I’m feeling chatty today. Grab a beverage and we’ll get started.

I have a few strengths, and one of them is having a knack of noticing patterns. I’m attuned to serendipity. Coincidences. Trends. Whatever you call them.

And for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been noticing that culture, corporate culture, seems to be coming up again and again in conversation.

And that’s rarely a good thing.

Last week I met with an old colleague. She described a company we’d both worked with as “practicing activity for activity’s sake.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it?

Then another prospect described her channel partner as “moving slow, like a 19th century railroad.”

Ouch. Even worse.

Then I met an old friend for drinks, who had recently joined a start-up. He described it as “full of true believers. You know, like a cult.”


What’s going on here? Are my friends all pessimists?

I don’t know, but I think these kinds of cultures are common in business.

I’d bet you’ve bumped into them.

Whether you’ve worked for these companies, or sold to them, or just used their services in your personal life, you’ve come companies with…awkward, counterproductive corporate cultures.

And I think it’s natural to reflect on how corporate culture relates to personal satisfaction, professional success, or business results. Most of us work inside organizations, and organizational culture brings in a set of strengths…and weaknesses.

But as a marketing consultant, these coincidences made me think about the ways corporate culture influences marketing.

Here’s my hunch. I think corporate culture has a huge, often overlooked influence on marketing. Come to think of it, I think corporate cultures sometimes limit the impact marketing, and marketers, can have. I even suspect that corporate culture can break marketing — keep it from having any impact at all.

None of that sounds good, does it?

Let’s explore what I mean.

Example #1: The Doer, “Activity for Activity’s Sake”


I had a client, years ago, who hired me to create a lead nurturing campaign for a set of solutions. I was happy to do it, but asked a simple question.


I was baffled when the client couldn’t answer. I then pressed her to explain what she was expecting to make happen, and she said, “I don’t know, but I do know that I have to be doing something.”

That was an honest answer. Wrongheaded, but honest. You see, she was a Doer.

I used to be a Doer, and I see a lot of Doers in companies that have or had a quantitative management style. In those companies, measurement matters, action is life, and inaction is death. It’s publish or perish — or your year-end review won’t be pleasant.

As a result, my client decided that a lead nurturing campaign – even one without a purpose —  would nurture her career.

And you know, in some companies, she would have been right, too.

But the funny thing was that the company she worked for had HUNDREDS of these sort of campaigns going, each and every month.

I told her, though she refused to listen, that she was, in effect, standing in the middle of a crowd, shouting, while all her peers were busy shouting too.

Noisy place.

And what was the result of her campaign? Can you guess?

Well, it didn’t stand out, didn’t make a difference, didn’t impress the executives, and didn’t connect with customers.


Because the company was full of doers. That was the corporate culture. Employees weren’t paid to think. They weren’t paid to plan. They were paid to do. Action for the sake of action.

And prospects were overwhelmed by the endless supply of marketing coming from the company. I went ahead and put my email address in a database to see what was happening, and within a week, I had over 80 emails in my Inbox.

I’m not joking. It wasn’t funny.

Well, I tried to change things. I suggested lining up with her peers and crafting a long-term plan.  I asked her to cut back on marketing, be more targeted, think through the implications of all the noise.

I made the point that she needed to try something different.

But she was too nervous about standing out, about running a risk with her career, about going against the culture, so she went with the same old campaign. Again.

It went nowhere. Again. Big surprise.

I’m glad I encountered this, it was a good learning experience for me. But I still feel bad for the client who thought that action – any action – was the goal. It isn’t. Right action is the goal.

Moving along…


Example #2: The Waiter, “Moving slow, like a 19th century railroad.”

Weeks ago, I met with a prospect. He wasn’t trying to serve me dinner, mind you, but he was a Waiter in every other way.  He worked for a company whose motto ought to be, “Slow is best.”

Like my first example, this prospect was ruled by worry. But he wasn’t worried about his career. He was worried about trying something new.

He told me, proudly, that he relied on advertising in trade magazines. That’s what he had always done, he felt like he had a clear sense of the ROI, and so he was comfortable and content.

Nothing wrong with that tactic, for his product. But revenues were down. WAY down. So he was looking for new ideas.

I suggested social media. Nope, “too millennial.”

I suggested webinars. Nope, “executives wouldn’t support them.”

I suggested an email campaign. Nope, “didn’t have the infrastructure.”

I suggested partner marketing. Nope, “that was another team.”

So I wrapped up and marched away, in hope that he’d understand that waiting for a new approach was a desperate kind of insanity.

But to be fair to him, he works in a company that is full of Waiters. They pride themselves on being fast followers – though their version of “fast” is typically 2-3 years behind the innovators.

In marketing meetings, they love to sit around and talk about industry trends, rather than trying to capitalize on those trends.

In other words, they “wait” to see what will happen. Which leaves them with no control over their destiny. Or ability to drive sales. Or will to make a difference.

