Really Useful Marketing Rules

Last Updated May 18, 2007 12:06 PM EDT

I've been a little hard on Marketing lately, so I thought it would be a good time to be helpful and provide some Really Useful Rules for Marketing to Follow. To keep it real, I'll present a brief case study based upon my decades of experience in high tech, and then give the generic rule based upon the example.

RULE #1. (AKA: "Cockadoodle doo doo")
Back in 2001, savvy investors were just beginning to get the idea that there was something a bit weird about the way Computer Associates was stating its numbers. For example, at one point early in the game, CA's accountants made what the company called a "typographical error" in one of its financial reports, an error that somehow managed to bloat profits from $90 million to $230 million. Hmmm...

Now, since CA's top management was taking its business ethics cues from the Book of Enron (CA's CEO eventually landed jail time), you'd think the marketing group would lay low, maybe focus on product features or other tactical stuff.

But no. The same quarter that the infamous "typo" surfaced in the news, CA's marketing team launched a corporate branding campaign, and not just of the low-level "space ad in the Journal" variety. No way. They funded a major worldwide television blitz, with ad buys so extensive that the kickoff hit a billion households worldwide. The ads featured (wait for it--) a bunch of roosters giving a "wake-up call."

This leads us to Really Useful Marketing Rule #1, which is: "If your CEO is robbing the shareholders, avoid funding advertisements that feature roosters, alarm-clocks, people waking up and smelling the coffee, flashing red lights, or street signs with the word WARNING on them." Your ad execs may try to convince you that these are arresting images that will attract lots of attention. They are correct, but this fact is not to your advantage.

RULE #2. (AKA: "I'm 'K, You're 'K")
First, let me make it clear I have nothing against IBM. In fact, I think that IBM has some of the greatest sales reps on the planet. However, it would be hard to deny that IBM's corporate culture is, well, just a tad bureaucratic. For example, I have a former colleague whose sole job at IBM is to attend meetings of other internal groups to ensure that they don't do anything that would be politically bad for his group.

Anyway, when IBM was getting serious about software a few years ago, the firm's marketing mavens wanted to position IBM as a company whose software could "empower the individual." That's a pretty standard software message, but IBM's implementation of the idea was, well, a trifle odd. They extensively ran a magazine ad showing an executive holding a bound book open in his lap, with words to the effect that "don't let your masterpiece get lost in the system."

Now, there was nothing wrong with that. A bit clichéd, perhaps. But if you looked carefully, the title of the book in the ad was Franz Kafka's "The Trial." If you remember from high school literature class, "The Trial" is the classic story of a man who is gradually and inexorably crushed by a nameless, faceless bureaucracy.

So that leads us to Really Useful Marketing Rule #2, which is: "If you're touting empowerment, do not use Franz Kafka in your marketing materials." Kafka may have written the world's most memorable opening line ("Gregor Samsa awoke one night from uneasy dreams to discover he'd been transformed into a gigantic cockroach.") but, in general, the Kafkaesque is best avoided when it comes to corporate branding. Unless maybe if your corporate brand is Orkin.

RULE #3. (AKA: "Move that deck chair to the left.")
Computer giant DEC was in seriously deep trouble in the mid 1990s. Revenues were in freefall, profits down the toilet, and layoffs were a quarterly ritual. Now, you'd think that this would be a good time for DEC's marketing group to be circumspect when it comes to choosing ad themes. At the very least, you'd think they'd avoid ads with obvious analogies to what was going on with the company.

But no. The marketing group launched an advertisement that featured the company name above a photo of (I kid you not) the Titanic. The ads were a reference to the popular movie of the same name, which evidently had used a DEC computer to render the special effects. Apparently nobody in the marketing group remembered that the Titanic crashed and sank, becoming the paradigmatic example of clueless management. What were they thinking?

And so to Really Useful Marketing Rule #3, which is: "If your company is in on the edge of bankruptcy, avoid mentioning the Titanic, the Hindenberg, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Donner party, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Krakatoa East of Java, or the Mass Extinction of the Dinosaurs." Just don't go there. Trust me on this one.

Hey, I have more of these rules, if you want me to keep going...