Why Marketing Clashes With Management

The Boardroom Battle Is Really a Fight Between Logical, Left-Brain Executives and Visual, Right-Brain Marketers

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Al Ries
Al Ries
"Why do we have trouble selling our ideas to top management?" I recently asked my daughter and partner, Laura.

"Dad," she replied, "they're not like us. They're left-brainers."

And therein lies the biggest problem in business today: Left-brain management and right-brain marketing don't see eye to eye. Management is verbal, logical and analytical. Marketing is visual, intuitive and holistic.

How does the opposition manifest itself? Left-brainers are usually good talkers. Right-brainers are usually good writers. Marketing types think visually. They deal in words, of course, because marketing's ultimate objective is to own a word in the mind. But they want simple words that can easily be visualized.

For example, that's why management's decision to upgrade Boston Chicken to Boston Market was such a mistake. You can visualize "rotisserie chicken," but how do you visualize "market"?

Focusing on coffee
Another case in point: Several years ago, Starbucks invited a guru to help management define its singular goal.

Howard Schultz returned Starbucks' focus from 'nurturing and inspiring the human spirit' to coffee.
Howard Schultz returned Starbucks' focus from 'nurturing and inspiring the human spirit' to coffee. Credit: Kristin Callahan
The resulting statement -- "To be one of the most well-known and respected organizations in the world known for nurturing and inspiring the human spirit" -- according to a former executive, "guides us, anchors us and inspires us to this day."

When Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks, he immediately focused on coffee.

"Starbucks Going Back to the Bean," was the headline in USA Today. "We'll spill out more coffee than most coffee shops sell," Mr. Schultz said in the article.

Managers talk about nurturing and inspiring the human spirit. Entrepreneurs talk about coffee.

Most entrepreneurs -- think Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell -- are right brainers. When entrepreneurs grow up, however, they often fall into management mode and let their left-brain subordinates take over.

Logical, analytical thinking tends to build confidence in a person's ability to predict the future. After all, if you've studied a situation in great detail, then you should be able to foresee what will happen next.

If there are a number of strategic moves on the table, there's no room for discussion if a CEO weighs in with his or her assessment. "We will do strategic move A because it will produce the best results in the future." Discussion over.

Al Ries is is co-author of the forthcoming book "War in the Boardroom," which will be released Feb. 24. Mr. Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, a marketing consulting firm he runs with his partner and daughter Laura Ries. Their website, ries.com, and leftrightbrainquiz.com, have a simple quiz to determine if you are a left-brainer or a right-brainer.
Certainty is the mark of a left brainer, whereas holistic right-brainers are never quite sure. Before Dietrich Mateschitz, founder of Red Bull, introduced his unique beverage, he tested the concept. "People didn't believe the taste, the logo, the brand name ... a disaster," he was quoted as saying at the time.

But he introduced Red Bull anyway, something a right-brain entrepreneur would do but not something the logical thinkers at most big companies would do.

Management deals in facts and figures, an analytical approach to a problem. In short, management deals in reality. Marketing, meanwhile, deals in perception. What matters to marketing people are not the so-called facts but what's in consumers' minds.

Bet on perceptions
Last year, Hyundai introduced its $40,000 car, the Genesis. "All we're doing is bringing people to the truth -- the quality, residual value and safety technology," said John Krafcik, VP-product planning at Hyundai Motor America.

That might be the truth, but the perception is that Hyundai is a cheap car. So who is going to win this battle? Most marketing people would bet on perception. (Didn't Hyundai notice the fate of Volkswagen's $100,000 Phaeton?)

Dietrich Mateschitz introduced Red Bull even though in tests 'people didn't believe the taste, the logo, the brand name ... a disaster.'
Dietrich Mateschitz introduced Red Bull even though in tests 'people didn't believe the taste, the logo, the brand name ... a disaster.'
Management's first thought is to expand the business. At Home Depot, one of Robert Nardelli's first moves was to spend $6 billion to acquire 25 wholesale suppliers in order to expand the company's building-supply business -- a business Home Depot eventually sold.

Marketing's first thought is to narrow the focus. You can't build a brand if you don't stand for something in the mind. Often the best way is to isolate a single service you can dominate or an attribute you can own. That's why FedEx focused on overnight delivery.

Where would FedEx be today if the company had hired a "cost-cutting, manufacturing expert" as its CEO? Probably in the same situation as Chrysler.

Management is almost totally focused on execution. As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan write in their book "Execution": "So much thinking has gone into strategy that it's no longer an intellectual challenge. You can rent any strategy you want from a consulting firm."

Execution, wrote the two management gurus, is "the biggest issue facing business today."

IBM vs. Dell
Nobody executes better than IBM. Yet the IBM PC was a notable failure. The company reportedly lost $15 billion on personal computers during a 23-year period.

The name was wrong. IBM had a "mainframe" perception, not a personal-computer perception. And what was the marketing strategy? Who knows?

Compare IBM with Dell, a company founded in 1984 in a college dorm room by a second-year student at the University of Texas. Since then, Dell has made $25 billion in net profits.

Dell had a better name and a better strategy. Dell focused on selling personal computers direct to business, allowing customers to tailor computers to their needs.

Now that left-brain managerial types have taken over at Dell, it's been downhill.

Common sense is the gulf between logical, analytical, left-brain management and intuitive, holistic, right-brain marketing.

"Marketing takes a day to learn," said Phil Kotler, America's most famous marketing professor, "but a lifetime to master."

Apparently management is a lot easier to master. "Management, I had discovered, is not something mysterious or conceptually difficult," writes management guru Charles Handy. "Its difficulty lies in applying the ideas, not in the ideas themselves."

Michael Dell found success where IBM didn't by selling personal computers tailored to customer needs.
Michael Dell found success where IBM didn't by selling personal computers tailored to customer needs.
Marketing ideas, on the other hand, are conceptually difficult because they contradict common sense -- because they deal with changing human perceptions, an enormously difficult task. Ask any psychiatrist.

So is the battle lost? Not at all. But a marketing person has to sell a marketing idea to management in management terms -- not in marketing terms.

Forget the dog and pony shows. Use analytical tools to sell holistic concepts. Use facts, figures, market shares and other data to sell intuitive ideas to a logical thinker.

And don't just sell a concept; sell an analogy. "We should do what Grey Goose did -- launch a high-end brand." Or "We should do what Apple did -- launch a second brand like the iPod."

Right-brain marketing people should think conceptually but present those conceptual ideas to left-brain management with analogies buttressed by logical, analytical explanations.

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