The commandments do not come from a mountain top. Lo it were that easy. They come from many years of experience in categories from caskets to computers and everything in between.
You might ask, why write about Commandments since you’ve already written about “Immutable Laws” (a book you might have ready)? It struck me that laws are always based on a set of principles, something like a constitution. That was what was missing. So, I decided that just as religion has the “Commandments” so could marketing. Especially, since marketing is about do’s and don’ts. So, dear reader, as you begin this article, I give you the same warning that came with my laws: Violate them at your own risk.
1. Thou shalt realize that perception is reality.
To be successful today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what’s already in the prospect’s mind. It’s what “Positioning” is all about. The basic approach to positioning is not to create something new and different, but to manipulate what’s already up there in the mind, to retie the connections that already exist. But be aware that retying those connections must result in a point of difference vs. your competitors.
2. Thou should not commit the “me too” mistake.
Many people believe that the basic issue is marketing is convincing the prospective client that they have been a better product or service. They say to themselves, “We might not be first, but we’re going to be better.” That may be true, but if you’re late into a market space and have to do battle with large, well-established competitors, then your marketing strategy is probably faulty. Me-too just won’t cut it.
If the secret of success is getting into the prospective customer’s mind first, which strategy are most companies committed to? The better-product strategy. Benchmarketing against your competitors is a popular subject in the business management field. It’s an essential element in a process often called “total quality management” (TQM).
Benchmarking doesn’t work because regardless of a product’s objective quality, people perceive the first brand to enter their mind as superior. Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products. When you’re a me-too, you’re a second-class citizen.
3. Thou shalt be aware of what you are selling.
This may surprise you, but I have spent a good bit of my time over the years figuring out exactly what people are trying to sell. Defining the product category in a simple, understandable way is essential.
Companies, large and small, often have a tough time describing their product, especially if it’s a new category and a new technology. Or else, they describe the product in confusion terms that doom the effort right out of the gate.
The positioning of a product must begin with what the product is. We sort and store information by category, so your chances of getting into a customer’s mind are slim to none if the category is vague.
The biggest marketing successes comes with basic, powerful explanations of the product being offered. Customers knew what the companies were selling and how the products were really different.
4. Thou shalt realize that truth will not out.
The failure to understand the simple truth that marketing is a battle of perceptions trips up
5. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s idea.
A me-too product is bad enough, and equally problematic is a me-too idea: two
companies cannot own the same concept in the customer’s mind.
When a competitor owns a word or position in the prospect’s mind, it is futile to attempt to own the same idea. For instance, Volvo has preempted the concept of “safety.” Many other automobile companies, including Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, have tried to run marketing campaigns based on safety. Yet no one except Volvo has succeeded in getting into the prospect’s mind with a safety message.
6. Thou shalt not be impressed with your own success.
Success often leads to arrogance, and arrogance to failure. When people become successful, they tend to become less objective. They often substitute their own judgment for what the market wants.
As their successes mounted, companies like General Motors, Sears, and IBM became arrogant. They felt they could do anything they wanted in the marketplace. Success leads to trouble.
The bigger the company, the more likely it is that the chief executive has lost touch with the front lines. This might be the single most important factor limiting the growth of a corporation. All other factors favor size. Marketing is war, and the fist principle of warfare is force. The larger army, the larger company, has the advantage. But the large company gives up some of that advantage if it cannot stay focused on the marketing battle that takes place in the mind of the customer. Small companies are mentally closer to the front than big companies. That may be one reason for their rapid growth in the past decades. They haven’t been tainted by success.
7. Thou shalt not try to be everything to everybody.
When you try to be all things to all people, you inevitably wind up in trouble. Better advice comes from one manager who said, “I’d rather be strong somewhere than weak everywhere.”
This kind of “all things” thinking leads to what is called “line extension.”In a narrow sense, line extension involves taking the brand name of a successful product (e.g., A1 Poultry Sauce). It sounds so logical. “We make A1, a great sauce that gets the dominant share of the steak business. But people are switching from beef to chicken, so let’s introduce a poultry product. And what better name to use then A1. That way people will know the poultry sauce comes from the makers of that great steak sauce, A1.”
But marketing is a battle of perception, not product. In the mind, A1 is not the brand name, but the sauce itself. “Would you pass me the A1 please?” asks the diner. Nobody replies: “A1 what?”
Needless to say, the A1 poultry launch was a dismal failure.
8. Thou shalt not live only by the numbers.
Big companies are in a bind. On the one hand, Wall Street is staring at them asking, “How much are your sales and profits going to grow next month, next quarter, next year?” On the other hand, an endless number of competitors are staring at them saying, “We’re not going to let you grow if we can help it.”
So what happens? The CEO lies to Wall Street and then turns around to tell the marketing people what is expected in terms of profit and growth. They in turn scramble back to their offices and try to figure out how to make those unreasonable numbers.
Brash predictions about earnings growth often lead to missed targets, battered stock, and even creative accounting. But worse than that, they lead to bad decisions.
As panic sets in, upper management falls into the line extension, or the everything-for-everybody trap to drive the numbers up. Rather than staying focused on being strong somewhere, they opt for being weak everywhere. Their only hope is that they will be promoted before it all hits the fan.
9. Thou must be willing to attack yourself.
Much has been written about the likes of DEC, Xerox, AT&T, and Kodak and their efforts to move from slow-growth to high growth businesses. When this is exacerbated, companies are faced with what have been called disruptive technologies: DEC faced the desktop computer revolution; Xerox, the surge in laser printing; and Kodak, the digital camera.
Transforming a company when the underlying technology changes is no easy task. First of all, Wall Street is upset because lots of shareholder money starts to disappear in efforts that earn very little in return.
Traditional customers are often alienated as the sales force’s attention becomes diffused by new ventures. The internal folks become very uncomfortable with all this change in the air.
Though difficult, leaders have no choice in this matter. They must find a way to move to that better idea or technology, even if it threatens their base business. If they don’t, their future will be in question, especially as that technology is improved and picks up momentum.
10. Thou must have top management involved.
When the CEO or high-level management doesn’t take charge of strategy, things rarely go well. In today’s rough-and-tumble world, marketing strategy is too critical to be left to middle-level management. After I make that “you’re in charge” speech to general managers or CEOs, they often tell me that they don’t want to undermine their employees. They want to give them the responsibility they were promised.
That’s all well and good for morale, but I encourage them to think the Navy way.
When a naval vessel has a problem, the ultimate responsibility is not that of the young officer who had the conn when the accident occurred. It’s the captain of the ship who must answer to that board of inquiry. And chances are, his career is in trouble.
In the business world, it’s the CEO who has to answer to the board when things go bad. It’s your job on the line if you’re at the top, so you’d better take charge to make sure those bad things don’t happen to you.
President, Trout & Partners
partner of BrandLounge Middle East