Three kids are selling lemonade in their neighborhoods one hot day, to passers-by.
Kid Red yells things like “The best lemonade in town!”
Kid Green yells things like “Hey Joe, how ’bout some lemonade?”
Kid Blue yells things like “It’s hot today! Get your lemonade before you head to the beach!”
Can you identify the future marketer, salesperson and PR guy? It turns out there is a systematic way of guessing. On this important question hinge many things: business vision, market positioning and corporate culture. The answer also drives a mutually-exclusive 3-way choice that sorts companies into marketing, sales, and PR-driven kinds. And perhaps most important, the mutual exclusivity means that the most seductive idea in selling, a 1972 idea known as the “Whole Egg,” (an integrated sales+PR+marketing model) originated by Ed Nay, then president of Young & Rubicam needs an update. The Whole Egg is not a white egg. One primary color will dominate. One of the three functions will always lead. Looking for balance is a recipe for failure. To get to a whole egg, you must first pick a color to paint it.
Telling Marketing, PR and Sales Apart
By 1991, the Whole Egg idea had evolved into an academic theory, proposed by Clarke Caywood and Donald Schultz of Northwestern University (curiously, they were from the journalism department, not the business school) with the impressive name “Integrated Marketing Communications.” I admit I’ve not read the original IMC work, but only second-hand summaries.
But here’s the gist. There is a lot of overlap among the three functions. So much so that it is hard to tell them apart, and a good deal of potential value to integrating them. Each is a customer-facing function. Each is about crafting messages designed to sell things. Each is about managing a portfolio of channels. Each listens and talks to the market.
This procedural similarity is what confuses people and leads them to misguided partitioning based on channel: marketing is about advertising, sales is about face-to-face pitching, and PR is about getting journalists interested. No, no and no. You can put a sales pitch in an advertisement, a marketing positioning idea into a news story, and a newsy idea into a sales pitch or advertisement. You can market face-to-face and sell en masse. You can sell with a news story, and turn an advertisement into a newsworthy event in its own right.
With old media you could at least make a medium-is-the-message argument. Yes, in traditional media, advertising is friendlier to marketing. Face-to-face is friendlier to sales. The news is friendlier to PR. In new media though, these distinctions fall apart immediately. Every new medium (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) can be personalized, customized, made as one-way or two-way as you like, and customized for word-of-mouth or broadcast. These media have no message. Or every message, if you like.
But the three are different. You see, the distinction lies in the type of message. Especially with new media. They can work together to form a whole egg, but never confuse them.
In the example I started with, Kid Red is a marketer, Kid Green is a salesperson and Kid Blue is a PR prodigy. Marketers like themselves, salespeople like other people, and PR people like ideas. Each turns his or her personality into a selling strength.
Smart people who like themselves soon realize that other people like themselves too. They understand self-indulgence. They understand what it means to always be conscious of, and care about, how you are perceived. All marketing messaging is based on self-perception, whether it appears as an ad, a lifestyle-section trend story, or a sales strategy that relies on your salespeople wearing hipster clothes. Kid Red knows this unconsciously. He knows some people have a self-perception based on elitism. They like the best lemonade (as opposed to say the cheapest lemonade or the weirdest-colored lemonade). He probably likes the best lemonade himself. His elitism translates into an marketing strategy that focuses on hooking elitist self-perceptions.
Now Kid Green likes others. And she realizes that others like others too. They like their friends, enjoy interpersonal interactions, and buy from friends if possible. So she personalizes the interaction as much as she can. Trust matters more than product attributes. Kid Green and her customers would both rather buy from someone they know than someone who claims to have the best lemonade. Even if they do have elitist tastes, they are likely to go to a friend. Even if the stranger’s lemonade booth has a queue of a dozen people and the friend’s stand has no queue.
And finally PR, the latest kid on the block (I’ll explain why in a minute). Kid Blue has a message that isn’t about people at all, but about an idea: the role of lemonade in a hot-day story. You can see why this so easily segues into the news: you could pay the local radio station host to talk about beaches and lemonade as part of the weather report on hot days.
