You can’t disintermediate the brand

Over at IT Garage, Doc writes:

In Software by Bounty, Doug Kay says, This is a tangible manifestation of what Doc Searls has described as the demand side taking control, and I think it bodes well for the further formalization of a demand-driven economy of software products.

I think it’s a great example of the death of distance between first sources and final customers, and the emergence of new markets without marketing. As Don Marti puts it, The biggest transformation in software is the erasure of the line between “the business side” and “the technical side”. Everyone needs to know what’s going on in the market. And “on-message” is obsolete — the market already knows the truth… And the truth is that there is plenty of demand for which marketing is no longer the best intermediator between demand and supply.

Hold on, Doc & Don. There are some serious misconceptions here. Sure, erasing the dividing line between business and technology is great. But markets don’t “already know the truth” and understanding the right message to talk about with your market is vital. It’s ridiculous how many bad tech presentations I’ve had to endure…

I know its easy to run with “marketing is bad” material. It’s a favorite of the technology crowd, since technologists often find themselves across drawn battle lines with marketing guys on the other side making ridiculuous demands.

Sure, a lot of marketing is horrific. But the power of good marketing is incredible. Just look at the different between Apple with Jobs and Apple with Sculley, whose marketing debacle with the Newton was firmly grounded in his experience and expertise from Pepsi-Cola. Fact: you can’t market technology like you can soda pop. And lots of marketers don’t understand that, which makes life for technologists a challenge.

Some see Sculley’s failure as an example of why marketing is bad. On the contrary, it is a counterpoint to the value of the brilliant marketing of Steve Jobs, even for technology companies. Perhaps especially for technology companies. And the message holds whether you like Apple or not.

“Markets without marketing” is really just sales. It is nothing new.

Any time you have a market–anywhere numerous transactions occur–good marketing can help a company make better decisions and communicate more clearly. If you just have one-to-one relationships, absent a market of any kind, marketing is irrelevant. And you don’t have a market. That’s just non-markets without marketing. Also nothing new.

But when you do have a market, it pays to try to understand the market as a medium for trends so that you can better predict the future and have more useful and productive conversations with people in that market. If instead, you treat every conversation as a new conversation, without connection to your own history and reputation for creating value, and disconnected from the lessons learned in your previous conversations, you might as well be a neurotically forgetful door-to-door salesman of inimaginative, generic products. Keeps you busy, but it isn’t real effective.

No matter how you reach your customers, markets require clarity of communication. Word-of-mouth is the most powerful form of advertising in the world. For it to work, people need to be able to rationally understand your product, emotionally resonate with the value you provide, and have easily repeatable stories that communicate the right message about the right people. In short, you need a good brand. And without understanding the market as an aggregate, you cannot create a viable brand, because doing so creates either something solipsistically suited perfectly to your own internal delusions or designed for just one customer. As soon as you extend into an understand of how your brand can catalyze and energize multiples of people, you are doing marketing.

I am a huge fan of D.B. Holt’s How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding. He presents an excellent analysis of how real-world brands established themselves as icons in our culture, including how many of them struggled along the way, with misteps and mistakes that often left them disconnected from people who really cared about their value. But when communications link credible, compelling value with the right audience using stories that resonate with meaning and cultural depth, brands become icons and sales skyrocket. And it doesn’t need anything more complicated than a good conversation to start the ball rolling.

No matter how disintermediated you make the markets, people must make a final decision about buying or not buying. That decision rarely comes down purely to price. People incorporate a wide range of factors when making a purchase and at the end it boils down to whether or not they trust that purchase to create more value in their life than any other option, including buying nothing. That trust is a reflection of the brand and their purchase an expression of faith in that brand.

What I think we all really want are markets without stupid marketers and bad marketing. Now that’s a noble goal, but I don’t expect we’ll see it any time soon. Luckily, we are seeing increasing velocity in the marketplace, and that at least, should help weed out the marketers who can’t keep up.

In the meantime, I’ll throw my support behind removing the dividing line between “the business side” and “the technical side.” Everyone should be part of the marketing conversation. Technologists who don’t understand the market are just as dangerous as marketers who don’t understand the technology!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to You can’t disintermediate the brand

  1. Doc Searls says:

    Great post, Joe.

    And at least one great line in there:

    “Markets without marketing” is really just sales. It is nothing new.

    A thought, and perhaps an oversimplified one… Markets are conversations and Brand are relationships. Also, brands can be personal as well as corporate. They’re reified forms of familiarity and trust.

    I can think of three challenges here, all to established ways of doing things.

    The first is to deal with the simple need for demand to find supply, when the demands are often too narrow, and in some cases too personal, to be addressed by conventional large-scale sales and marketing processes — but which can be addressed by what we might call manufacuring. Such was the case with the code required by OS X users with Blackberries, and the demand for that expressed by Alan King and his bounty.

