SaaS Marketing Sucks in the Same Way

Many Software as a Service companies struggle with marketing. Awareness, conversion and retention are challenges. In the past two weeks, I have been exposed to over a dozen SaaS companies through talks delivered for an incubator. I know why they are struggling. 

SaaS marketing is highly templated, and everyone is using the same templates. What’s more, there is startling little differentiation regardless of the nature of the software. Finance SaaS solutions are marketed the same as Design SaaS or Procurement SaaS. There are tons of different flavors, but at the end of the day, it is the same ice cream cone. Once, I thought, law firms held the gold medal for parity marketing but SaaS now rules.

The root of this is clear, SaaS has a low barrier to entry. If you remember business theory, industries with low barrier to entry face greater competition. While competition should drive differentiation, in the SaaS universe, it has produced shocking (and boring) sameness.

SaaS companies like to say they are B2B companies, they are not. They are more like dry cleaners, locksmiths, massage therapists, florists, dentists, landscapers, and snow removal businesses (the last one is a nod to the fact I live in Quebec). To illustrate my point, here is a fun exercise. Imagine you are a locksmith or florist. 

SaaS companies say they are B2B companies, they are not. They are more like dry cleaners, locksmiths, massage therapists, florists, dentists, landscapers.

Now, further imagine how you would market that business. Except, you cannot discount your price or give anything away for free. How do you position versus the competition? How do you reach prospective customers? How do you become the #1 Locksmith in your area? 

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When Times Square Smoked and Steamed

I have spent a great amount of time in Manhattan. In the ’90’s, I was in the city for 5 months “reengineering” Price Waterhouse’s marketing in the five boroughs. Later, I commuted there twice a month from Canada for over eleven years, working for Interbrand and DDB Worldwide over that time. And there were many other visits too. In fact, I have probably “lived” in Manhattan for four or five years.

Times Square was gentrifying when I started taking in its sights, yet still plenty gritty. I often triple-checked that my wallet was still on my person but it was nothing like Midnight Cowboy. I do not think of it as a square. It more resembles a small valley framed by towering, brightly-lit odes to commercialism and capitalism. For over one hundred years this has been the case. The difference now is the volume of messages. Times Square is analogous to marketing and advertising overall, too much clutter, it is tough for messages to break through.

Three signs did an admirable job of standing out in Times Square.

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Counter Culture (mom & pop shops and the brands they carried)

Rich Saal is a commercial and editorial portrait photographer based in central Illinois (full website here). His work to present day captures humanity richly. Between 1979 and 1983, Rich took stark, subtlety revealing shots of mom & pop shops. These black & whites seem to represent an even earlier era. As we know, large chains sunk many mom & pops over the years so this is a treasure trove.

Enjoy them and hang in for a recent update collection of what has since happened to these stores. Rich provides the original black and white and a comparative colour shot taken in the original location.

What makes this collection even more valuable is the capture of brands. Many have survived to this day, albeit with some logo and packaging progressions. The above photo displays 2-litre bottles of pop that look fairly contemporary though the bottles themselves are history. Pixy Stix, Planters Peanuts, and Jack Daniels are quite recognizable. It must be summer given the screen patches readily available to help keep bugs out.

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And So It Goes

I happened to be surfing online for nothing in particular, five hours later, I came across a photo from The Boneyard located on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base just outside of Tucson. It is a resting place for over 4,000 worn out or damaged planes. There is a strange symmetrical beauty to the arrangement.

There are different categories of storage for the aircraft. “Long-term storage” is for planes that will be used again in the future. The category for planes kept for spare parts is “parts reclamation.” “Flying hold” means aircraft are kept for a shorter time than the long-term category, and “excess of DoD needs” means the planes are sold off in parts or as a whole.

Meanwhile, further below, see what happens to decommissioned cruise ships.

Cruise ships are being scrapped at a Turkish dock after the multi-billion dollar industry was smashed by the Covid crisis. The cruise liner graveyard at the port in Aliaga, bustles with work.

