Startup Marketing Vs. Art

On the weekend I watched Art and Copy, a 2009 documentary featuring interviews with influential folk in the advertising business past and present. One of the themes was that great creative advertising people saw their work as “art” in the sense that it was about much more than selling product.  In their minds it was “a performance” and “culture”. Good advertising, they reasoned, could make a car company more than a car company. Good advertising, according these folks, aspires to drive culture (or at least teach us something about it). If your Ads aren’t doing that, according to these folks, your marketing is crap.

The examples used in the movie were campaigns for big companies (Apple’s ads, Nike’s “Just do it”, the “Got Milk?” campaign etc.). It got me thinking – are startup marketers missing something by not striving to connect with prospects on a more “cultural” level? How many startup campaigns aspire to do more than drive clicks or registrations? Should we? If we don’t, does our marketing stink?

In the Land of Art, Revenue is Optional, For Startups, it’s Oxygen.

In the movie there was very little talk about the results of the campaigns in terms of sales. “Success” was defined by how much people liked or remembered the ads themselves. In the movie the advertising folk admitted that selling was important yet nobody offered an example of how their ads actually drove revenue.  For example, the movie hailed the “Got Milk?” campaign as a great success yet the California Milk Processor’s Board describes the results of the campaign in terms of awareness of the ads only and in reality milk consumption declined during the heyday of the campaign and continues to do so.

Armed with an engineering degree and a love of spreadsheets, I’m the kind of person that 30 years ago they wouldn’t have let anywhere near the marketing department. Most startup marketing folks look a lot like me – we’re an analytical bunch.  We’re focused on clicks, pipeline, registration, conversions. We distrust non-digital tactics because they can’t be measured. I know startups that have a higher purpose as part of their vision (CommunityLend and ECHOage are 2 local ones that come to mind) and I think all startups worry about design but that’s something completely different. I can’t think of a startup whose marketing aspires to do much more than get you to take action.

Our spending is about driving business – I’m not seeing a lot of culture-defining stuff going on and frankly that’s just fine with me.  Do your Google ads change the way people think about the world? Do your e-books make people cry? Frankly, I don’t care about that stuff as much as I care about generating some business.  I’m way too focused on revenue (i.e. survival) to make beauty for beauty’s sake. The advertising folks in that movie might accuse me of being lazy but I’d call it being practical. Too practical to spend large amounts of money on things I can’t measure.

Just Because We Aren’t Making them Cry Doesn’t Mean We Aren’t Connecting with Customers

All of that said, I do think that connecting with customers is very, very important. I’m trying to tell them stories that make them believe we can do what we say we can do. I use humor every chance I get because I know that people like to be entertained and share entertaining things. I want to make sure I’m painting a picture for prospects of how my products will make their lives/jobs better/easier/more enjoyable. The difference is that my purpose is to drive folks to take action, first and foremost. If I have to choose between making them cry and making them click, I’ll pick the click every time. Why? Because if I don’t, I might not get to run another campaign. Ever. Throwing money at artistic activities that may or may not drive revenue is a luxury that startups simply don’t have. We’ll fund art when we grow up, right now we’re just trying to grow.

So tell me startup marketing people – am I thinking too much like an engineer on this one (hey, it wouldn’t be the first time)? Tell me your stories of art-filled startup marketing.

45 thoughts on “Startup Marketing Vs. Art”

    1. Hi Jason,
      Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie and I appreciated the point of view that marketing should go beyond features and functions. That said, I think that startup marketers should refrain from following their bigger peers off of that very steep cliff 🙂
      April

  1. Hi April. I’ve been thinking about this too lately, just in a bit of a different light. Startups need a clearly expressed “Vision”. It needs to be simple, and there needs to be buy-in from everyone (employees, partners, customers, etc.). I think when you talk about art here, what you might be referring to more than anything is brand awareness, ie. the emotional or cultural argument.

