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April 4, 2019

Will Startups Destroy Marketing?

One of my greatest fears as a marketer is that we as a community will eventually lose the trust of the people with whom we are trying to connect.  I’m afraid that the relationship we enjoy between our brand and our audience will be undermined by our own activities.  I love startups and the startup community, but I think the startup community poses the greatest threat to marketing.  Marketing is thriving, but if we’re not careful, with MarTech and AI exploding, we may create a monster that brings the townspeople out with pitchforks and torches.

I’m a huge proponent of lowering barriers of entry so the best ideas can bring the best products and services to people.  But I’ve recently started questioning this when it comes to technology that scales.  When in the world at large a technology gets both advanced and simple enough for non-experts to use, it becomes dangerous and artificial barriers to access are typically established.  You don’t want crisper gene editing kits at your local hobby shop.  I was talking with Scott Brinker, of chiefMartech.com, a huge proponent of MarTech, and he likened MarTech to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: when an inexperienced person can get access to such powerful tools, things usually go wrong. 

Because marketers are competing for attention, they are in a constant arms race to outdo each other with the newest technology and the best techniques. Effective marketing techniques and channels either get replaced by something more effective, their novelty wears out, or they are so effective that they get overused and people stop paying attention to them (sign spinning, neon lights, and email marketing?).  

Every new channel is most effective when it’s novel, then people get used to it and its effectiveness is diminished (that said, if it isn’t just a gimmick it will continue to be effective, just less so).  MarTech and AI are allowing the hungriest marketers to push the limits of scale and personalization within the most effective marketing channels and techniques.  The slicker we as marketers get in executing these techniques the more likely we are to breed hostility in the very people we are trying to connect with and ruin the effectiveness of these channels.  

Back in the day, email allowed even the smallest company to send very inexpensive messaging to massive amounts of people at very low cost.  Companies with great ideas, but little means to let people know about them, could suddenly get the word out and compete with larger brands.  Many of these companies had great ideas, but no experience or care for best practices.  People with little or no sales and marketing experience suddenly had access to powerful distribution tools.  Low cost also means low consideration, so massive amounts of poorly targeted and poorly conceived emails were sent out over the years.  

Companies that would not have the means to distribute their message or would have taken greater care in what they were sending out, started undermining the trust in an otherwise very effective channel.  This combination of cheap access with little experience and little to lose is what makes startups so dangerous.  They have no brand and no clients, so why not move fast and break things.

Companies frequently choose their brand archetype, rather than growing into one.  They decide who they want to be to best sell within their market, and they fashion themselves around that archetype.  This can be problematic, like the boiler room that has posters on every wall about having great employee morale. You can change who you are, but you can’t select a brand archetype that you are not and be it.  If you aren’t the archetype you are projecting, it will catch up with you.   Your audience will see through it, they will tilt their head when looking at you and say, “He looks like a Hero, but something’s off.”  Then, like a David Lynch film, the façade will start to crack, and everything falls apart.  

There are 12 common brand archetypes; I’d like to add a 13th.  Pretending to be something you aren’t will cause people to lose trust in you, but the 13th archetype looks to perfect, personalize, and scale this practice.  Call it the Chameleon, or the T-1000. This brand has no identity, but technology has given it the ability to mimic whatever identity it thinks you want to see.  The Chameleon knows everything about you and has an archetype assigned to every target.  When you come to its website, call in, walk in its doors, open a browser, or answer the phone, you see an archetype designed just for you.  The Chameleon is the unholy offspring of Donald Draper, Big Data, MarTech, and AI, and you’ll never see it coming because it looks like exactly what you want. 

Sounds great for marketing, right?  Every company wants a marketing T-1000, but what if every company has one?  Not only is it an arms race where every brand has access to these powerful tools, but people don’t like being targets and they will adapt.  In this case, people will lose all trust in marketing in general.  Just like they have in the past on individual channels, when you get too good at making people do what you want, their only defense is to lock everything out.  At this point, marketing will enter the dark ages.  People will only listen to people they know and trust, and the reach of marketing will shrink down to direct human interaction.  Startups, as we know them, will be dead. Also, large, established brands will dominate the marketplace and innovation will screech to a halt.  In the end, the customer loses. 

The customer loses because we failed them as marketers. We violated their trust, became greedy and lost sight of our purpose.  There’s plenty of reasons this won’t happen quite like this, but it’s already happening to some degree, so just make sure you don’t fall victim to it.  To protect yourself, be careful not to abuse the trust the public still has in marketing.  Lastly, marketers should build a strong “human” brand through MarTech in order to be authentic and ensure there’s a real live human present.


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Sky Cassidy is the CEO of MountainTop Data and host of the If You Market podcast. He grew up in rural Northern California and moved to Los Angeles after college.  After a decade in the sales and marketing trenches and dabbling in the Southern California startup scene he took over as CEO of MountainTop Data, a provider of list and data services for B2B marketing.

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