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Decoding Mr. Clean

So, there I was surfing Tumblr when I tumbled across this…

This contest had a lot on the line. First, being able to brag that you named Mr. Clean. Second, you win a house! If you were close, the next prize of transistor radio was not too bad either (in 1962). Mr. Clean made his television commercial debut in 1958, initially portrayed in the live-action versions. Within the first six months, Mr. Clean became the best-selling household cleaner on the market. Impressive results.

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A True Super Model

Not a day goes by without at least one person asking me, “Who is your favourite model?” Okay, no one has ever asked me that, so I have taken it upon myself to anticipate the question and share my response.

Before Kendall (blah), before Linda and Cindy, even before Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton there was Veruschka, perhaps the first supermodel. In 2018, Vogue wrote, “Standing six feet tall, she was a bombshell of Amazonian proportions with a chiseled-by-the-gods bone structure, steely blue gaze, plush mouth, and shape-shifting champagne blonde hair.” 

Now 81, the German countess Veruschka von Lehndorff has lived more than nine lives. From aristocracy to Vogue covers to Woodstock to principled stances, she intrigues. How many Vogue covers did she grace you ask? 11! Veruschka worked regularly with star photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, achieving fame after changing her name from Vera. She even appeared briefly in Michael Antonini’s classic film, Blow Up.

Veruschka was born Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort on 14 May 1939, in Königsberg, East Prussia, now known as Kaliningrad, Russia. She grew up at Steinort, an estate, which had been in her family for centuries. Her mother was Countess Gottliebe von Kalnein (1913-1993). Her father, Count Henrich von Lehndorff-Steinort (1909-1944), an East Prussian junker, aristocrat, and army reserve officer was a key member of the German Resistance, after witnessing Jewish children being beaten and killed.

When Veruschka was five years old, her father was executed for allegedly attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the 20 July Plot. After his death, the remaining family members spent their time in labor camps until the end of World War II. At the end of the war, her family was homeless. As a young girl, she attended 13 schools.

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Seven & Seven: Is the Cocktail and Ads Coming Back?

My father was born in 1925. A WW2 Canadian navy veteran, semi-pro football player, and lawyer who drank exclusively a variation of the “Presbyterian”. The recipe is 2 ounces scotch, bourbon or rye with ginger ale and club soda. Instead, he enjoyed rye, 7 Up and water. In hindsight, not really a Presbyterian. Closer to the simpler Seven & Seven. A drink that was all the rage in the late ’60’s and early 70’s.

7 Up has been around since 1920. Seagram’s, the liquor company, was founded in 1857 and gained notoriety, ubiquity and riches thanks to Prohibition. That is when the two first came together, however, only scattered information can be found on the early union. I came across a 7 Up ad from 1964 centred on sport fishing that extolled the virtues of mixing the pop with any whiskey. It got me thinking…not a bad idea. Play the beverage up as both mix and pop. 7 Up extended the campaign to gin.

The target audience is affluent men in desirable situations and settings (golfing, squash, sport fishing). Basically, those that have disposable income and drinking time on their hands. Another shows well-dressed couples around a fire in a Mad Men-era home. There is even one that may have appealed to my father…it showed the “sport” of curling. At the Winnipeg Winter Club, on the ice, he was known as the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’. Did he succumb to the advertising or did the advertising emulate his life?

A little digging saw a progression. Let’s talk about the originally named whiskey, Seagram’s Seven Crown, now mostly called Seagram’s Seven. It is a blended American whiskey. Once produced by Seagram’s, it is now owned by Diageo under the Seagram name. Seagram’s beverage division was acquired by Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and The Coca-Cola Company in 2000 (that is a whole other story!). What we see next is classic co-branding. Seven & Seven. Whiskey and mix, with a 70’s look and feel.

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McDonald’s and Burger King: Brand War or Duopoly?