    In the startup world, the cultural side of marketing is the vision. It’s even built into the more analytics-driven marketing that you talk about (focused on direct registrations, conversions, etc.).

    Most consumer web startups are driven primarily by referrals/PR, meaning they’re selling a lifestyle/vision/art as much as Nike, Apple, etc.
    Startups are just doing it at at lower cost (PR instead of creative) with a better understanding of the returns they’re achieving.

    I guess what I’m saying is maybe the “Art” is the “Big Vision” in a startup.

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I think they are interesting points to consider.

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Great comment!
      I agree that vision is really important and that is where the bigger picture stuff usually gets articulated and I agree that that vision needs to get articulated throughout the marketing tactics you do.
      What I don’t see startups doing are things closer to the Apple ipod ads or even the Just Do It ads from Nike where the focus is on lifestyle almost to the exclusion of product or offering. The “call to action” (if there is one) in most of those ads is to simply remember the ad. They take the very big leap of faith that if you like the ads then you will buy the product. Data doesn’t always support that however and there are loads of example of campaigns that were very successful in terms of awareness of the ad but that never translated back to sales.
      For startups, I think we can still make beautiful things or marketing that challenges people – what we can’t ever do is take our eye off of the revenue ball.
      Thanks for the comment!
      April

  2. April,

    Firstly great blog! I am a noveau subscriber and I enjoy reading the material.

    Looking at this post as a marketing guy, (of course the engineer in me is going to bulletize – not very artsy but very pragmatic 🙂 some of the points I can relate to:

    – Most startups do not have the financial luxury of funding artsy marketing campaigns
    – When this topic is approached from a B2B perspective, the artsy flavor disintegrates even more. B2B customers demand value from the product/service. Those folks probably associate much less with the emotional aspect of an offering unlike B2C customers
    – Even if you look at companies like Nike or Apple, during their infancy, they relied more on the value of their offering through differentiation, design, application etc and less on art
    – You hit the nail on the head when you referred to the big R – revenue which is the lifeblood of a startup. If going artsy brings in mucho moolah, do it; if not, don’t waste money going artsy for the sake of it

    As a marketing person in B2B, I have plenty of room for creativity but none for art. I don’t think my customers would tolerate art. I learnt that lesson very quickly. In the end what matters are numbers, which lead me to an important lesson for myself when creating Marcom – Quantify everything!

    1. Hi CV,
      Thanks for the comment. That’s exactly it – we can still be creative but unlike the big brands out there we can’t take a chance on artistic things where we can’t track ti back to revenue.
      April

  3. I’ve always been suspicious of big campaigns that are aimed at making me feel something about a brand. The reality is that if I don’t already feel that way, it’s hard to change my mind. People are more immune to advertising than they ever have been. Most people would prefer to be sold to than manipulated. This is a trend I can get behind.

    1. Thanks for the comment. In the movie one of the interviewee’s (I can’t remember her name) says “we can make people feel almost anything.” I really question whether or not that’s still true in an age where we have become so cynical about marketing and are so exposed to it. Your point about manipulation is a good one – does anyone want to be emotionally manipulated? If our prospects don’t want it, should we still try to do it?
      April

  4. I loved this post. I’ve had the art debate at prior companies where people seemed overly concerned with things like our “brand values”. In my mind it really didn’t make a difference to customers – they wanted us to deliver value in real ways, and they just didn’t care that much if the logo was red or blue or if the company stood for “excellence”.
    Justin

    1. Hi Justin,
      You make a good point about branding – something I’ve been suspicious of over my entire career. Maybe this debate boils down to a lead gen vs. branding debate. I’m team lead gen, that’s all I know 🙂
      April

  5. oh I laughed. oh I cried! … 🙂
    As a startup, do something awesome for your customers and you will “make them feel anything” Awesomeness, usefulness translates into marketing budget for the startup. Our customers don’t want to be manipulated, they want to be awed by your application. And that’s our job. Because when we create something awesome, that customers love, we are able to exchange their $$ for the application = happiness in the startup world (or any word for that matter).

