Even if you bring people 90% of the way, if they flip the switch that turns the light bulb on, they’re going to be much more engaged and energized.

  8. I could winced at the beginning of the “training video”, then became embarrassed to think of online content I’ve created that yours mimicked. Thank you for giving a voice to this topic.
    In my preparation for an online course on cultural competency…I’m noodling how to incorporate these ideas and make my audience think they’re smart (b/c they are) and surprise them…!


  9. This rocks, Cathy. I’m noodling through some ideas for a few completely different courses for a couple of clients. Even though they are so different, their learners ARE smart, they do relate to personality and enjoy surprise, and in each of these courses we want to inspire action. When my energy flags, I’ll remember this blog post and re-start the party!

  10. Great post, and great takeaways once again Cathy. Many a time I find our team caving-in too quickly to clients who are looking for more traditional course content designs & layouts and I’ll be able to use your observations to once again hammer them about training our clients to be smarter about the potential for online delivery. Thx again!

  11. The commercial kept the audience engaged not only because of its humor but because of its relevance and “real people” imagery (no super models or snazzy cinematography) – relatable. It left me wanting to know more about the company and its product. We can do the same by designing learning in a real, relatable and relevant way. Don’t give me all the theories and history behind what I am learning…give me engaging activities that mimic what I actually need to do to perform…give it to me straight and simple…if we can make it really fun and wanting to repeat it, just because, then that’s icing on the cake.

  12. Hi Cathy,
    I just came across another commercial that is just fantastic. I wanted to share it with you as I believe it fits in with this post… you may have already seen it as it seems to have gone viral (which demonstrates and heightens the content of your post above!)
    Also, I just wanted to let you know – I am a frequent visitor to your website and blog. You are so creative – your ideas and insight are a true inspiration to me.
    Thank you – Thank you for what you do!!

    Here’s the link:

  13. Thanks Cathy!
    Amazing how much is communicated in a 1 minute 34 second video.. the Powerpoint equivalent would take 35 minutes! Obviously the work that went into the video – scripting, testing, casting, rehearsing, directing, producing – would be far more intensive that assembling slides. But it pays handsomely, as we can see.

  14. No. You are the clever one Cathy! Comparing this (great) viral advert with the guts of good instructional design. Thanks mate.