I grew up with perhaps the most intense brand war of all-time. This was epitomized in the famous taste-tests between Coke and Pepsi. Both colas were nearly 100 years old when the Pepsi Challenge was launched in 1975. Most consumers favoured the flavour of Pepsi. This war has raged since and has not only been fought on product differentiation but through endorsement marketing, global advertising, and sports and entertainment sponsorship. 

Another war was fought between adidas and PUMA. I call adidas the winner in this brawl. It was very much a Cain and Abel story, given the two brands resulted from the split between siblings in the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company. Now global brands, when the defining battles took place, this sneaker war was primarily in the European theater. The fight continued until the brother’s passing’s, “even in death the two brothers couldn’t stand each other as they were buried at opposite ends of the cemetery from one another.”[1]

Do you remember the Console Wars? Nintendo, who once controlled almost 90% of the gaming industry, doth did battle with Sega. This was to be a case of Mortal Kombat (all pun intended). The treasure at the end of this big game was a US$60 billion-dollar industry. Each company pumped out new hardware and accessories that supported ever more complex games. Analysts conclude Nintendo won due to Sega’s techy missteps. Market share and revenue certainly bears this out.

Apple has been a battler. It took on Samsung over cellphones. Legal battles on patents and infringements raged. Billions were spent on legal fees and settlements were similarly large. That is no surprise given the market at stake. And, let’s not forget, the famous Apple versus Microsoft computer fisticuffs that was dramatized in a series of ads. Metaphorically, two actors showed the differences between the two brands, one was staid and nerdy and the other relaxed and hip.

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Benetton’s Confusing Legacy of Brand Activism

I grew up preppy. A Canadian kind of preppy. Often Ralph Lauren polos were out of reach both due to cost and supply. This was the 1980’s. When an outlet store of Ralph’s opened in my neighborhood of Tuxedo in Winnipeg, I was a frequent browser. More affordable were Roots and Beaver Canoe brands (you have to be Canadian to fully understand). My friends and I lived in either brand’s sweatpants which were considered preppy. I wore out Ellesse knock-off polos that my father came back with from a trip to Asia.

One very influential brand while growing up was Benetton. Founded in the year of my birth, 1965, it still numbers 5,000 stores worldwide. I say, “still”, because it is amazing it is still relevant given its marketing tone and very real controversies. Benetton was once iconic, gaining huge recognition in the 1980’s and 1990’s but has since struggled. In 2000, it ranked 75th in Interbrand’s ranking of best global brands but by 2002, it had dropped out of the list (I was Chief Marketing Officer at Interbrand at the time).

In 2017, the company posted a loss of €180 million. Luciano Benetton, who was then 83 years old, came out of retirement, returning as Executive Chairman. Revival efforts also included appointing Jean-Charles de Castelbajac as artistic director and re-appointing photographer Oliviero Toscani to regain some of the old glory. But was it glory or gory?

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Best (Business) Crime Reads

Having ghostwritten books and put out my own on marketing’s rich history, I have a grasp of what books do well. Self-help, leadership, romance, and wellness are hot categories. So, too, is true crime, and not only in the form of books. Podcasts, streaming content, traditional television, and long-read articles abound, sharing the depravity and cruelness of the human condition to huge audiences.

True crime is not my genre though I must admit, while cutting the lawn, I will listen to the podcast version of NBC’s Dateline. Spoiler alert: 99 times out of 100, the boyfriend or husband did it, or, the girlfriend or wife.

What I want to share are books that have fascinated me going back 30 years. That is, business crime. It all started on one of my first business trips. In 1988, I traveled from Winnipeg to Toronto. At the “tender” age of 25, I was a professional fundraiser for nonprofits. I was representing three Winnipeg institutions and soliciting big business Toronto for large corporate cheques.

Between meetings, I entered a Coles bookstore underground the towers of First Canadian Place. Later, in my career, I had an office in the building while working for Price Waterhouse. One book cover called to me from the shelf. The gold embossed lettering and clever title beckoned and enticed.

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