Thursday, May 26, 2011

Marketing Nightmares: Picking Up Pieces of a Failed Start-up

"The first thing that I had to do was convince them that these brilliant 'product experts' who hadn't released a new product in four years were not the geniuses that they believed them to be."

Pardon my paraphrasing, but this is essentially quoting a CEO who was responsible for the turn-around of a noteworthy company here in the valley. For me, the quote speaks to an issue that many organizations face when you bring together two companies through merger and acquisition. It doesn't matter how colossal the company being acquired failed, you can probably expect to find a number of loyal believers who are convinced that they were doing it right.

My most recent encounter with this behavior reminded me of Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares, but instead of making over a failing restaurant, I was dealing with updating a collection of outbound marketing pieces. As with most Kitchen Nightmares episodes, the product owners were convinced that their stuff was all great and it simply needed to be 'made pretty' -- a little face-lift to make things better.

Who are you kidding? I just watched you give a presentation, and right now it looks like you couldn't tell a story to save your life. For me, marketing is all about telling stories. But for some people, outbound marketing is just a series of check boxes. For them, that's marketing -- polishing turds and making them pretty.

Good Marketing is Passionate and Engaging
I once worked for a VP of Marketing who went on to be CEO. What he was able to do better than anyone else in the organization was tell the story of the company. Here was a guy who could take all of the little elements, the oddball technologies and patents, and frame it in a compelling story that explained why apples and oranges belonged together. He could speak technically to engineers and experts, or simply to those with less understanding.

One of the challenges with placing very technical people in a marketing role is that they often simply don't understand the important aspects of telling a story. Marketing activities are simply add-ons with little or no impact on the end results -- a check-box to be completed so that they can meet some customer expectations or resolve an incomplete MBO. It's the same mindset that assumes that a tablet with a faster processor or a USB port will outsell the iPad.

For many of these people, marketing communications is that nod you make to corporate operations, like adding a customer to your overpriced group dinner on your expense report. It's the nod that says, "you are the rock star and all of the product success is a result of you and your good 'ol boy network of industry associates." But as with many episodes of Kitchen Nightmares where the owner wants to be the star, success comes through hard work, thoughtful execution, and a quality product, not the theater of the individual.

Responding To A 'Make It Pretty' Moment
As a marketing pro, you've probably been through a couple of these 'make it pretty' moments over the course of your career. Perhaps it was the kind of event that went unnoticed by everyone involved, like the drinking, smoking or those other office behaviors that makes Mad Men seem like an alien environment. However, a 'make it pretty' moment should be equivalent to one of those events that sends Gordon Ramsey into expletive-censoring rant.

For the women I worked with in the marcom group at one large company, 'make it pretty' was a sexist comment with roots that went all the way back to secretaries and the steno pool. But even if you can't see sexism in the comment, a 'make it pretty' moment is team-crippling statement where one guy on the boat essentially says, "I'm more important than you and what you do is of little value."

If you think that 'make it pretty' is just a 'no crying in baseball' moment, then you've missed the point of this post. Make it pretty is divestment of ownership. It's a divorce from the quality process. It's the dysfunctional insanity in the opening episodes of Hell's Kitchen. A 'make it pretty' moment deserves a corrective response.

If you're in a leadership role, then you need to confront the issue. If you're a peer, you should probably discuss the issue with your colleagues, even if the comment wasn't directed at you. If the comment came from somebody you work for, then you might want to start sending out resumes and looking for a different work environment. And finally, if the offender is a client, your options are rather limited -- that's why I have a special place in my portfolio for very pretty client-mandated marketing turds.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fashion and Marketing: Fashionable Marketer or Marketing Pro

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to see a job listing for marketer at one of the local fashion startups. As you might expect, they were asking for someone who has experience in fashion -- or rather, lives and breathes fashion -- along with their marketing chops.

As a professional marketer who is listed as a contributor on a fashion blog, you might expect that I would be a good fit for a job like this. Actually though, I'm not really someone you would label a fashionista -- I'm not metro, I can't really differentiate between designer brands, I'm more likely to select technical clothing like Patagonia, and I've probably spent more on bicycle shorts, jerseys and shoes than some people have spent on their entire wardrobe.

