Enabling Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light. Part 2 of 3.

This is the second of a three-part blog series. In the first, I argued that Stupid Marketing (and sales) has become endemic. Briefly, I defined “stupid” as “a stultifying obsession with one’s own product features, to the exclusion of any meaningful focus on customer needs, much less wants.”

In this second part, I want to explore how we got there: why is there so much of this kind of 101-level marketing and sales confusion going on?  In the third part, I’ll explore the two solutions to Stupid Marketing (and sales).

Why Is Stupid Marketing Endemic?

There are three basic reasons for this plague; the third one is the biggest.

Technical Complexity.

Marketing and sales have become so transformed (taken over?) by technology that complexity has gone way up. Previous generations of Willy Lomans were flummoxed by IBM 360s, yesterday’s marketers stand in awe as today’s generation navigates between content creators, media vendors, execution technologies, and automated ad buys.

That (mostly marketing) complexity has kept sales at a low level of sophistication. Because we have so recently become able to do so many things so much more cheaply and more quickly and more effectively, we have all gotten seduced into thinking that pouring old wine into new bottles changes the wine. It doesn’t. Features are still features – they’re not needs. And they’re miles away from wants.

In the early days of business process re-engineering, we heard about “paving the cowpath.” Automating a process doesn’t change that process per se. Putting features online, making them pop up through a thousand triggers, and linking them to highly targeted audiences doesn’t change the fact that they’re still features.

Technology makes us better at identifying customer needs. But too many marketers draw the inference that, having done so, all we have to do is throw a product-and-features advertisement their way at the right moment in the right medium, and sales will magically go up by a metric-measurable tick.

This leads to a semi-conscious belief that everything is marketing, and that marketing will absorb sales. Not going to happen.

If all you do with profound market intelligence is to throw digital darts with more and more precision, you’re still not selling – you’re just enabling creepiness.  People still crave engagement. The need for personal sales has not diminished, it’s simply shifted.

Search engines, AI, and CRM have not repealed a few laws of human nature – that people like to feel understood before they seek to understand. That they still want you to feel the problem they’re trying to solve. They still want to know that you care before they care what you know. Even an automated buying process is automated by someone who is responding to those laws.

Technology-based marketing enables sales – it doesn’t trigger them except incrementally.  Detailed descriptions of features are still just features.

The Tyranny of Zero-cost.

The second reason for endemic stupid marketing and sales is the zero marginal cost nature of information. Closely related to the tragedy of the commons, this speaks to the perverse incentive that makes almost any trivial sale profitable in the face of massive, destructive-of-relationships, spam-like emails.

When coupled with the short-termism of our times (remember IBGYBG from the recent recession? remember when startups aimed to become profitable, rather than to cash out?), this is toxic. Zero incremental marketing cost plus a disregard for long-term (heck, even medium-term) social or customer costs, leads to cynical, impersonal marketing and sales alike.

An Impersonal View of Business

The biggest reason, I believe, for endemic Stupid Marketing is the view that business itself is best described as impersonal, logical, deductive, sequential, behavioral, and self-serving.

By this view – dominant in the US since the 1970s – business decisions are made through cognitive and impersonal processes. Without going much deeper, let me just say this is at best a gross over-simplification, and in large part is simply wrong.

People, with all their protein-based emotional behaviors, still have a critical role to play in business. (The great philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once told BF Skinner, “Let me get this straight – you’re saying we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”). Sidney was right to cock an eyebrow.

Many trends merged to create this impersonal view of business:  competitive strategy, the spreadsheet, business process re-engineering, the Internet, hyperlink technology, AI, cell phones. We can all see why modern marketers might think that sales and marketing can be reduced to incentives, chips, and bits and bytes.

But it can’t. People do behave rationally – just not according to the simple rules of economic self-optimization that marketers have adopted.

Instead, they behave according to rules of relationships, emotions and the heart – and then rationalize their decisions with the brain. And those rules transcend the basic features descriptions and simplistic “solutions” that so dominate the field today.

Why is stupid marketing and sales endemic? Because we mistake complexity for substance, because it costs nothing, and because we have come to believe the false gospel of People as Rational Self-Aggrandizers.

In the last part in this series, I’ll talk about the two generic solutions to the problem of stupid marketing – two strategies that are tried and true, and that incorporate the human part of business.