Are You Serving Canned Marketing?

Marketing and sales are a path we create to help our customers get to our engineers, to our product people, and to our products. It’s an important role. What we marketers should not do is serve up canned marketing—or fluff.

Are You Serving Canned Marketing?

A long time ago, I worked for a year at a computer services company. I’ll confess that I took the job for the wrong reasons, particularly the potential of making a lot of money. It’s an example of how we sometimes ignore our own good judgment and scruples because we think we might get rich.

This experience taught me that the warning of an old mentor was so true—“Never work with jerks!”—but it also taught me a lot about the difference between substance and schtick .

If you don’t know what schtick is, consider the Hewlett-Packard debacle. In 1999 AT&T executive Carly Fiorina joined HP as its CEO. The company promptly went from being an American technological treasure to a marketing-driven disaster. (AT&T’s newfound marketing mentality had already taken down another such treasure: Bell Labs.) I believe Fiorina pulled off this near-impossible feat by supplanting technological and engineering excellence with … schtick.

Schtick was embodied in HP’s new mission and slogan: Invent! Of course, Invent! was marketing subterfuge for what was really going on at the company: Stop engineering!

I’d seen this again and again in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, when silver-tongued salesmen attracted venture funding to startups that promised the world but couldn’t deliver anything. It seemed that only frustrated engineers recognized what was really going on: Marketing had become an end unto itself. Fiorina’s strategy was to promise customers whatever you think they’ll buy—and don’t worry about whether engineering can build it.

Thus began, in my opinion, the demise of HP. Canned marketing—fluff—became this engineering company’s strategy because it was all Fiorina knew.

The company I worked for—Dataflex, which is long defunct—took the same path to its self-destruction. Dataflex hired an executive—I’ll call him Ben—to create its brand. He quickly invented the presentation that all salespeople were required to deliver to prospective customers: a package of fluff called The Wheel. Ben was being paid a boatload of money but had no idea how to justify his existence in this technology-driven company, so he focused on fluff.

The Wheel was basically Invent!—a subterfuge for the company’s inability to communicate and work with its customers. It was a can of marketing, a rote presentation that turned the salesperson delivering it into a dog with a note in its mouth. Worse, it supplanted legitimate marketing efforts, which previously showed our customers the benefits of Dataflex’s technological acumen.

I had cultivated new contacts at Merrill Lynch—a company Dataflex had never been able to sell to—and I built trust with several key executives. I knew I’d succeeded when they invited me to meet with top IT managers to discuss how Dataflex could help Merrill with a big IT expansion. They were ready to buy.

My plan was to talk shop in that meeting. I was going to bring one or two of our top technical people and let the Merrill IT managers lay out their problems and challenges. Then we’d discuss how we could help.

But Ben found out. He was coming with me because he didn’t want to take the chance that I’d bungle it. The Wheel would be presented by the head of our technology department, a guy who wanted so much to be a marketer that he forgot technology was our product.

There was no need for this sales pitch because as any savvy marketer knows, when the prospect already trusts you, the next step is to listen and to deliver.

The meeting went like this: We entered a conference room with all the IT decision makers eager to talk about what they needed. After I made introductions, Ben and the technology guy—whom no one at Merrill had met before—turned down the lights and delivered a slideshow. The Merrill managers never got to say a word. In the dark, I watched in horror as one after another quietly exited the room. When Ben was done, we left. “Now they understand The Wheel, Nick!”

Marketing is a strategic tool for opening doors, especially in technology companies, where engineers are not always adept at relating to customers. But in some companies, where analytics and big data are technologies unto themselves, marketing executives pretend they’re technologists. They mount campaigns to make marketing the product. But let’s not start believing that’s what our customers buy. (See “How Do I Explain Working For A Dysfunctional Sales Team?”)

Marketing and sales are a path we create to help our customers get to our engineers, to our product people, and to our products. It’s an important role. After I had built a relationship with the Merrill executives and they’d bought the sizzle, the Merrill executives quickly surmised the truth: Dataflex didn’t know how to deliver the steak. Somebody they didn’t know showed up with a can of cold marketing. Merrill never called back. A few months later, I left. Not long after that, Dataflex tanked.

I did business with Merrill Lynch for many years. Hewlett-Packard is still trying to find its way back from Invent! to truly great engineering.