Note that there is a subtlety here. Given the same power to tweak an offering, marketers naturally customize, salespeople naturally personalize, and PR people naturally contextualize. All three lead to differentiation. Like many Indians I like a dash of salt in my lemonade. If the kid in my neighborhood notices and greets me every time with a “the usual? with a pinch of salt?” he is personalizing. But if he reacts by making up a menu with “Regular” and “Salty” options, he’s a marketer. Marketers don’t care to know you, they only care about how you know yourself. And finally, if he runs a promotion on Diwali selling “Indian” salty lemonade, well, he’s pulling off a PR stunt.
And with new media, all three can scale. To use the example closest to traditional media, you can use variable print technology in paper direct mail to personalize (put people’s names and their kid’s picture into a message), customize (use revealed preferences to include a beer picture in some messages, and a wine picture in another), or contextualize (insert excerpts of your product’s reviews from media you know your prospect consumes).
If you have trouble remembering these subtle distinctions, here is a mnemonic: you personalize to people’s identities, customize to people’s tastes, and contextualize to people’s environments. identities, tastes, environments.
But enough about lemonade. Let’s talk grown-ups and grown-up companies.
Microsoft, Apple and Google
In my previous post, The Seven Dimensions of Positioning, I made a remark about Google:
…the classic reading of the Google origin myth gets it wrong. The story goes that Brin and Page, when told they had to “choose” between a marketing or a sales culture, (and this is engineering braggadocio pure and simple) “chose” to create an “engineering” culture instead. This is wrong on two levels. First, it is a three-way fork today, not two way, and Google is a company built on effective PR. “Don’t be Evil” and stories about great buffets (and ironically, the story of Brin and Page “choosing” an engineering culture) are basically the core of a PR socialization narrative…
The reason people haven’t thought about a three-way choice is that until recently PR was just too uncontrolled a variable. In the age of broadcast media, journalists were just too few and too powerful to be managed well enough to drive a selling strategy. This is no longer true. The breadth, depth and diversity of new media channels means that PR is a function with vastly increased leverage today. Enough that it can sit at the big boys table with marketing and sales. The original PR guy, P. T. Barnum only succeeded because he was in the circus business, a business that naturally lends itself to spectacle and buzz-creation. But today, anyone can choose to lead with PR.
So, with that detour out of the way, how does the 3-way play out? The computing industry offers a near perfect case study. Apple is as pure a marketing-led company as you can hope to find. Microsoft breathes sales. And Google is entirely a PR-constructed narrative.
Do the three selling strategies support my basic psychological claims? Absolutely.
Apple is led by a guy who likes himself to the point that he doesn’t care at all what others think about him. And his customers are all people who like themselves too. The best piece of evidence is probably the Mac vs. PC ads. The entire campaign was about self-perceptions. The product-focused ads? They sell to self-perceptions and personal identities as well. Their effectiveness relies on people knowing that they strongly prefer highly visual and tactile interfaces. The archetypical Apple customer is so well-defined that he or she is practically a caricature: a dancing hipster with eclectic musical tastes who drives certain types of cars.
Which is why Microsoft’s response was so effective in turn. Rather than accept the self-perception/identity based framing, they reframed the contest. The entire “I am a PC” was highly personal. You get faux-real people with names and faces. Not actors modeling abstract Claritas PRIZM psychographic personas. And Microsoft’s entire selling strategy is sales-driven: OEM partnerships, large enterprise sales, institutional channel partnerships and the like; it’s all 1:1 work. We all know you can only buy Macs at certain prices from a few places. Microsoft software? You are a complete sucker if you routinely pay sticker price. If you can’t find a deal through your company or school, you are subsidizing the rest of us. The “likes other people” bit is also at work. Most Microsoft people I’ve met tend to be friendly, down-to-earth and dressed-down (one sales guy I met wore a suit but carried a backpack; a bit of gaucherie that would probably invite a death sentence in an Apple store). Spend five minutes talking to any Microsoft rep, and they will have ruefully, but confidently acknowledged and laughed at Microsoft’s brand image issues, and made sure you like them even if you don’t like Microsoft. Interacting with Apple people in an Apple store on the other hand, is a slightly intimidating experience, like shopping at an upscale clothing store.
