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.




15 replies
  1. John Gies
    John Gies says:

    It still remains about the relationship. And as sellers when we continue to push our agenda, without connecting to the buyers needs/wants they will continue to look for ways to bypass the seller. They can”shop” online. As sellers we need to bring and connect value. More noise is not more value.

    Be well,

  2. Dave Brock
    Dave Brock says:

    What a brilliant commentary! Can’t wait to see the 3rd installment. Unfortunately, I think many will miss the profound irony in your statements. For example, when technologies are enabling us to be very personal, our execution is going exactly in the opposite direction of being very impersonal.

    Great discussion Charlie!

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      “…when technologies are enabling us to be very personal, our execution is going exactly in the opposite direction of being very impersonal.”

      Brilliantly said. Thanks David, that really nails it.

      • David Heath
        David Heath says:

        There’s something very sad about the current push to figure out how to ‘personalise’ the message when it is clearly one-to-many ‘blat’ marketing.

        For instance:

        “Dear , thanks for your time this morning, and how is your lovely wife, ?”

        Yes, I *have* received emails with the substitution fields unsubstituted!

        The big tech companies – Farcebook, Goggle etc are desperate to know as much as possible about everyone on the planet in order to “personalise the message” yet there won’t be a single ‘person’ involved in this process, aside from the unsuspecting personalise-ee.

        There’s a growing feeling of having been talked at, rather than talked to, or even better, talked with in all of this.

        It’s all about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

        • David Heath
          David Heath says:

          darn… your posting software stripped my diamond brackets!

          that pseudo-message should have read…

          “Dear (first-name), thanks for your time this morning, and how is your lovely wife, (wife-name)?”

          …only with diamond brackets instead of parentheses!

    • Michael Webster
      Michael Webster says:

      If you think about it, Dave, originally mass advertising was thought of as “salesmanship in print”.

      Salesmanship was, however, a dialogue. Some of it scripted, and some of it more like improv.

      We needed mass advertising to conquer geography because the sales staff could not be everywhere, all the time. Now, not so much.

      The social technologies are facilitating good salespeople to have those sales conversations, without regard to geography.

  3. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    I think a key factor here is wrapped up in the personality types of the communicators and the recipients.

    I know in my day-job at a top-200 technology company (Charles, you know where that is, but I’m not about to trumpet it loudly!) we find that our communicators (generally the marketing team, but there are others) are outgoing gregarious types who could talk underwater with a mouth full of marbles, as the saying goes. The problem is that they go for the cutesy message which appeals to them greatly; but it doesn’t address the communication needs of either the internal customers, me for instance, or our external customers.

    In general, professional marketers do not understand the technology and will always fall back to what they know when crafting the message.

    As an aside, if one were to highlight MBTI, the communicators are all Es while the technical staff and the customers are strongly Is.

  4. Michael Webster
    Michael Webster says:

    Charles, the original mass advertisers in the US, Patterson from NCR and the executives who left to found other great US corporations, sold with a sales process that assumed:

    1. Businessmen had problems that they could solve, but

    2. Cognitive Dissonance would favor inertia or the status quo.

    Their sales messages & process were designed around these constraints, at least in the B2B world.

    You may be right that by the time the 70’s rolled around, those companies forgot their selling beginnings. (Certainly NCR was in a mess by then.)

    “Man is the rational animal who is rationalizes”

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      Michael, thanks for the thoughts. It’s always educational to go back to Patterson and a few other early sales pioneers.

      What I hear you saying is that they had a clear message in mind, a message that good business sense to the customer. What I infer from that is that a message not anchored in a clear need, and/or a message not tuned to address that need, would fail – either by being wrong, or as you suggest, by generating cognitive dissonance, which results in do-nothing, or no-sale.

      And I quite agree with you.

  5. Bill Corbin
    Bill Corbin says:

    There are profound history lessons in these posts. Think about this one: in the early 1990s, Pepper and Rogers correctly projected technology trends and wrote the bestselling “The One-to-One Future.” The promise of that work was genuine person-to-person communication as part of sales/marketing infrastructure. Then, in a way that shows how fast technology is moving, email blasting followed by social media frenzy absolutely blew away the legitimate excitement about the original meaning of one-to-one. A big part of the reason is the zero-cost factor discussed here…and its result a few years later is an enormous amount of head-in-the-sand pretending that zero-cost blasting can do what it can’t do. I think P&R will rise again, as the absolute necessity of genuine one-to-one thinking becomes clear. And yes, a modernized version of Willy Loman will have a job!

    • Charlie Green
      Charlie Green says:

      Bill, I think that’s a very right way of putting what happened to Peppers and Rogers’ original One to One marketing – it got blitzed by technology. But the idea was super-solid, as you point out, and I’m encouraged by your evident optimism that it’s time will come around again. No reason it couldn’t!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Blogpost: Part 2 of 3 – Why Has Stupid Marketing (and Sales) at the Speed of Light Become […]

  2. […] Part II of this post, I offer my suggestion for how to best answer the question across all three […]

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