Marketing: Six Degrees of Truth

Most of my career has been either in IT or in product companies. For a short time I was an Industry Analyst. During that time I spoke with many CEOs, on a regular basis. By far, my favorite was Scott Kriens, then Juniper Networks CEO, and still Chairman. The great thing about Scott, in the capacity I interacted with him, was that he always made you feel like he was actually listening to you, and engaged with you. One day Scott gave a presentation without any slides. Afterwards I asked him why. His rationale was he saw it as his job to build a relationship with the audience and slides just got in the way.

While I’ve been known to use slides occasionally, the sentiment always stuck with me. While relationships are important in all facets of our lives, they are central to the way I think about marketing. Marketing, in combination with many other company activities, is building a relationship with prospective customers, current customers, and for some marketeers, with the company’s own employees.

The catchall we use for that relationship is “Brand”. What values are associated with a company, what comes to mind when people think of a company, and what promises is the company making that people can depend on.

Figure 1. Framework for “truths” that have to be navigated by marketing professionals

Central to brand, IMO, is how companies navigate the many shades of grey that emerge with respect to the truth. I have been noodling on that issue for the last couple of years. It was also one of the first issues I confronted when I did my first marketing job in the mid-90’s.

In life you do come across a few people who live at the edges of the proverbial bell curve. There are pathological liars and will say anything to get what they want in life or avoid confrontation. There are also those for which the 100% literal truth, as they define it, is the only thing that is acceptable. This article does not deal with either of those extremes. The focus in this article is the majority of us in the center of the bell curve just trying to navigate everyday business issues.

Zone 1 — Don’t go there!

Figure 2. Zone 1 — Never was and never will be true

The first zone in the framework is zone 1: the temptation to make statements that never were and very likely never will be true. Sometimes Marketing people end up making statements in this zone through ignorance. They are not close enough to the product/technology to know better, something was communicated in a misleading way, or some decision was made they were not in the loop for. Different marketeers are better or worse at navigating this challenge.

However, the really big whoppers come when marketeers are stretching to land somewhere that is differentiating and/or opens the doors for sales people.

I once worked for a company that was entering a new space. The marketing message for that new space was based on something that did not logically make sense to promote, and even if it did, was not structurally possible because it depended on groups working together that had different missions and different criteria for how they prioritized development. Sales people were being sent out to make the case for something that was never going to be true. Sales Engineers of course were the ones that bore the brunt of this messaging strategy, with some sales people being willing to tow the company line if it at least opened some doors for them.

Personally, the way I approach marketing, I don’t want to be anywhere near zone 1. The potential to damage relationships with the sales team, customers, and other stakeholders is high in my opinion. Damage to the brand is a high probability in my opinion.

Zone 3 — The Happy Place

Figure 3. Zone 3 — The Happy Place

I will now Skip to Zone 3, the other end of the spectrum to Zone 1, before coming back to Zone 2. I call Zone 1 the “Happy Place”. If as a marketer you are dealing with statements that are already true, or soon will be true, then you are in a fairly safe place, with a low probability of doing brand damage.

The challenge with the happy place is that pressure may emerge to be more “flamboyant”, more “marketing” like, either because that is what some stakeholders believe marketing is all about, or because there are real challenges in crafting a differentiated message.

When there are real challenges in crafting a differentiated message, some marketing professionals will jump to zone 1. Personally, I prefer to roll up my sleeves, double down on the time I am spending with product people and engineers, and if the product is getting any traction at all, then there is a story there to be found about how it addresses customer problems. It is just a matter of digging for the story and finding it. Dig for the story or jump to zone 1? Again, this will depend on the propensities of the marketer.

Zone 2 — Proceed with caution

Zone 2 is tricky landscape to navigate. The longer out in time something will be true, the larger the opportunity for it to never be true. Resources might get reallocated, the execution may be poor, or the conceptual framework may change. For any number of reasons, a marketer can be left with egg on her face if the message is built around something that is a long way out in time.

Figure 4. Zone 2 — Much grey, proceed with caution

The other scenario in this zone is something that once was true, but no one knows if it still is true. For example. a feature may have once worked, but few customers have ever used it, or it does not get rigorously tested, if at all. In theory it could still be true, but who really knows.

A similar scenario when some thing is theoretically or architecturally possible. How hard does the marketer lean in? In some cases a marketer can lean in, and if a customer is willing to pay enough, then resources will be allocated to make the theoretical a reality. Everyone is happy, no brand damage. Other times, real life development shines a new light on what was once thought theoretically possible.

In zone 2. proceed with caution, there are many land mines.


Personally I prefer to stay away from Zone 1 completely, but different people will argue about whether something will ever be true, and some people will also argue about whether saying something that may never be true is a problem. Depending on the audience, a customer’s BS radar can be very good. You could get thrown out of the room rapidly.

Figure 5. Stay mostly in Zone 3, enter Zone 2 as necessary

That leaves Zone 2 and 3. Of course, all marketers would like a product that is so clearly differentiated, they can stay in Zone 3, and merely focus on executing the mechanics of their job. There will almost always be some pressure to spend at least some messaging cycles in zone 2 or in other ways make very compelling and attention grabbing statements of campaigns. Proceed with caution.

While telling the truth has a moral and/or identity component for some people, the additional issue for a marketer is doing no harm to the brand, and the relationship being developed with the market. This has to be balanced against common pressures to grab attention, differentiate, and accelerate revenue and operating growth.

  • Zone 1 — High probability that statements are not true and brand damage is likely
  • Zone 3 — Low probability that statements are not true and brand damage is unlikely
  • Zone 2 — There is significant uncertainty about what is true, or not, and therefore there is significant uncertainty about whether brand damage will occur

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