Dear CMO:

The Case for Democracy is hardly a standard marketing textbook. But then again, we said that about Mao’s On Guerrilla Warfare and about Seneca’s letters, so it’s in good company. Sharansky discusses his own experiences in exile within the old Soviet Union as well as his reflections on geopolitics in general in this book, and its worth a read. It’s been a while since I read it, but it literally fell off a bookshelf in my home and hit me the other day, so I felt compelled to say something about it. And, as with most books which discuss conflict in its various forms, marketing lessons — in this case, very good ones — begin to emerge. What marketing lessons can we draw from Natan Sharansky? Here’s three.

1. Don’t appease. Defeat.

Buying a competitor because it adds scale or because they happen to have distribution that you could easily compete for and win is a waste of time and money. Compete and win.

If a competitor has something you truly don’t have, can’t build, or won’t succeed in accomplishing on your own, ask yourself a few important questions, starting with, “do I have the right people handling the problem.” If you’re in Best Buy and you buy another vendor at Best Buy because, heck, you’d like to have more space at Best Buy, reconsider your plan. Just earn more of the planogram by providing a better return.

2. Detente doesn’t work when your business is on the line.

It’s great for everyone to get along. All things being equal, it’s nice when everyone is nice. This doesn’t always happen. Channel partners demand more than you’re willing to give and some knucklehead whose income is largely derived from the health and well being of that same channel partner will sputter, “the customer is always right!” which is usually wrong. More on this another time, but suffice it to say that channel partners and customers are not the same thing.

Hard decisions need to be made, both inside the company and out. And while there’s no need for unprofessional or otherwise antisocial behavior, you have to be willing to make hard decisions and be OK with not being liked sometimes. If I have my antiquities quote correct, it was Marcus Aurellius who said, “it is the fate of leaders to provide for the people, and be hated for it.”

3. Fear based cultures fail.

I’m aware of a Silicon Valley company that has gone through eight marketing chiefs in four years. We’ve all worked at a company, or had a boss, or knew a guy who knew a guy who believed that fear was a positive motivator and that better results came from people who didn’t know where they stood.

Fortunately, there’s a whole body of research that supports why that guy needs to get fired. Fear based cultures fail because they never gain mindshare, never tap into people’s creativity, never retain enough loyalty to gut it out when things aren’t going well, and never achieve enough team cohesion to produce the results that happen when people are at cause for their teams and companies. Open societies and cultures also throw off open debate, sometimes heated, but always aimed at a purpose that is in everyone’s best interests. It is a generative argument, not the other kind. Better results come from passionate people working together than isolated people working against their co-workers.

These are archetypal lessons that happen to apply to a life of marketing and of leadership in general. If you’re a fan of the book, I’m sure you’ll find more of the same.


(Photo courtesy of Flickr)