Why Do All Clouds Look The Same?

Serena and Venus Williams teach us about differentiation

Like millions of Americans, I was riveted by yesterday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal match between the matchless Williams sisters. It was a chance for me, a casual tennis fan, to learn more about these two great competitors.

I now know more about the professional careers of Serena and Venus, how each of them approaches her game, and what factors led to today’s outcome. I can differentiate them much more effectively.

So it was striking to see advertising for two different companies, each promoting its cloud technology in the same way. The ads came early in the match.

First up was a spot from IBM. In the ad, a woman is at a ridiculous-looking conference full of anonymous cloud-services vendors. She meets a salesman hawking a service based on “awesomeization”. The woman reels off several features that, presumably, IBM offers. The ad closes with a message that IBM is “The Cloud That Understands Business” and that 24 of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies use the IBM cloud.

A few minutes later, Xerox debuted an ad showing a business executive beset by cliché-wielding underlings. At an airport, the executive walks past a wall of cloud services advertisements. He buys a coffee. The sleeve encourages him to “be more cloud-tastic”. The closing onscreen message informs us that “Work Can Work Better” with Xerox.

Based on its positioning, IBM thinks of itself as the market leader. It is the choice of the largest of the large companies, so it must set the standard in terms of scalability. I would also suspect IBM comes with the highest cost, customization, and set-up time. IBM is for me if I’m also a giant company, or think I will be soon.

Xerox is positioning itself as the underdog with a superior service approach. When the world of cloud brings chaos to the modern executive, Xerox will bring simplicity. I would go with Xerox if I want more personal service and think an out-of-the-box setup may work for me.

Are these positions correct? I don’t know. It is too much to expect a 30-second spot to hit all the bases of the MEDICAL method. But it isn’t too much to expect differentiation, and I don’t think we got it.

Each ad used the exact same framing to set up its position. Each ad implied that the world is full of identical-sounding messages about the cloud. Each ad used a funny nonsense word to make the ad more memorable and shareable. Then each ad closed with a short positioning phrase, briefly introducing the brand.

Suppose you could take both ads and remove all voiceovers and brand names, then shake them in a Yahtzee cup. When the ads rolled out,  would you be able to tell which was for Xerox and which for IBM?

I don’t think so. Ironically, in trying to differentiate themselves, the two companies took almost the exact same approach, and came out looking the same.

This demonstrates an important lesson for differentiating your brand: To set yourself apart from your competition, it’s not enough to say something different – you also have to say it differently.

Even though only one Williams can advance, it’s clear from seeing them next to each other that Venus and Serena are unique talents. Can cloud services companies set themselves apart as well as the Williams sisters have?


IMG_6590.jpg by Ian Gampon    CC BY 2.0

Reading With Steve: B2B A To Z by Bill Blaney

Reading with Steve is a regular feature at SteveFeyer.com. Read product marketing and content marketing book reviews.

B2B A to Z reminds us that modern marketing is not just a tweet here, a landing page there, and an optimized automation campaign to run it all. Bill Blaney is an agency director with many years of varied experience in digital and creative, yet despite all his enthusiasm for the newest tools, he reminds us that traditional promotions and trade shows can still be important – and indeed, ought to be the focus for certain types of businesses.

More importantly, Bill explains that the message is still the lynchpin of any marketing plan. Without creativity and inspiration, no amount of social media expertise will break through the clutter. The marketing world has not changed so much as diversified over his career.

When I first picked up B2B A To Z, I was expecting more of a reference guide. Instead, I was treated to a series of loosely connected thematic sections, interspersed with examples and anecdotes. While the book is comprehensive, A To Z feels like the wrong title for this work. I would have titled it Approaching B2B Marketing in the 21st Century.

Bill is at his best when providing inspirations from his career, for example, describing why and how he pioneered a social engagement strategy for Witchblade, a TV show, in 2000. He is funny too, wisecracking that how some B2B businesses approach social media is “like watching a polite vegan fill up his plate at a Swedish smorgasbord”. Unforgettable – and it certainly shines a bright light on the issue.

9_6_15 B2BAtoZWith the variety of sections in this book, one core observation stands out. Marketing is designed to speak to people’s wants and needs. Bill shrewdly dissects this basic observation into the core difference between consumer and business marketing: Whereas virtually all consumer purchases are based on wants, virtually all business purchases are based on needs. This difference means that good consumer marketing inevitably displays greater variety, authenticity, and unexpectedness – so that it can penetrate right to the amygdala and stimulate our desire. Advertising is “poison gas”, yet great consumer marketing can become iconic.

So why, Bill asks, don’t B2B companies learn more from B2C companies? We assume businesses have needs, not wants, so appeals that are based on feature lists, tout incremental improvements, or are simply the same as everyone else’s are par for the course. Yet these techniques don’t land. Can’t business-to-business companies study the consumer masters and learn how they generate their “simple, bold ideas”? I think this appeal is B2B A to Z’s single biggest contribution to the art.

Many of Bill’s recommendations will be second nature to experienced marketers. If you already plan your trade shows far in advance, follow up with webinar attendees within 24 hours, and have a process to respond to customer service issues brought to you via Twitter, you probably will not learn much from chapters 4-11, in which Bill comprehensively covers marketing tools and tactics.

There are a few moments in these middle chapters that miss the mark. Some of the book’s advice about using social media is borderline spammy, and seems too specific to Bill’s professional sweet spot of midcap manufacturers. A chapter on the Google Penguin update is dated, since a new budding marketer would never even consider the black-hat SEO techniques that this update famously neutralized. Numerous copy mistakes in this chapter are also particularly distracting.

But Bill’s batting average overall is All-Star level. I particularly recommend the final chapter about Bill’s own career path. It’s the most gripping part of the book, and I hope Bill considers a memoir for his next writing project.

This book gave me a lot to consider, and ought to be part of any serious B2B marketer’s home library. You won’t regret spending a few instructional hours with B2B A To Z.

Buy the book.