Marketing Lessons from a Cretan Wedding

Most of you reading this column will agree that the celebration of two people in love who will (hopefully) live together for the rest of their lives must be commemorated with a great wedding. Most of you will also agree that weddings are normally enormously expensive events.

However, about half of you reading this will probably heartily agree with what I am going to describe, and half of you will fiercely reject it.

The main reason I say this is because weddings are so emotionally charged, so full of hundreds of important details, so scary because of the massive commitments that need to be made, all combined with high expectation of a “perfect” day. Most people, but especially close families and friends of the happy couple, somehow don’t seem to be able to think straight. The arrangements are carried out irrationally, emotionally, and without logic – and the expensive bills start piling up.

Needless to say, there is a whole industry of wedding planners, photographers, jewellers, musicians, florists, hairdressers, beauticians, bakers, venue managers, and dressmakers that revolve around this magical event. They mostly make a really good living from weddings and similar celebrations, and they know exactly how to squeeze a great deal of money from the people who ultimately pay for the event. Prices for these services magically double when the word “wedding” is mentioned.

Let’s focus on just one item that symbolises the importance and solemnity of the wedding – the wedding dress. The average price of a wedding dress is probably in the tens of thousands of rand.

However, there are some brides who are quite happy to borrow a wedding dress from family or friends. Yet other brides are equally happy to rent a wedding dress from a store. A few really struggle to make ends meet and try to find the best possible value for their small budget. But these three groups are in the tiniest minority. There are also some brides who won’t hesitate to spend hundreds of thousands for a suitable, tailor made, and spectacularly beautiful dress.

Now, in just about all weddings this dress will be worn for somewhere between 10 and 12 hours, and then returned to the original owner, or, more commonly, packed away into a nice container stored in the back of a cupboard – probably forever. It may have cost thousands of rand per hour to wear this dress, but what does one do with a used wedding dress?

And this is where my opinion gets a bit controversial. The question I like to ask is: “Was this celebration any better because of the bride’s luxurious and lavish (and enormously expensive) dress?” Did the happy couple, their family and friends have a brilliant time because of the dress? Was the wedding one of the most memorable parties ever because of the dress? After being a guest at literally hundreds of weddings in my 58 years, I know that the answer is “No, probably not.” (This is usually the point where my wife looks at me indignantly and says that I don’t understand.)

The most memorable wedding I’ve ever attended was in a Greek village on the island of Crete. It was held in summer, and the guests walked straight out from the church right into the village square, where everything was laid out. All the guests brought a tray of food, (and it included two incredibly delicious lambs on the spit,) and furniture, cutlery and linen from their homes. Nothing matched!

The band comprised of two professionals and a whole bunch of people from the village who jammed and sang along with them. The stunning flowers were picked from gardens and the field around the village. The local baker donated the three-tiered cake as his wedding present, the priest drank too much local wine, and everyone contributed their hearts and souls to the most awe-inspiring and delightful event.

It was the finest wedding I’ve ever been to.

But there is another background story I want to tell you about this wedding. On announcing their engagement to the parents, the loving bride, (a cousin of mine from South Africa who had fallen in love with a Cretan man,) as a gesture of goodwill, asked her future mother-in-law what she had worn at her wedding. Proudly, the older lady took out the packaged dress that had been sitting at the back of her cupboard for almost thirty years. The bride took one look at it and asked if she could also wear it on her special day. Lots of snot and tears resulted, and in that one moment the relationship was cemented forever.

What are the marketing lessons from this most memorable event?

For me, the traditional wedding chaos and expense I described is the worldview of old-style marketing, and I can tell you that I truly believe that marketing world is changing. More and more customers resist paying much more for much less as happened in the past – no matter how famous the brand is. I have no doubt that the ostentatious and pretentious boastfulness for expensive purchases will continue for many people who can afford to be ripped off, and I don’t predict the quick death of brand power with higher prices.

However, the “shift to thrift” is a movement that is gathering momentum. We hear more and more stories of customers that demand to know your costs and mark-ups, and whether they can avoid paying for what they don’t want. In addition, they are ruthless about buying cheaper imported products from overseas – and boasting about how much they saved. And if they have to pay more, they demand better experiences.

The “new” marketing, on the other hand, is about customers being more practical, demanding great value, and experiences that dazzle them. In their book Blue Ocean Strategy authors Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne state that future businesses that succeed will offer both value innovation and low cost to customers. These sound like they are mutually exclusive, but companies that pursue both simultaneously will get the bulk of the support from customers.

But customers will also take more responsibility for working together – like those wedding guests in Crete – to ensure that they have a wonderful time, get closer together – and perhaps exclude the businesses that don’t offer good value.

It’s a scary world – but exciting nevertheless.

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