Over a 12 year career, I have interacted with hundreds of founders and worked at leadership levels in a few startups. I am still part of thriving founder communities.
An overwhelming majority of them have this language that they use while speaking about people (or potential customers) that they are going to market their product or service to.
And I have an issue with the language they use. And most importantly, it shapes the culture and the speaking of their teams which I believe is one of the fundamental reasons why startups struggle to create extraordinary and relatable brands.
Most of the phraseology used by founders while speaking about marketing is coming from the domain of hunter and prey.
The problem stems from an exploitative worldview that a few successful businesseses or salespeople in the past shared that unfortunately got adapted by a lot of entrepreneurs around the world viz. Customers need to be hunted or manipulated or cajoled to buy.
It is a firmly established practice in advertising schools to teach about using fear or greed in advertising. It is no doubt, a highly successful technique and mass consumerism is a direct result of success marketing tactics. But the core is that successful marketing tactics comes from a hunter-prey mentality. Sales and marketing professionals are usually referred to as ‘hunters’ in many organizations.
And the ethical and the business impact of this thinking is that we are using every tool at our disposal to somehow grow revenues at the cost of everything else.
Any resource when exploited becomes barren. Similarly, any human relationship where the primary orientation is to exploit will ultimately lead to that relationship becoming increasingly damaged. Startups are investing millions and millions of dollars in customer acquisition of users through discounts, promotions, cash backs, cajoling, influencing etc etc. While that’s their primary strategy, what is worrying is their inability to retain customers.
High churn and consequently higher and higher customer acquisitions costs is the leading factor for extremely well funded startups to go down. While churn is the symptom, the language used within marketing teams is the source. The language of the hunter-prey relationship.
Modern marketing deeply rooted in technology and data over anything else is a monster that has taken the worst of old world marketing techniques and combined it with highly potent data management tools and behavioral economic fundas. It is a dangerous cocktail that is one of the leading causes of poor mental well being all across the world.
It actively promotes anxiety, greed and fear without taking any responsibility about the consequences while being terribly short sighted about the damage it causes to the business itself.
We, human beings have the ability to turn any technology towards destruction, whether it is rainforests, our oceans or human values. Modern marketing is using digital interfaces to use every trick in the book of behavioral economics to exploit our cognitive biases and every data point available to us to inch the revenue ever slightly higher.
However, modern marketing is blind to the fact inspite of so much information and knowledge, companies are not thriving. There is a reason why venture capital millions are not being able to create unicorns successfully and one of the core underlying reason is that modern marketing has systematically eroded any sacredness in the relationship between the brand and the customer. There is a complete breakdown in trust and an emotional numbness to marketing techniques.
Considering we as a collective of marketing professionals are aware of only one or two methodologies to succeed at marketing, this is a question that needs a lot of us to go on a journey. A journey where we first need to unlearn how firmly our practices are embedded in modern marketing. Only then can we start looking beyond our boxes.
Considering I have been on this journey for sometime now, one thing that keeps showing up for me is the relationship between a brand and its customer. We need to treat this relationship with the same sacredness with which we will treat a close friend or a loving family member. Maybe at the risk of oversimplifying my argument, asking ourselves this question “will I have marketed it this way to my mother?” will start orienting ourselves to create brands that are deeply loved and valued by all our stakeholders.
Most importantly we need to go beyond the hunter-prey mentality and start orienting our branding and marketing efforts towards adding real value and crafting deep relationships with our customers. A lot of traditional family businesses do understand this principle and while they might be disrupted by technology and digitalisation, there is a lot to learn from the way they have conducted themselves and built businesses over many decades by nurturing quality relationships with their customer base.
To conclude, founders and investors need to closely watch the way they are speaking about branding and marketing. Are they talking about it from the hunter-prey paradigm or are they authentically speaking from nurturing a meaningful relationship with their customers? What is at stake is the long term success of the business and the brand that they are driving.
I am creating a workbook that will give you a starting framework on how to think about your brand in a way that is consistent with the intention of this article. Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
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