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This article was published on August 7, 2011

What today’s startups can learn from yesterday’s marketing

What today’s startups can learn from yesterday’s marketing
Brad McCarty
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Brad McCarty

A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty. A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty.

If you had asked me 6 months ago whether I’d ever write a piece about how technology and startups could learn from traditional business than I probably would have laughed at you. Typically speaking old business versus new business, when it comes to marketing, is like comparing apples and oranges.

Recently though I have talked to a few start ups that have opened my eyes to the fact that there is a lot that can be learned from effective marketing even when it’s done by older businesses. Moreover, as I discussed in a previous piece, the age of transparency in which we live can sometimes push newer technology businesses into making poor decisions.

Why Marketing Sucks

As a side job, I have done voice over work for a number of years. Typically speaking I see companies that are writing cliche over the top advertising, making false claims and then screaming it at you as loud as they can possibly go. The sad fact is for many years, this is what businesses thought was effective marketing. In short, they seem to believe that the loudest voice in the room will get all the attention.

Unfortunately, even today’s standards often times place businesses in a position where they feel like they have to be on top of a mountain with a megaphone in order to get their point across. There are a number of reasons for this but not the least of which is that start ups will approach “experienced” companies to handle their marketing when it’s those same companies that are still employing archaic concepts.

What Doesn’t Suck

If we really are moving towards a society that embraces a more “Mom and Pop” approach to business ethics then it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a net positive. There are a number of factors to bear in mind, though, when we realize that so many of the business being started today aren’t even directed at the Jonses for a customer base. B2b, b2g and similarly non-consumer facing businesses have to start getting creative in finding ways to drive demand for their products.

If we look at companies such as Aflac as prime examples then we can see how non consumer companies are driving consumer demand. In order for Aflac to be successful, it needs corporations to offer it’s services. The company has been acquiring those corporations by marketing it’s desirability to consumers, even though the consumers are not the main customers of the service.

The idea of transparency goes back considerably further than most of us give credit for. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Ford Motor company was running an advertising campaign which very clearly stated that the company was not living up to the consumers’ expectations of what its product should be. Instead of asking the consumer to feel sorry for the company however, the advertisement said that Ford saw its mistakes and was working hard to correct them. It’s probably no coincidence then that Ford was the only American car manufacturer that did not require a government bailout in order to stay in business.

In the grand scheme, Apple has been around a very long time. Though the company has made some mistakes in the past, one area in which it has always shined is in its marketing. I’m not talking about using the words magical, beautiful or the like. I’m talking about marketing from the ethos of a company rather than simply trying to appeal to a customer’s financial mind.

Apple isn’t alone in this emotionally centered marketing. One brand that is doing the same thing but with completely different products is Kashi. If you watched commercials for Kashi, you’ll notice the primary focus of the commercial is to tell you about the company’s mission. Secondarily to that the company will tell you that in following its mission, it has found ways to make food better. Finally, the part of the advertisement that you will see less than any other is for the actual product. As a result of this mission centered advertising, the company has experienced exponential growth and was one of the first “natural” brands to gather wide spread acceptance in commercial supermarkets.

What Can We Learn

Going back to the example of Ford, it should be immediately obvious that taking ownership of your failures is every bit as important as it is for your successes. The transparency society in which we live tends to force today’s businesses into that sort of behavior but it is in how you manage your failures that your business can truly set itself apart.

Both Apple and Kashi teach us that consumers really do care about the ethos of your company. You’ll never see a line around the block for the newest, hottest Android phone. But every new model of iPhone demands this attention. While it’s easy to chalk up behavior such as this to consumers being sheep, if that were wholly the truth then any company with good marketing would see the same results.

I won’t be the one to tell you to be less transparent in your business. But I will be the first to advise you to exercise careful control over that transparency. In the recent cases with Airbnb the company fell victim to it’s perhaps excessive transparency. People have been subletting properties for ages through services such as Craigslist and I have no doubt that this isn’t the first time that a transaction has gone horribly wrong, but you never saw Craigslist offering a $50,000 insurance bounty to any host who had their apartment trashed. In summary, your transparency should showcase your business practices without allowing people to see right through you in order to take advantage of potential weaknesses.

So many times, we see new (especially technology-oriented) companies that are trying to do marketing completely different than anything that we’ve seen in the past. While this isn’t an entirely bad decision (facing facts, much of the marketing of the past was terrible at best), there are still a number of lessons that can be learned if we just look at the things that have worked well in the past but can still be applied to today’s businesses. Your customers are smarter than they’ve ever been, with more access to more information than today than even yesterday. Take heed of this fact and make sure you’re not just screaming transparent lies.

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