Since the dawn of the lean startup movement, marketing has held a tenuous position on many founder’s shortlist of priorities. Founders have done their time in companies where marketing sucked up huge budgets without much to show for the expense. Technical founders have endured CMOs that invest heavily in the flash and ignore substance, like the product itself.
To be fair, great products still lose if they can’t attract an audience. But the art and science of marketing haven’t done much to distinguish itself over the last decade.
So, the question – What Role Does Marketing Play in a Successful Startup is valid – even critical to answer.
How it was meant to be…
Marketing was supposed to be the heart and soul of a growing business. The marketing team was the stewards of the companies’ mission, values, and message. They connected the desire of customers with products that fulfilled those aspirations. The CMO was “the great explainer” turning complex features into must-have benefits.
Marketing still must fill that role.
But like everything in the hyper-connected social-driven marketplace, marketing must evolve rapidly to earn its place at the table.
The key to understanding marketing’s continued relevance is by studying how savvy companies woo and connect with customers.
Consider Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Your Favorite Local Restaurant
Have you ever tried to find bios on the leadership team at Apple? Good luck, it’s buried in the press area.
I was looking for the CMO but soon realized that Phillip W. Schiller, SVP of Worldwide Marketing doesn’t behave like a traditional marketing chieftain. He’s just one of many people who actively market Apple’s products. During any Apple keynote event, you’ll see Eddy Cue, Craig Federighi, Tim Cook, and Jonathan Ive (on video) tell the story of the latest Apple products.
Apple sees marketing as a core discipline within product teams. The ability to quickly explain the usefulness of a product is career-making talent at Apple. Steve Jobs was the master.
- iPod – 1,000 songs in your post.
- MacBook Air – So thin it fits in an envelope
- MacBook – The notebook for everyone.
The taglines aren’t bolted on as an afterthought. They fit the product like a glove. This only comes from a deeply symbiotic relationship between the product and marketing.
Imagine how that would work in your business. A cloud hosting provider would rely on SVP Hardware, SVP Client Services, SVP Small Business, and SVP Enterprise to grow market share. Sure there could be an SVP marketing, but she
would orchestrate resources, training, and timing. But marketing would be baked into the product.
Here’s another example –
Facebook: Social Marketing
Seen a Facebook commercial lately?
No? But, I bet you know exactly what Facebook does.
Like Apple, Facebook lets its universal service do the talking. Listening to Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg leaves you with the impression that creating a killer service is the best way to boost Facebook’s value.
Facebook has perfected what we call “padded handcuff” marketing. You may try another Facebook-ish service, but you’ll need to bring a dozen friends over to the new service to make it useful. Good luck. It’s easier just to stick with Facebook. The padded handcuffs feel too good to take off.
Facebook achieved this by combining marketing data with quick testing and deployment of new features. Marketing sits side-by-side with engineering. Insights are synthesized and built in weeks. Subscriber usage is analyzed, and the feature refined in real-time. Marketing is an extension of product development – a concept worth studying and stealing.
Amazon: Utility Marketing
Amazon’s greatest marketing asset is its ability to deliver almost anything in under 48 hours. They are so good at it that we take it for granted.
Like Xerox, Kleenex, Band-Aid, and “Google-It”, Amazon has built a brand so reliable and necessary that it’s a utility. Need a book? Amazon. Need clover honey for your famous BBQ sauce recipe? Amazon. Every time your box shows up, you add the experience to your mental Rolodex for ready recitation to a potential Amazon customer.
How did Amazon achieve this utility marketing coup? It focused on customer service as its #1 marketing priority. Happy customers sell the product. Marketing doesn’t have to convince the world that Amazon is better their customers are glad to do the work. Ask a friend the last time Amazon failed to deliver what they wanted when they wanted it. Good luck. That’s all the marketing Amazon needs.
Local Marketing Geniuses
Think about your favorite restaurant or go-to hairdresser. They are marketing impresarios without knowing it. They have a clear vision of what their product represents. They are the product. They don’t have time to fuss with complicated marketing – they just deliver the best product/service they can. They rely on you to spread the word.
So, you might be asking yourself this question….
Is the Marketing Department Needed?
Yes, but not in the way you may think.
The marketplace is moving so fast that a ready-aim-fire approach to marketing is too slow. At Blue Kite, we’ve learned that there’s little we can do sitting in our offices to move the needle for our clients. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the product and service teams to gain a better understanding of how
your customers think.
This approach offers some unique insights:
Product / Market Fit
Every startup moves through a phase where they seek a solid match between what customers crave and their product’s features. Embedding marketing into this process yields a nimble approach where marketing is messaging and brand assets are aligned closely with the each iteration of the product’s evolution.
The Hidden Why
Your customers are always making choices about how to spend their time, income, or budget. They are using a set of guidelines to make these decisions. We call these choices – The Hidden Why.
For example, I will never buy a screen protector for my iPhone. Traditional marketing may say that I can’t afford it, that I don’t know my screen protector choices or that I’m dumb and haven’t thought through the implications of dropping my iPhone.
All of these reasons are wrong.
Here’s my hidden why: I want people to see I’m carrying an Apple iPhone. Add a screen protector and you can’t tell if I’m using a Samsung or an iPhone. My phone is a statement. How would a marketing team learn this? In this case, go to an Apple store and ask people, carrying unprotected iPhones.
These day-to-day choices won’t show up in the latest omnibus study by HubSpot. No, it’s likely that your sales team has a better handle on how purchase decisions are made. The customer service team may have an intuitive sense of why customers are switching to a competitive product.
Your marketing team has to be on the front-lines. When was the last time you handled a customer service call, wrote a response to a customer support forum request, or did a ride-along with the biz dev team?
We are blessed with options. If I need new earbuds, I have hundreds to choose from. I can’t possibly evaluate every option available to me. So I use “brands” to make the choice.
Do I want to look like a hip-hop aficionado, pick Beats. Do I want the best noise canceling earbuds available – try Bose. Do I just need a decent pair that I know fits my ears – get apple’s iconic white earbuds.
Each brand on my consideration list has a compelling story, from Dr. Dre to Steve Jobs, the brands ooze story. This story creates a soul connection with customers.
Here’s the bad news, you won’t craft these brand stories packing a dreary conference room with two shouters, and ten bored twenty-somethings, hoping that the use of post-its, and dry erase markers will stimulate brilliance.
Telling a Compelling Story – From the Start
Stories are tools for communicating vast amounts of information. There are so useful that people automatically pay attention when someone says, “That reminds me of a story.”
We tend to sit closer to the storyteller around the campfire. We linger longer at lunch to let our colleague finish their story. We love telling and retelling stories about adventures with a best friend.
But when it comes to business, we abandon stories for bullet-points and pithy tweetables. This thinking is wrong-headed.
Marketers serve their organization best when they craft compelling stories that demonstrate their product’s benefits. Founders do well to work with their marketing team to clearly and persistently articulate these stories.
Sit down with your co-founder, marketing team, and product team and ask:
How will marketing help us deeply understand our audience?
How can marketing be built into every aspect of our company including the product?
Your answers will not only give meaning and focus to your marketing but will set your business on a path to success.