And what about Google? They don’t advertise. They know your name and everything about you but they don’t even attempt to personalize or customize your experience. Instead they spread stories about great buffets, whiteboards with “Don’t Be Evil” scribbled on them, and how Brin and Page insist on less than 7 +/- 2 items on the Google home page. They make sure that every geek knows that in PageRank, it is Page as in Larry, not as in Web. Every marketer recoils in horror at a brand name being commoditized into the category name (Asprin, Kleenex, Xerox). But Google doesn’t care that Google has become a generic verb. Unlike marketing and sales brand equity, PR brand equity is amplified when a brand becomes the category generic name. And perhaps the most compelling evidence of Google’s PR-driven culture? They mangle their logo every chance they get (know any other major brand that allows this?), to reflect PR opportunities. Remember our hypothetical kid selling salty lemonade on Diwali? Google offered this Diwali logo to Indian users in 2008:
I rest my case.
But let’s get back to my colored egg argument. Why can’t you do all three? Why can’t the marketing department focus on identity and personalization, sales on tastes and personalization, and PR on ideas in the environment and contextualization?
There are two reasons: people and product. But first let’s marshal the evidence that you cannot do all three. It is only a weak proof-by-non-existence, but strong enough for me.
And One Function Shall Rule Them All
The IMC/Whole Egg idea is largely viewed as a failed vision today. Some are resurrecting the idea based on the convergence of media, but unconverged media was never what held the Whole Egg idea back in the first place. It was the mutual-exclusivity among messaging styles. A personalized, customized and contextualized message is a complicated and schizophrenic message: “Hey Joe, how about taking some of the best lemonade in town to the beach today?” The passer-by has walked past by the time you can get that sentence out. Effective messaging is about making choices.
Today, most companies clearly reveal their selling colors. Integrated or not, there are no white eggs to be seen. It’s all red, green, or blue dominated.
In our computer industry example, I pointed out how the dominant function colors (or contaminates, depending on your point of view) the subservient functions. Another place you can find evidence of “One Must Rule” dynamics is in post-sales. This is the fourth major customer-facing function that usually goes unnoticed in discussions like this one. But it is a selling function all the same: retention is cheaper than acquisition in general, and customer service is the major retention (and upselling) touchpoint. When a company has its act together and doing post-sales well, you can ask: what differentiates a given high-quality customer-service department?
Does the service optimize on customization attributes? Lots of ability to tweak or change your relationship? Speed for the impatient, simplicity for the easily confused? That’s marketing-driven post-sales. Does the rep know you by name, and does your call get routed to the same rep everytime? Sales is in the driving seat. Receiving a lot of contextualized offers like relevant holiday specials? That’s a PR post-sales show (this is as yet quite rare, but Amazon, another PR-driven idea company, is a good example: look at their rare advertising, it is about ideas. They fought back against the me-me-me iPad ads with “read on the beach in sunlight” idea).
Initial Conditions and Egg Color
So why does this happen?
First people drive the equation. The founder vision is based on the foundational selling personality. Jobs is a marketer; we know a lot about him because he likes himself (all those black shirt stories). Ballmer is a high-energy salesman, and Gates is down-to-earth. Where Jobs appears on a stage alone, holding an audience in thrall, Gates shared the screen with Jerry Seinfeld, an entertainer who might have overshadowed him, and the focus was on the banter between them. You see him in conversation (with Warren Buffet for instance) more often than you see him speaking from a stage.
Brin and Page clearly like their personalities to fuel the news, rather than cultivating either a personal brand or an interpersonal style. I know nothing about either of them. I’ve only once seen a video of Brin addressing a classroom. Both have been reduced to the ideas they represent. Heck, Page is part of their main idea, PageRank. They’ve even ceded the people stuff to Schmidt, and made it hard to even tell them apart (compared to how clearly you can tell the two Apple Steves apart, or Gates, Allen and Ballmer apart).
Why does this matter? Like attracts like and you get massive initial condition effects, both in terms of customer base and employee base (and remember, many of the best employees start as passionate customers). People who like people join Microsoft. People who like themselves join Apple. People who like ideas join Google.
