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Sorry, We Can’t Market That


“Market my business!” … “Make this go viral!” … “Get me featured in [insert publication]!”

These are just a few of the requests a marketing communications agency will receive from entrepreneurs and established businesses alike, and it’s understandable. They’re often trapped in what business theorist W. Chan Kim calls “red oceans”: crowded markets where brands fight over a finite consumer base, just as shark-infested waters fight over prey. And so the solution becomes: “let’s just out-market the competition.”

As if an agency can wave a magic wand to improve the product or make the competition irrelevant.

One of the most disturbing business trends is the idea that it’s acceptable to create a product, business, or service and then hand it off to a marketing agency and wipe your hands clean. That’s like giving Gordon Ramsay ketchup, ramen noodles, and eggs, then asking him to cook a five-course meal (unless you’re on “Chopped”). It eliminates the need to take responsibility and creates a scapegoat for when the idea fails: If we crash and burn, it’s because the agency didn’t work smart or hard enough.

In most cases, this disconnect can be traced back well before the marketing phase began, that is, because the marketing phase shouldn’t have begun in the first place. The notorious media strategist Ryan Holiday notes that, first and foremost, it’s the creator’s responsibility to find product-market fit. By solving a specific problem for a specific group of people, the marketing bakes itself into the product or service. To divorce development from marketing is to ask for frustration and failure.

Paul Graham, the venture capitalist and co-founder of Y Combinator, puts it bluntly: make something people want. And yet an astonishing number of founders dance around this immutable rule. They naively assume that “someone” will want what they’re selling. Who is their target market? Maybe it’s “moms,” “runners” or “business people.” That’s not narrow enough. What type of runners? What type of businessperson? Gas station attendants? Telemarketers? Roofing contractors?

It’s easier to putter around on social media or create outlandish goals than it is to take an objective look in the mirror. Before you point your finger at the marketer when your idea doesn’t gain any traction, consider that it may not even be fully developed. Or worse, it doesn’t create real value for anybody.

There are countless internal questions that must be answered before bringing a communications agency into the conversation, but here are a few critical ones:

Who exactly is our product or service for? Hint: it’s not “everyone” or “tech people” although these are better answers than “I don’t know.”

Are we solving a specific problem for someone, or are we a solution looking for a problem?

What makes our product/service different or better than what’s already out there?

Only after these questions are thoroughly answered will PR, marketing, advertising, graphic design, and so on be effective. These services are icing on the cake for a brand. It just so happens that teams like us happen to make icing that’s really damn good.

In all seriousness though, it’s time for marketers to raise the bar and save consumers who are drowning in a sea of lackluster apps, clothes, and food. Instead of saying, “We’ll see what we can do” it’s time to say “Sorry, we can’t market that.”

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