In the past, I've written posts about whether you need experience in a specific industry in order to be successful in marketing within that space. As surprising as it may sound, I believe that fashion is one of those markets where you need passion and experience to be successful. Don't get me wrong, as a potential market to work in, fashion has some amazingly compelling features:
  • Fashion consumers are interested and ready to buy.
    Even for a 'refrigerator sale' like a wedding dress, there are regular publications that feature them and consumers that flip through image after image and dream -- imagine if people looked through your product catalog with the same level of interest.
  • Fashion consumers look at ads
  • Fashion consumers click through. 
  • Fashion is social, modern, and word of mouth.
    All of those cutting edge social media marketing programs that you've dreamed about using but couldn't justify the ROI for in marketing your business analytics software -- they are viable in fashion marketing.
Of course, the downside of all of this is that, if you aren't passionate about fashion, you probably wear that lack of passion like a billboard. You might simply be trying to look nice -- or at least, not look like a mess -- and your lack of passion will show through to anyone who is. In case you missed it, it's that same look that other people give you when you start talking about battery technology, Intel's roll out of 3D Tri-Gate transistors, or's Chatter functionality. But unlike all of these areas, you wear your fashion expertise every day.

Marketing Is All About Stories
Marketing is the story of your product -- what problem it solves, why it's different, where it's going, why it matters. To be a good story teller, you need to find the excitement, understand the audience, and bring that excitement and passion to them. I once worked with a woman at one technology company that told me, "all this high tech stuff, it just doesn't really get my juices flowing." She moved to a job in the wine industry, was much happier and probably much more effective. As someone who has worked in a number of different industries, there are exciting stories in every product and audiences just waiting to be wowed. And if you're having a hard time getting your juices flowing, it probably means that you're marketing like you're wearing an old t-shirt and sweat pants. Maybe you need a make-over.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fun With PR - The Facebook Drama

One of the big stories in the world of marketing this past week was the news that Facebook secretly hired the PR firm Burson-Marsteller to promote negative stories about Google in the media. Not only was this good for at least four posts on Techcrunch, it was also an amusing conversation topic for friends and colleagues.

In some ways, it's rather surprising that it became such a big story. For many people I spoke with, the headline could easily be rewritten as, "Used Car Salesman Employs Questionable Techniques to Sell Crappy Old Car to Naive Customer." This isn't a Man Bites Dog story -- or rather, the PR aspect of the story isn't. For most of us, the amusing aspect of the whole thing is more of the meta-story around the story.
  1. Why would Facebook's team decide to pursue this type of PR strategy?
  2. What did they hope to accomplish?
  3. Why would Burson-Marsteller sign on for this gig?
  4. Where there the checks and balances that prevented this type of tactic from being employed?
As I don't work for any of the parties involved nor do I have direct contact with them, my guesses are all pure speculation. Here's what I think?

1. I suspect that this program is a product of younger, inexperienced staff. If you're thinking of your competitors as Yet Another Social Group in College, that might lead you to believe that seeding bad media coverage about that competitor may benefit your organization -- it's true for politics and it's potentially true for some percentage of social network users.

2. That's a good question and probably the fundamental one -- was this program and it's strategy well thought out? Perhaps this program was driven by someone more gifted at tactics and execution than strategy. Or, not knowing the internal politics, perhaps it was simply a petty, mandated swat driven by immature management element with the org.

3. Since they aren't Facebook's primary PR agency, I suspect that the team at Burson-Marsteller looked at this as a great foot-in-the-door opportunity for a lucrative, premier account.

4. This is sort of the surprising aspect -- that with all of the recent investment and the huge spotlight that Facebook has under, where were the checks and balances on this type of blunder? This wasn't simply a 'loose lips' slip of the tongue, this was a program that required budget and approval. Where was the oversight? If you think about it from an internal execution standpoint, it really makes you wonder not only how this type of program was justified and approved, but what that says about their internal operations practices.

Clearly, there's probably an interesting story behind the story, but it's one that you and I probably won't hear. Instead, it'll probably just be another one of those 'Can You Believe' stories by former insiders told over drinks in a post 'our time there' grumble session. Another day in Silicon Valley.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How Amazon Controls E-Commerce

There's a nice piece over on Techcrunch -- with slides on Slideshare -- about and how they dominate e-commerce. Take the time and go through the presentation -- you'll probably find several tidbits of information that surprise you, impress you or otherwise inspire you.

