SugarCRM's Dull We-Don't-Like-Salesforce Campaign

Last Updated Nov 18, 2009 1:18 PM EST

Sometimes you can try too hard in marketing and shoot yourself in the foot, the way AT&T has largely done, all in reaction to what a competitor says. I came across another classic example of this today in an email sent by the PR firm for SugarCRM, a competitor to Salesforce.com.

You've heard of Salesforce, right? Software as a Service (though they like calling themselves a cloud vendor) of customer relationship management services. A fine enough idea, and the company has seen some financial success. Well, according to the email, Marc Benioff of Salesforce was dismissive of SugarCRM on page 65 of his book, Behind the Cloud:

"We knew that we had truly emerged as the market leader in the eyes of the industry when we arrived at Dreamforce 2006 to find that a handful of employees from a small CRM company had set up a mock protest outside the convention center. I'm not really sure what they were protesting, and it was a small, low-budget, and poorly executed rip-off of the types of tactics we had invented, but that wasn't the point. The point was that we knew not to get ruffled." - Page 65 of Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com.
"We did not want this company to get free PR on our coattails! Ignoring this escapade worked well. A blogger asked a Dreamforce attendee if she had seen what was going on outside when she arrived, and she replied that it must have been some kind of Salesforce.com stunt. (Note: if you are going to compete with someone at his or her own game, always remember to step up the innovation.)" - Page 65 of Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com.
In other words, the market leader was dismissing a guerrilla tactic that sounds like it was inspired by the insidiously clever campaign that Ben & Jerry's ice cream waged against Häagen Dazs, which was trying to freeze it out of distribution in the 1980s. Co-founder Jerry Greenfield marched up and down in front of the headquarters of Pillsbury, owner of the Häagen Dazs brand, handing out flyers that said, "What's the Doughboy afraid of?"

Apparently miffed, or thinking that it smelled a chance to wage another campaign, the email said:

In continuing its long love affair with the industry's most down-to-earth CEO and its commitment to staging "small, low-budget, and poorly executed rip-off [tactics]", SugarCRM is currently distributing 1,000 copies of "Behind the Smokescreen: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Still Manages to Sell 1999 technology 10 years later" at Dreamforce today.
I gather that it's supposed to be a masterpiece of satire, but it falls flatter than a pancake without the baking powder.

Given that the book is from SugarCRM, having a supposed endorsement from North Korean leader Kim Jong II -- "A great guide for any entrepreneur, CEO, or Head of State looking to promote openness and freedom" -- seems to have more of a boomerang effect. Each "chapter" is one or two pages with attempts at sarcasm. For example, Chapter 3, Customer Success, is "Sorry, this feature is not available in this edition. Please contact your sales representative to upgrade."

Ben & Jerry's was a masterstroke because it used Pillsbury's own actions as a tacit admission that the newcomer had the better product. Verizon was clever in using AT&T's own information against it. But pure invented sarcasm doesn't gain the advantage of using the competitor's words and actions as a weapon. It doesn't come across as clever or witty. Just dull. And dull is probably not the association a company might want through its marketing.

Image via morgueFile user alvimann, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.