What I learned about marketing from the weavers of Ecuador

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High in the Andean mountains, in a tiny village where the art and craft of weaving has been passed from generation to generation, I, a marketing veteran of 20 years, learned a lesson about marketing.

As North Americans, we tend to believe we’ve not only cornered the market on ‘marketing’ – but we feel, deep inside, that we invented it.  A visit to another country is often an opportunity to compare how well we do things with how amateurishly they do things.

I really became aware of my underlying attitude of superiority during a recent visit to Ecuador. Our driver proudly took us to a few obscure villages near Cotacachi, known for indigineous cottage industry.

At the first village we arrived at an apparently deserted home perched on the hillside.  Our driver went in search of the ‘maestro’.  Soon a tiny, shrivelled old man and his even tinier, shrivelled wife appeared, their ancient faces wreathed in smiles.  It wasn’t their beautiful attire that caught our attention, as much as their obvious pleasure at our visit.  We were total strangers and couldn’t even speak their language, yet they invited us into their ‘factory’  behind their home as if we were visiting royalty.

The \'Maestro\' weaver

When I say ‘factory’ I use the word simply as a description based on the fact that this stone and concrete shell was where all their work was performed. Samples of their weaving hung on wires suspended beneath the bare beams on which the roof rested.  Sweaters, scarves, wall-hangings, bags, ponchos and rugs of the most intricate designs and the most excellent workmanship.

As we began to admire it all, our driver politely caught our attention.  Our hosts were eager to show us their skills so that we could fully appreciate all that went into the making of their beautiful products.  We were led to a raised area  on the far side of the building and invited to sit.  The old couple took their seats across from us, on a grass mat on the floor.  They then demonstrated how they took the raw alpaca wool and created strands as thick as a man’s thumb and about a foot long, using simple tools made from wood and thistles. As they worked, they earnestly described the process to us in Quichua. Our Spanish speaking driver translated into broken English.

Once they had enough of these loose strands, they beckoned for us to follow them across to the other side of the ‘factory’ to a simple, hand-powered spinning machine. The Spinning Wheel

There we watched as they fed the strands expertly onto it.  From the opposite side of the machine, thin strands of ready-to-weave wool appeared.

Then the ‘maestro’ – so called because he was the master weaver who taught the other weavers in the village – took the wool over to his loom where he began to weave.  Apparently, the actual weaving is only done by the men of the village.  He proudly demonstrated how he designed his products and as we watched in fascination, we saw a scarf taking shape, seemingly effortlessly, under his gnarled hands.

The Maestro weaving

All too soon, loaded with all kinds of ‘teasures’ we departed to visit another of the driver’s friends.  This time in a village that made musical instruments.  Although we were the only ones there, arriving just as a tour was leaving, we were quickly, but very gently and politely shooed away from the gorgeous displays and made to understand that we were required to sit on the low wooden benches along the sides of the room.

I felt a little embarrassed as we took our seats, like a guest who’d made a thoughtless faux pas.  Our host smiling gently chose instruments from his display and demonstrated them to us.  Many of these instruments I had never seen before.  Then, he pulled up a chair in front of us and proceeded to make a tiny pan flute.  His movements were deft and sure. Each pipe was cut, tested, tweaked and tied into the instrument which literally blossomed into life before our eyes.

Once the demonstration was done, we were free to browse. After such a personal and enchanting introduction to indigineous music, how could we help but load up with mementos and gifts before we took our leave.

In the next village, we were treated to the same cheerful and enthusiastic care. We discovered all kinds of interesting things, such as which plants were used to create the vibrant colors, and the fact that the bright pink derived from cactus flower buds is deepened to burgundy through the addition of a little lemon juice.

As we drove back at the end of the day, the taxi loaded to capacity with all our new treasures, I couldn’t help thining about what masterful marketers these simple, kindly people are.  As an experienced marketer, I’m already aware of the value of education in raising the desirability and perceived value of a product, yet I’ve rarely ever seen it so elegantly and effectively used in western marketing as I did in those tiny Andean hamlets.

It taught me a lesson.  It taught me to stop, take a breath and think…. really think… about how to instil that same pride, enthusiasm and love (yes, love!) into the marketing strategies I devise.  Those people were so genuine, so desiring to communicate their love of what they do to us that our even our jaded, cynical and desensitized souls were caused to share their child like delight.

Experiencing marketing Ecuadorian village style made me understand that we haven’t cornered the market on marketing… heck…  we didn’t even invent it!

And, lest you think ‘That’s fine for a third world economy and cottage industry where they ‘play’ at business and don’t have the pressures we do’, let me add this thought:

If we don’t market to our target prospects and customers on a more fundamentally human level, we risk losing them to those who will.  Why do you think social networking is becoming such a big ‘thing’?  People are sick and tired of being isolated.  They want community.  They want heart to heart. They want to feel less like a hamster on a treadmill and more like they ‘remember’ their grandparent’s era.

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