Make love, not war
Steve Sammartino argues that it’s time we forgot out about going to war with our competitors and started falling in love with our customers.
This article first appeared in The Love Issue, the June/July issue of Marketing, out now.
Think back to the earliest marketing lessons you had, and the first recommended reading list in your Marketing 101 course. Without doubt it included some titles with the words ‘war’ in the title. Like Al Ries and Jack Trout’s Marketing Warfare. Or Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War. The latter is a book business types really love to quote, but when they do it makes me wonder if they’ve really read it. The deepest message buried deep between the lines of the book is simple: don’t engage.
Prepare, by all means, but always avoid the need for confrontation, because even if you win, it comes at great cost. And so too with marketing. The marketing game is not a war. It is not a battle against competitors. It’s a love affair with customers.
So where did all this war rhetoric come from to enter the marketing domain?
Given that marketing is a game of strategy, we tend to borrow from the military playbook. The military has possibly the longest and most well-documented history of strategy. The strategy of beating the other guy. The strategy of going stealth to catch the other competitor unaware, so you pillage their resources and gain ultimate control in another’s domain.
Historically, this made a little bit of sense in marketing. To a certain extent, marketing used to be a competition for gaining access to limited resources and even raw materials, gaining access to limited manufacturing capacity, outbidding the competition for the 6.30pm Sunday night TV advertising roadblock or outmanoeuvring other brands for limited shelf space.
It seems many of our marketing colleagues forget these things are no longer limited. Anyone can get anything made. The days of the media roadblock are long gone and the shelf space is infinite.
Yes, it’s time we forgot out about going to war with our competitors and started falling in love with our customers.
If marketing is really above love, it’s fair to ask ourselves what we should not love. Here are a few suggestions the board of directors may not agree with, especially with public companies:
We should never fall in love with our infrastructure. While this sounds semi ridiculous, it’s a reality that companies forget why they built their infrastructure in the first place. They built it to serve customers, but because the ‘infrastructure itself’ has more staff connected with it than staff who are connected with actual customers, it becomes the focus. It becomes the overriding operating paradigm that they get a continued return from it. So it gets false worship and becomes blindly trusted into the future. It’s a major cause of industrial disruption.
We should ignore Wall Street’s love affair with quarterly results. A company that truly loves its customers can’t be focused on the short-term. Every public company I’ve ever worked with that chases the numbers to keep investors happy has always found it costs more in the long run – all too often it’s the customer that gets short-changed. Just look at what Amazon has been able to achieve by shunning short-term profit for long-term customer benefits.
We should never fall in love with our on-sellers or retailers. When we have an efficient revenue stream via a successful retailer or reseller, it’s easy to forget about the real customer, the end user. It’s a common problem in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry (supermarket suppliers), which sells through powerful retailers. These companies on the supply side start to listen to the buyer, more than the user.
It becomes a weird situation, where the real relationship is to an indirect proxy who owns the direct connection. The brand then gets reshaped to what the seller wants, but the needs of the end users, who eventually pay, get lost along the way. This is why we should never love a retailer more than an actual end user – regardless of who literally buys from us.
We should never fall in love with our technology. It doesn’t matter what industry, technology is a means, not an end. It exists only as a customer facilitator. The best way to ensure we don’t fall in love with shiny new tools of technology is to remind ourselves of this simple fact – nearly all technology gets replaced. Technology is temporary and these days it’s even disposable. Just count how many mobile phones you have in your spare drawer at home. Our audience doesn’t care about the technology they use, only what it can do for them.
All of these things we should stop loving came straight from the wartime strategy playbook. When we love these things, we are a narcissistic operation. They are all about ownership, structure, results and tools. We don’t love the real brand owners (which are in reality the users); we love the company itself. The company is never more than a vessel – a body corporate that can facilitate emotions such as love with our customers. By loving the elements that make up a corporate structure we stop solving the problems of our audience and start solving the problems of our company and boss. It’s usually a downward spiral from there.
Loving customers isn’t just some kind of hippy 1970s throwback idea. It makes more financial sense than it ever has. If we can manage to redirect our corporate love from the folly above, then our customers become more than just a loyal source of revenue; we develop a relationship where they can give back. Isn’t that what true love does? Gives more than it takes?
Before we all got connected, the best we could do with our brand once we got purchasing loyalty, was hope they told a few friends. Today, that loyalty can be taken to a level where it can save a brand millions of dollars in costs. Fans who truly love a brand are also those who line up to buy new releases. (When was the last time you heard about people lining up to buy a new family car? Tesla achieved something no car company has in over 100 years.)
It’s worth remembering the GM EV1 electric cars had people holding funerals for GM’s recall decision 10 years before Tesla had a commercial operation – oh, the irony of lacking such love and respect for that customer cohort. Fans are also the people who tweet and blog about what a brand can provide and follow it with passion, in much the same way they’d follow a sporting team – they become part of the brand’s ecosystem. And if we’ve been smart enough to open up part of our company, and hand over the tools of production to our closest most loving customers in a crowd powered way, they’ll lovingly create new products for other fans at a fraction of the traditional development cost – they ay even be people with whom we enter into some kind of shared revenue joint venture – a marriage of sorts where we support each other and create a longer lasting, financially ensconced future together.
Yes, love in all its forms is about giving. It’s about being open, knowing where loyalties should be directed. Increasingly, what we stand for is just as important as what we make. It’s about how we go about things, whether we keep our word as a brand and have a set of morals worthy of creating a long-term relationship. The idea of winning the marketing war, out-competing and taking advantage is as outdated as the cold war. Love is warm and promising; it’s the kind of emotion humans respond to.
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Steve Sammartino is a columnist in Marketing. Purchase a subscription and be the first to read his thoughts each issue.
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