How Amazon Controls E-Commerce

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Problem With Fundamentalism

Back in college, I had a philosophy teacher that opened a class by writing this on the board. The theme of that class session was that, depending upon your perception, you could see and interpret this in several ways. Some might see "god is nowhere" while others might see "god is now here". This perceptual shift and the recognition of multiple ways of seeing the same thing and adding an interpretive layer is key to flexible thinking and analysis. We spent a lot of time in that philosophy class exploring ideas of 'how do you know' and building frameworks of thought around those ideas.

Fundamentalism and the Problem of 'The One Interpretation'
At the heart of religious fundamentalism is the idea that this one document -- possibly even one specific version of the document -- is the foundational truth and an axiomatic platform to build all knowledge upon. Upon this base is an ideological framework that says, if this is true, then this must be true. Often, this house of cards knowledge construct is actually framed by 'authoritative' voices that provide shaped corollaries - 'since it says this, it also means this.' This process transforms framework into something like, "since it says God Is Now Here, anyone failing to see that is doomed and should be ostracized because God did speak to them." In that way, this extended element becomes dogma, perhaps being further extended to address the moment when people perceive the message, the fate of non-perceivers, and so on.

The problem is that, as dogma, these conceptual constructs carry the same ideological weight as the core -- they are equivalent truths. As a result, anything that questions an interpretation is also an assault on the original principle. In practical terms, people who approach problems with this type of thinking become very defensive about their belief framework even when a concept is distant from the core. Finding a flaw in thinking can potentially result in the catastrophic failure of much larger conceptual framework elements.

This is also why this type of thinking often struggles with tangible conflicting information. For example, when some fundamentalists add up all of the years mentioned in the Bible and define a specific number of years for the span of history, dinosaur bones date to before that time. And there's not really any mention of dinosaurs in the Bible, but there are very real bones. Rather than accept the idea that the dinosaurs existed before the scope of human history, some fundamentalists go through ideological acrobatics to incorporate dinosaur bones into their conceptual framework a la the creationist museum.

Fundamentalism is Business, Marketing and Creativity
While we're all familiar with fundamentalism in religious beliefs, we're not always quite so aware of how this same type of thinking affects us in business. And yet, if you reflect on your ongoing business experiences, you'll probably find examples and issues that were created or defined by this type of thinking.
  • Brand behavior
  • Product feature and roadmap definition 
  • Creativity and idea brainstorming
With brand behavior, it's easy to think of examples of how some of the same types of behavior that you see with fundamentalists carry over to brand identity. But one element that can be easily overlooked is how committed brand loyalists are once that framework has been established. Even when presented with a factual framework that might point to a brand change, brand loyalists may probably fight and die for their brands. Consider this as it relates to enterprise software, on-premise versus SaaS, or even very technical brand decisions that take place inside the data center.

With product features, it's not uncommon for people to lock in on specific features as "fundamental" elements of product definition, even when the relationship between the feature, the functionality, and the product are actually dynamic. Recently, you see this a lot with touch screen versus keyboard and mouse functionality. And it's carried over into defining the next generation versions of iOS and Mac OS X, Windows and Microsoft's mobile OS, and the very essence of what drives phones, tablets, notebooks, desktops and servers.

With creativity and brainstorming, it's natural for people to see complete conceptual frameworks form out of a simple idea. Since the idea generator is also the original interpreter, they often have even more invested in their conceptual framework than someone who has developed the extended conceptual elements through authoritative dictate. This is the same bug that bites you when you write a sentence that can be interpreted two ways, but you can only see a single interpretation of the text. In these instances, it can be very difficult for an editor to convince you of an alternate interpretation and a corresponding edit.

Adapting to Fundamentalist Thinking in the Workplace
Ultimately, it's important to recognize this pattern of cognitive behavior and how it comes into play in building conceptual frameworks. While it may not be possible to completely escape this type of thinking, flexible thinking is an essential skill needed to function and thrive in an environment where new ideas are the currency. If you can only see GODISNOWHERE as one of two possiblities, then you have already bound yourself to a framework that rules out any other options -- God!sN0Where might simply be a variation on a strong password. It's amazing how metaphysical one can become about a simple stream of characters.