Are You Too Special?


The Princess Bride is one of the best movies of all time. Fight me.

In one many classic scenes, Princess Buttercup shouts at Westley: “You mock my pain!” Westley’s response: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.” 

I picture a similar scene playing out in the boardroom. The frustrated young CMO is trying to explain that every time he evolves his marketing teams toward a new strategic approach, they inevitably find themselves behind the curve.

“We’ve changed three times in the last five years,” he says. “We had our digital-first initiative, then our specialty focus on social, then our customer experience teams, and now we’re transforming into content and first-party data. How can we know what’s next?!?” 

The CEO says, “Why does it matter? Isn’t it just marketing?” 

“You mock my change!” the exasperated CMO blurts out. The CEO leans back and puts her hands behind her head. “Strategy IS change, Mister. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.”

And do we ever have a lot of people trying to sell us something. What specialty-skills strategy is your team evolving toward now? There are a lot of candidates – direct marketing, digital, social, account-based marketing, agile marketing, drip marketing, inbound, influencer, personalization, mobile-first, search, customer experience, human-to-human, one-to-one, data-driven marketing, cause marketing, conversation marketing, cultural marketing, performance-based, permission, and, of course, content marketing.

The challenge comes when marketing dives headfirst into one or more of these and develops a marketing specialty because it’s what the world believes is the next new thing.

In medicine, this “specialty bias” is common. Doctors tend to know much more about the treatments they provide than about alternative approaches provided by other specialists. As you might expect, the answer to whatever it is you have happens to be what they know. Ironically, even when patients are made aware of this bias, they tend to be even more persuaded by the recommendation.  Experiments show that when physicians disclose their bias during a recommendation, patients trust them and more often choose to have the surgical treatment recommended.   

We see this happening in marketing all the time. As marketing rallies around a particular specialty, the teams start to see the specialty as the answer to every challenge. It’s not uncommon for me to work with clients where there’s no central, ongoing, strategic process for marketing’s evolution – everyone just points to “digital” as the answer. “Strategy” (to the extent it exists at all) is a once per year event, where priorities and budgets are set – and then it’s off to the races.

It sounds weird, but it’s common to see marketing’s entire agenda being set by technology features, a myopic focus on the processes already established, and the specialized skill sets of the teams in place.

The key to answering the specialty challenge is to evolve marketing strategy beyond these annual events.

Instead, marketing strategy should be an ongoing function that balances the depth of specialty needs and the general skill of constant change.

Marketing strategy doesn’t exist to guide our change into some new thing. Marketing strategy exists to help align priorities and build our operation into one that has the ability to change. Full stop.

When that happens, our response to necessary change can be as simple as it is in The Princess Bride: “As you wish.”

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