    The second is to deal with the fact that markets are no longer under the command and control of marketing. Even the brilliant Steve Jobs, for all his and Apple’s success with Macs, iPods and Apple Stores, can’t keep customers inside the company’s walled garden, or control the flow of information about what’s right and wrong about the company’s products. Apple is getting a hard lesson right now on that very subject, with the MacBook shutdown problem. What we need here is not to do without marketing, but to give marketing a new job, re-intermediating between customers and the parts of the company that can stand to use a lot more customer contact, including engineering. There are huge political problems here. As I’ve said before, there’s a reason most Sales & Marketing VPs are sales rather than marketing people: it’s sales’ job to touch the customer. Marketing’s job is to be “strategic” about “messages” and such. And, in some cases, to do the research and planning that drives new product development. This is where marketing often runs into problems with engineering. This is where mediating — in two directions — between engineering and customers is critical for good marketing depatments. And this is where the lessons in your last paragraph are critically important. How can marketing help technologists participate in the markets conversation when both marketing and engineering have long been (for different reasons) non-conversational with customers?

    The third is for branding itself to shift from a process that subordinates individuals behind a brand to one that celebrates the contributions of those individuals — including individuals on the customer side as well. For all the good that branding has done, the term was borrowed from the cattle industry. Its first and most enduring meaning was provided by Procter & Gamble, which won shelf wars in grocery stores by putting the same soap in six different boxes and singing about the difference. Since then branding has gathered newer and better meanings, but on the supply side the need to unify the “message” and the “experience” can deafen marketed brands to market conversations.

  2. Jim Bursch says:

    I see marketing as a way of figuring out how to do a one-to-many relationship, which is a very difficult thing to do, and fundamentally different from a one-to-one relationship.

    Here’s where I think Doc’s vernacular breaks down. He is trying to force one-to-one relationship qualities onto one-to-many relationships.

    He is trying to figure out how a Tequila distiller can have the same relationship with me that I have with my bartender. Frankly, I don’t want to be friendly with Jose Cuervo; I just want good Tequilla at a good price. My relationship/conversation/tip is for my bartender.

    Marketers are trying to figure out how to do the best one-to-many relationship. Cult leaders come the closest to achieving it, and those marketers who come the closest are more like cult leaders (Jobs/Apple), and unless you drink the same Kool-Aid, it is rather creepy.

    I see advertising as a means of communication with a whole bunch of strangers, some of whom will come into relationship as customers, but some will not. Most advertising is HUGELY innefficient because it mostly falls on deaf ears, and imposes a cost on consumers in the form of noise pollution.

    Of course I can’t finish without a pitch: MyMindshare is a tool that sets up incentives to enable advertisers and consumers to get together more efficiently, and also mitigate noise polution by compensating consumers for their mindshare.

  3. Joe says:


    Great points.

    I definitely agree that supply meeting demand is happening and will continue to happen in more and more ways in more and more “places”, often without traditional marketing. This is, I would say, actually just a form of long tail markets resolving themselves semi-autonomously.

    Your second and third points are also spot-on. As famously presented by you and others before, markets are conversations and to the extent that control-fixated marketers get in the way of that, they aren’t just missing the latest buzzword, they are destroying real value.

    Unfortunately, the entrenched positions in the political battle can make it incredibly hard to make headway here, especially at companies that have had success with the status quo. Apple is a great example. They definitely get marketing’s value to product development and to branding, but I keep seeing more and more evidence that they don’t know how to have an honest conversation, as an institution. Results vary. Which, I think is a harder challenge that has been discussed in the context of the Cluetrain.

    In fact, I see your third point as a recommendation for how companies address that challenge. Branding and marketing must change its role from a drum major to a jazz band leader. Micromanaging every touchpoint in the marketplace is both Orwellian and Sisyphean, opressive and impossible. Stop doing it.

    Markets as conversations isn’t just about “getting it” at the top, it also requires building a consistent system for engaging the customer conversationally, every time they talk with someone at the firm. This is large scale procedural and cultural re-engineering. You have to not only realize how conversational markets changes the role of marketing, you have to build the internal infrastructure to make it work for your company. That’s hard. And it will take a while before more than a small percentage of companies are able to execute effectively on that. The good news is that for companies who do succeed, they are standing at the head of the line when it comes to establishing new, more profitable relationships.

    But how?

    If you can’t directly manage your touchpoints, how do you do branding at all?

    By forging a company-wide understanding and appreciation of the value you co-create in the universe with your customers, training and trusting your people to maintain integrity with that value, and having an organic mechanism to respond and learn from your failures along the way.

  4. Pingback: People Over Process » Blog Archive » Brand Angst

Leave a Reply