    1. Hi Amy,
      I loved that talk. It’s more about inspirational leadership than marketing but I get what you are saying that the question “why should I care?” needs to get answered. At the same time, I think I can answer that question pretty well by talking about value in a fairly straightforward manner. I probably need to think about this one more.
      April

  6. Agree with CV (and you) that startups don’t have the deep pockets to do implied call to action ad campaigns. But that doesn’t mean that what they produce can’t be elegant and artful in and of itself. Nor does it mean that it can’t be memorable. As a startup, your campaign cannot have the goal of art in and of itself – egos of the mainstream ad agencies aside.

    Artful can be baked in and be a reflection of your goals or standards but it cannot be the goal.

    1. That’s a great way to put it – and a good point about ego. So much of the silly stuff that gets done in business is really about ego.
      Thanks for the comment Tim,
      April

  7. Milk is a late market, convergent category inside another convergent category, so art makes sense. For startups, it really depends on whether they are selling tech, or selling something else via other people’s tech. The former (B2B) can’t afford art, and won’t get much for that art. The latter (B2C) must have an art component. The latter includes almost every website out there. There is much involved in determining if art fits or is a must. Brand art is typically a substitute for technical differentiation.

    That said, an early market product can still delight, and make a user feel something. Geeks do have a UX, just not one like the consumer UX that ends up being over generalized as fitting everyone. Or, as an art peep said last night in advocating art, to hell with geeks. Sorry, no. As a stock option compensated employee, I actually make more money from the geek side of the technology adoption lifecycle than I ever will on the consumer side. The upside for the consumer side left a long time before the product got to the consumer side.

    1. HI David,
      You make a good point about late markets and early markets. When things start looking more like commodities then perhaps getting more artistic with your branding is the only way to differentiate. That said, I don’t know there there is a lot of evidence that shows that it really impacts sales (at least in this age where folks are fairly immune to being manipulated by vendors). The milk ads were seen and loved but it didn’t sell more milk.
      Thanks for the comment!
      April

  8. In 10 years as an entrepreneurial and startup marketing executive, I’ve never purchased an ad. Not one.

    My approach is somewhat tempered by the fact that I’m B2B. Nike and Apple are established consumer brands; most B2C practitioners will tell you that advertising is critical to their success. They serve highly fragmented, smallish-revenue-per-sale markets; advertising can move those markets more efficiently. Imagine a CPG product going to market without an 8-figure advertising budget.

    The legendary Philip Kotler in his recent book on B2B brand building describes PR as the best way to build a brand, advertising as the best way to maintain it. I HAVE had PR firms in every startup; with a good story, you can get a ton of article placements in general and trade press for the budget that would support one ad campaign.

    However, that still doesn’t address startups. Geoffrey Moore, of “Crossing the Chasm” fame, advocates that startups focus on the smallest market they can sub-segment, then dominate it. That can be reached directly, and influenced through PR.

    Finally, there’s the very nature of start-ups. We’re built on disruptive technologies – either products, services, or business models. Those products, if they’re actually good, catch attention and press pretty easily because they’re newsworthy and different. A combination of PR buzz-building and viral awareness can drive all the free advertising necessary for a startup to do very well indeed without relying on the rather inefficient and wickedly expensive interruption-education of customers that is advertising.

    I love art. But I go to see it in museums, not at work.

