Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Marketing As Seduction

Kathy Sierra, one of the oft-quoted "customer-centric" pundits, recently posted a blog about some of the myths surrounding marketing to geeks.

I have been doing some recent exploration into the attitudes and practices of businesses, and have found some interesting things going on:

Marketing as Conquests
For many years now, product development and to a greater extent marketing (these are fundamentally part of the same function, though they have been "siloized" in recent years) has gotten a bad rap as a coercive art, designed to create a need in the consumer that they didn't have before - to get them to buy something that they wouldn't have otherwise. To be fair to the general public, this is mostly true. One way to get at the underlying philosophy of a discipline is to analyze the vocabulary of its discourse. Sit in on a product development or marketing meeting, and you'll hear words like "targeting", "campaign", "segmentation", "launch", "positioning", "attrition". The last time i checked, these words have a longer history in military conquest than they do in the production of goods and services. Rome mounted many campaigns, all of which targeted, just about anyone in their way, with the goal of furthering the interests of his country. They never claimed to be fully customer-centered in their approach, except for the thinly-veiled claims that they were bringing order and infrastructure to the people they conquered.

The Dissonance
In many recent interviews with successful small and large business owners, i have seen a distinct dissonance between their vocabulary and tactics (there's another one of those words). Most all have spoken of their customers in fond terms, citing that they feel indebted to them, and that they honestly desire to make them happy. Despite these feelings, business owners strain within an inherited system that still sees the business and the consumer in an adversarial, almost martial relationship. It's a system they've inherited which has told them for decades that the best way to grow a business is to squeeze as much revenue per customer as possible, and that non-monetary value only goes one way - created by the company and given to the customer in the form of a good or service.

This sort of dissonance would certainly occur in the case of a wide-eyed suitor, madly in love with a beautiful woman, who was forced to act on the only source of romantic advice he could find - from the mouth of his good friend Ghengis Khan.

"You say you love her? Yes, this is good. Acquiring her will be easy. Find where she lives, then ride as fast as you can around the Great Wall of her defenses (drinking your horse's blood to get there faster). It will surprise and delight her that you have showed up unexpectedly, sneaking in through the back window of her house. Once inside, if you have correctly targeted her, she will be yours. While you are there, ask if she will refer you to a friend. Then take her back to your stronghold. She will feel pleased and popular since she is your 100th wife, and you will know this by giving her a satisfaction survey."

The Future?
In some sense, the current product development/marketing methodology (exaggerated a bit here for rhetorical fun and impact) is similar to that provided by Ghengis. The business owners i've been talking to have learned through decades of practice that the customer should be treated like a target, though they personally feel otherwise. Currently though, there is no good alternative system. Up until recently, this has sustained business, but with the advent of highly informed, connected customers who sometimes know more about a business than does their owner, old assumptions are being questioned, and business owners are wondering if there is a new methodology out there to guide their practice.

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