Second, product drives the equation, also indirectly via people. People who like themselves build what they want, and then sell it to others through the force of their personalities. People who like others do customer-driven product development. It is blindingly obvious that Jobs has designed every major Apple product to his tastes, and sold them to people who share those tastes. Microsoft? Well, apparently Windows 7 was your idea. Even before Windows 7, you could always personalize PCs more than you could Macs. And Google of course, is the quintessential “idea” product (the core ideas for both Apple and Microsoft, by contrast, came from various outside sources, which included my mothership Xerox).
Curiously, Facebook is apparently “none of the above” and a true engineering culture. Zuckerberg reportedly tries to hire engineers even for non-engineering functions. Perhaps that explains why Facebook appears to suck at all three: their brand image is weak (poor marketing), and they’ve ceded control of their PR to an unfriendly Aaron Sorkin (their sales face is an unknown quantity to me, but I am betting it is weak as well).
But engineering cannot sell products. A customer-facing function must lead. Facebook has bought time by being miles ahead on engineering, and getting mileage out of selling to engineers (by pioneering the open API/developer relationships strategy), but at some point, I think they’ll be forced to choose. Unless they end up as a true monopoly, in which case they’ll be able to get away with it.
What is Corporate Culture?
In my review of Tony Hsieh’s book about Zappo’s, I voiced my deep ambivalence towards the very idea of corporate culture. Besides the obvious problems of fostering groupthink and hiring of clones, which I pointed out, the very idea of identifying culture through a bottom-up-plus-top-down shared values exercise deeply bothers me. In the seven dimensions post, I went further and argued that culture is an outcome of other variables, especially the customer-facing functions, and that attempting to control it directly or indirectly was a dangerous thing.
On the face of it, the “shared values” model of corporate culture is clearly ridiculous. For most people religious values (including the choice to be non-religious) are at the core of their value system. If you truly wanted to base corporate culture on shared values, you’d be dead before you started. In fact it would be illegal in most democracies.
So apparently we only look for shared values in some areas. And non-core areas at that.
Which brings me to my final conclusion on the subject of corporate culture: you don’t need to share core values (impossible) or all values (idiotic and impossible). You just need to share your selling values.
This means, when you are wondering whether or not to join a particular company based on cultural fit, you should ask: what’s your preferred selling style (and everybody’s got one, whether or not they are in a selling profession). Do you like selling based on self-perceptions, starting with your own self-perception (sign: you can sell best to people like yourself)? Join a marketing-driven company. Do you like getting to know people and selling in personalized ways (sign: you can sell to anybody)? Join a sales-driven company. And finally, do you like selling ideas (sign: you can sell to anyone who “gets” it; they don’t have to like you or be like you)? Join a PR-driven company.
As companies mature, the original culture remains, but weakens and diversifies. If your selling style is strongly defined, join an early stage company with a very strong culture. A primary-colored egg. If you don’t lean strongly one way or the other, join a mature company with a weakened founding culture, and lots of local silo flavors. A more colorful egg, but still with a dominant primary hue.
The Story of this Post
Besides my previous posts logically leading up to this one, some interesting recent events led me to this conclusion. In the last month or so, I met three people who seemed to be strongly influenced by my ideas, but disagreed with me in very specific and puzzling ways. Thinking about it led to a personal realization: I am an idea-driven-sales guy, and PR is my medium. I almost never personalize or customize, but I often contextualize (though I don’t lean towards PR in an extremist way, which explains why I am comfortable in a more mature sales-first company like Xerox). But of the three people I met, two have been sales-first people, and one has been marketing first (the three of you know who you are!).
So that explains that mystery. It also explains why, looking back on my personal history of selling or hiring people to sell, I’ve pretty much always gone with a PR-first decision. When I haven’t, the decision has backfired badly. I can now read a new meaning into a really old (2007) post of mine, How to be an Idea Person. All my lemonade stand experiences that I described there were PR-driven.
By the way, the solution to problem posed in the title: to fix your IMC strategy, you need to paint your whole egg (or rather, stop being in denial about the fact that it is colored).