    1. Hi Aaron,
      That’s an interesting point. I’ve seen a lot of B2B advertising that seems pretty arty (i.e. it doesn’t seen to have a real immediate call to action). The IBM smarter planet ads are getting dangerously close to that. The word “Advertising” can also mean a lot of things. Most B2B companies I know are running Adwords so they are doing advertising of a sort but it’s very action-oriented (which I am a big fan of).
      I’m in total agreement with you about PR. I believe that if you manage it properly, it can be really effective. Managing it properly involves understanding what moves the needle on revenue upstream – and that’s generally NOT just awareness for awareness’s sake.
      Thanks for the comment!
      April

    2. y’all say “…startups focus on the smallest market they can sub-segment, then dominate it. That can be reached directly, and influenced through PR.”

      are you talking about direct marketing, as in postal letters, mass email (both to a qualified list), participation in online communities (forums, Q & A, facebook, etc)?

      it kind of does fall under the heading of “advertising”, and yet there is so much segmentation within advertising, so we really need to be specific. If you meant advertising by buying a full page ad in a magazine, that may not be the most effective way for a startup to generate leads for sales to convert.

      and when does a startup stop being a startup, and turn into a small business running the process of atrracting, converting, delivering, and retaining? if a startup is only out to prove it has a product to market fit, and it has found a way to sell that product using a repeatable method, then a startup doesn’t really need advertising, it needs to turn into a small business that executes it’s marketing and sales processes to grow it’s user base.

      (yikes, i’ve thrown so many buzzwords in there, i might get stung)

      1. Hi,
        You need to know how you are going to reach a market but it doesn’t have to be directly (it could be through a channel or through partners) and it doesn’t have to be influenced by PR (if you are selling big deals to large enterprises for example). It really depends on the product you are selling.
        The marketing tactics you use depends on who your potential customers are and what they do. I’m not a big fan of print advertising but that’s because it never worked for the products I was selling. If I was selling toothpaste, I’d probably do some print ads.
        As for product/market fit – see my last response.
        Hope that helps! 🙂
        April

  9. Great post and one that’s applicable to large companies as well. I’m at a B2B start-up now, but before this I was at a multi-billion dollar software company where *a lot* of money went in to reworking the logo and creating abstract visuals for ads. If the visuals were used in conjunction with a campaign that had measurable results, then we could measure success. Still, a lot of the “art” had no clear impact on sales. The best thing in the world is happy customers who will tell others about your product, and no amount of art seems to do that. The company would have been a lot better off investing the money and time in improving customer support.

    Start-ups are different (other than company size) since they are often trying to disrupt a market in some way. If we’re truly trying to improve and change the way people do things, there needs to be a strong element of customer and market education – especially in B2B. Understanding what specific messages resonate and connect with the customer is a critical part of that. Art should invoke feeling, but it doesn’t substitute for a conversation.

    I agree with some of the other comments – great PR can be tremendously helpful in providing the air cover and helping you start discussions. Social has real potential here, but as with the marketing campaigns, I want to be able to measure the results of all those Tweets and blogs! To put it another way, are the conversations having the desired impact?

    1. That’s a great comment David – so much of what we have done in the past wasn’t measurable because we couldn’t measure it. Now that we have the tools to do that, I think we should and that includes social media (in my opinion anyway).
      Thanks
      April

  10. Great topic and great post. I do think that we may be conflating a couple of different areas of discussion. Namely, there is a question of whether or not big vision/lifestyle marketing is effective and separate but SUPER importantly as you note there is a question of measurable marketing efforts. I don’t think the two things have to be mutually exclusively but in the wild I’d posit that we see different kinds of companies exhibiting different kinds of behavior depending upon where they are in their lifecycle.

    If you are trying to disrupt the PC market in 1984 and plant the seed that your personal computer brand is the future, you send a sexy woman with a sledgehammer to smash an orwellian screen-thing and then price your macintosh 50% higher. If you’re locked in a prisoner’s dilemna-style ad war with a packaged consumer products competitor that owns the other half of the market, you do massive lifestyle campaigns with attractive, smiling sexy folks and hope to infect consumers with familiarity. The question seems to me to be whether or not there is a place in startup-land for this type of mindshare-targeted activity where success won’t be discretely measured in conversions down the funnel? I think the answer is yes, but only if what you are selling is NOT a commodity and only if your value prop is implicit in your super memorable artsy messaging and (maybe most importantly) probably not forever. There is a time for art/mindshare-focus and there is a time for funnel vision.

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