13 March 2009

Embrace the Irrational

I've spent most of my career working in the Bay Area.
This means I'm deeply steeped in the culture of high technology business.
In particular, I've spent an enormous amount of time working with companies and people that are rooted in or spring out of the traditions and values of enterprise computing. Tech start-ups, venture capital, enterprise software companies... I'm talking about you.

Over the last few years I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why we have such a hard time applying the models and lessons from consumer marketing to our industries. Within this culture, we actually seem actively hostile to doing this - despite the fact that consumer marketing has a proven track record not only when it comes to customer adoption, but also customer retention.

In many ways, this process for me has been driven by my obsession with understanding why Product Marketing dominates our industry and Brand Marketing is so heavily deprecated (and distrusted).

More recently (very recently) I eventually started to try to figure out the underlying issues that make the learning and application so challenging - as opposed to what I was doing in the past (simply trying to codify the differences and learnings and assuming we could apply them).

And I've realized that there is a fundamental divergence in belief system and values at a deep and early point - and this makes application of methods / lessons from consumer marketing so challenging.

To illustrate what I mean - here are two people demonstrating the fundamentals behind impacting a customer buying decision:


On the one hand - you have consumer marketing's non-rational approach. Appeal to the customer is based on an emotional, intuitive and personal impact (with rational arguments moved to a secondary position).
In the second case - you have enterprise marketing's rational approach. Appeal to the customer is based on features and benefits and a rational argument (with anything non rational removed nearly entirely).

In thinking about this - I'm starting to suspect that within the high tech industry folks are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that customers are not rational and logical. We are the vulcans of our world. We believe deeply in the idea that a clear, rational argument that demonstrates that your product is empirically the correct choice will result in a purchasing decision.

The problem is that we are selling to human beings. Just because they work at a company that buys your products and perhaps work within this high tech culture doesn't mean that they are not human and thus non-rational consumers.

Folks in consumer marketing are inherently comfortable with the idea that a purchasing decision is not a rational one. This is their power. And this is why they can use the models and methods and tools of consumer marketing so effectively.

Once you accept this - you can start to figure out how to influence this emotional and non-rational decision (through things like story telling).

The trouble is that folks in high tech cannot seem to accept this. So the question is - why?

I've been thinking these days that much of the issue lies in the people.
High tech is a culture and society dominated by people from two educational backgrounds (engineering and MBA programs). If you start going through leadership of companies in the space - these two backgrounds dominate. And these backgrounds teach this very approach to problem solving - in effect teach this exact set of values. The companies that are exceptions, unsurprisingly, are both more effective and less respected within the community. Apple is the great example here.

Of course.... this leads to brilliant examples of the conflict between these value sets like this. You have to imagine someone at Apple laughing hysterically upon reading it - and feeling confident that the competition still doesn't understand why Apple is kicking their ass.

Folks... it's time to change.
If you don't.... it's going to be a long slow death march to the tar pits.


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