When Marketing Experience Lends Perspective

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 06, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Over the years, I've endured my share of jokes about having worked in marketing. Never mind that it's only one of many fields in which I've worked, nor that I always tried  to work from a technical understanding of what I was promoting; the average marketer and programmer think so differently that the ribbing is inevitable. I'm just glad that so much of it has been good-natured. But part of me has always been slightly ashamed of my marketing experience -- until this last week, when I realized that knowing a little about marketing has twice helped me to keep me some perspective when those around me were losing theirs.

The first occasion was the Google Glass demo last week (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7TB8b2t3QE). Probably, you saw the video, with the skydiver landing on the roof of the Moscone Center in San Francisco, wirelessly streaming video on the way down, then passing on his Glass unit to bicycle couriers and rappelling to the ground.

As a promotional event, it was brilliant. It not only got people talking, but it transferred the excitement to Google Glass itself. Within hours of the event, usually hard-headed techies were exclaiming in wonder and suddenly longing to buy Glass for themselves.

What I heard, however, was the artificial excitement of hype, the manufactured urgency of rushing the Glass unit to the stage. Given my marketing background that was enough to activate my skepticism; in my experience, the harder the sell, the less the substance.

And sure enough, that was what the demo offered. When you ignore the hype, what did you see? A mildly interesting engineering problem of wireless streaming -- a modification, extension, and recombination of existing technology, rather than an innovation. But the average person would never stop and take a reality check while listening to the breathless commentary of the demo.
In fact, the demo was designed to ensure that you had no time for second thought. It was always pretending that there was a tremendous hurry to deliver the Glass unit to the stage when the truth was, the audience was so absorbed by the unfolding drama that it would have waited much longer, buoyed up by its own excitement. It was only my habit, ingrained in several years of marketing of analyzing presentation that made me largely immune to the reaction everyone else was experiencing.

Of course, none of what I am saying is any prediction of how Google Glass is going to do as a commercial product. If anything, the enthusiasm with which the demo was greeted suggests that Glass will be hugely successful. But I found it ironic to reflect that, had I come from a purely geek background, I probably would have succumbed to the vicarious excitement like everyone else.

Not Using the Linux Brand
The second example is the reaction to how companies like Canonical and Google shy away from using the word "Linux." Instead, they refer to their own brands, such as Ubuntu and Android in their advertising and on their web sites. At times, you often have to search hard to find any mention of the word "Linux" at all.

This tendency enrages many members of the free software community, including some journalists (https://larrythefreesoftwareguy.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/adios-ubuntu/). They argue that such usages show that commercial companies have forgotten their roots, and are claiming to have invented free software instead of simply benefitting from it. And, to a large extent, I sympathize with such sentiments. I mean, who do Canonical and Google think they're kidding?

This longstanding grievance surfaced again recently when Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols pointed out recently that Linux isn't used because it has negative connotations outside the free software community. (http://www.zdnet.com/why-google-and-ubuntu-dont-say-linux-7000000221/). As Nichols writes, to the average person, "Linux" means "hard-to-use, command-line, something that only a techie geek—and I don't mean that in a fun Big Bang Theory kind of way—could use, never mind enjoy using."

Vaughan-Nichols has hold of much of the truth, but not, I think, quite all of it. Based on my experience introducing two free software companies to the world, I suspect that the usage has an even simpler explanaton: companies like Canonical and Google aren't selling Linux. They're selling Canonical and Ubuntu, or Google or Android.

Think about it. Promoting Linux doesn't help their bottom line at all. To succeed, they need to promote their own brand, so that's what they do. Almost certainly, everything is that simple.

As for using "GNU/Linux," forget it. "GNU/Linux" is more accurate than just "Linux," but it's an inelegant compound, a next to impossible sell from a purely marketing perspective. Companies are not interested in being accurate; they're interested in being well-known and easily remembered.

Yes, companies like Canonical and Google could show more respect for their origins (although, let's not forget that Google annually contributes to dozens of projects through their Summer of Code alone). All the same, I have a hard time getting angry at such companies for acting like companies -- especially when in the past I followed the same basic logic. It's just companies acting like companies. When I read about something like "the Ubuntu kernel," I just smile at the foibles of marketing and move along to topics more worthy of my disdain or outrage.

Something to have experienced
Much of the reaction to events in the free software community is a mixture of consumerism, technical interest, and altruism. My reactions are generally composed of the same mix. However, as this week reminded me, what's missing from this mix is a sense of business in general and marketing in particular.

In the last eight years, I've never regretted leaving marketing behind. Even though I prided myself on being ethical, too much of marketing amounted to a daily testing of my standards, a constant questioning of whether a moral line might be crossed or not.

But, like many less than pleasant experiences, now that period of my life is over, I'm glad to have survived it. I realize now that it has gives me a more realistic perspective than I would otherwise have had -- one that can be useful in evaluating and commenting on what's happening around me.


  • re: When Marketing Experience Lends Perspective

    I agree that your marketing experience has helped your clear perspective. I note some including my self talking about how Sergi Brin is Tony Stark. Not considering the closed source perspective that is written in to the Tony Stark/ Iron Man time line.

    But at least there is not the Reality Distortion field around these brands like there is with all of the iEverything from Apple. Clearly that has to do with the group that these products are targeted to.

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