Last I heard, they’re being spun off. Or bought. Or liquidated. Or merged. Nobody seems to know, and I suspect, no one really cares. Because a company full of Waiters is a company that isn’t making a difference. They’re just moving the same old dishes around, instead of feeding the hungry.

I’m so glad I walked away. Bad culture, bad thinking, bad outcomes. They would have driven me insane.


Example #3: The True Believer, “You know, like a cult.”

Many years ago, I came across a small team that owned a complex enterprise product. To be fair, it was a good product. Despite it only having one distinctive feature, it was solid, it did the job, pricing was okay, and people were happy with it.

But this team believed that the product was awesome, and the corporate culture reinforced that belief. According to this team, anyone who tried the product, loved it. That was the culture. Our product is awesome and smart people love it.

That’s good, right? Well, not entirely.

For the clique who believed in the product, life was good. But what happened to the other 99.5% of the market who didn’t buy the product?

Well, those knuckleheads got blown off.

This team had a kind of disdain for acquiring new customers. They spent most of their effort on customer events. They seemed to think that their existing customer base was going to let them take over the world, even though the market was saturated and their key differentiator was smart, but not amazing.

But, gosh darn it, their customers were raving fans! All 300 of them. So let’s have parties and teach them how to use the product they bought.

Percentage of marketing budget spent making existing customers happy? 85%

Percentage of marketing budget spent on anything else? 15%

You can see where this went. The product is still around, and it’s grown, to be sure, but it’s not very visible. As I wrote this post, I checked to see what their marketing team had been done in the past year. I turned up a press release, an analyst report, and two blog posts. That’s not much. I guess they’re still having parties, I don’t know.

What’s really frustrating is that, from one perspective, this culture is doing many things right. There’s a lot to be said for believing in your product, there’s a lot to be said for a strong retention plan, and there’s a lot to be said for events.  True Believers are easy to like and enjoyable to work with because they’re just so Gosh-darned happy.

Until you challenge their basic belief.

On the one hand, you want a culture where marketers are encouraged to believe in the product, because that passion does attract and retain customers. And of course, happy, thrilled customers can be a great source of marketing. Case studies, product reviews, videos, I spend my days taking happy customers’ feedback and turning it into marketing, so I’m always glad when customers love the product.

On the other hand, marketers can’t be so obsessed with the product that they fail to engage the skeptics. Marketers have to grow the business. They must relate to prospects who don’t believe in the product – even ones that are critical and crabby. They need to drive awareness, educate, convince, reassure, and engage.

If they don’t engage the skeptics, they’re not marketers.

Here’s what happens with the true believer mentality if it goes too far. It can lead an organization toward spending most of its marketing budget on activities that didn’t drive growth.

I kid you not. I watched it happen.

Having a tribe is a good thing. Holing up in your hotel ballroom with your tribe and shutting the doors? That’s a bad idea. If your marketing is aimed at a clique, you have a problem. Your culture is getting in your way.


Wrapping Up


So we’ve looked at three examples of cultural blindness. And don’t misunderstand me, these are probably extreme examples. If you have a great corporate culture, maybe it won’t get in your way.

But if you have a terrible culture, as a marketer, it is GOING to get in your way. I promise.

And to make matters worse, it’s really tough to notice the problem from the inside.

So how do you isolate the problem, and solve it?

Well, if you’re working someplace with a flawed corporate culture, fixing that isn’t easy, and in many places, it’s probably impossible. But you may be able to work around it.

How? I’ll give you a clue.

If you look over the three examples I gave you, you’ll find a common thread. It’s a thread I suspect exists in any corporate culture that impedes marketing.

It has many names. Inflexibility. Groupthink. Intolerance for dissent. Tradition. Habit. Fear.

If your corporate culture is limiting your choices, then it’s breaking your marketing. Messages, tactics, targets, whatever – if you’re feeling blocked from pursuing a new way forward, if everyone is afraid of trying something new, if you’re sitting around with a bunch of people doing the same thing, then there’s a good chance that your culture is to blame.

So what’s to be done?

I’m not going to lie to you and say that I have a brilliant solution for it – because I’m just a marketing guy, not an organizational psychologist.

But as a thinker I have a hunch. Maybe the real answer for working around cultural limitations in marketing is the same answer as working around cultural limitations in personal life.

If you need to drive your life in a new direction, don’t you do something new? Something uncomfortable? Something risky?

I think it’s the same in marketing.

Try something new. Something different. Something risky. Sometime quick, or slow, or against the grain, or nerve-racking. Resist being blocked by a bad corporate culture. Push back when someone says No. Get out of the rut. Make a difference.

Because I ask you one final question — if your campaigns always look the same, are aimed at the same audience, and use the same tactics, can you really expect to grow, as a company…and as a marketer?

Brian E Whitaker is a marketing consultant, specializing in complex technologies. His virtual team at Zettabyte Content helps market datacenter technologies, cloud computing, mobile applications, and IoT. He can be reached by emailing brianw@zbcontent.com.


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