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Published:September 23rd, 2013 11:56 EST
Secrets From Marketing Sages, Past And Present

Secrets From Marketing Sages, Past And Present

By Kaihan Krippendorff

I may lose you here, going a bit deeper than I should in a blog post, but if you stick with me, on the other side I think lies the hint of a truth, a mechanism, a tool that can help you disrupt your market without others even knowing what you are doing. The path there is pointed to by two sages, one who shared it with us in the 6th century BC and another who speaks of it today.

About 2,500 years ago, a Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, created a text that you could say attempts to decode human behavior. He wrote "Through the distinctions enabled by language, and our desires based on such distinctions, the Ten Thousand Things or the appearances are known to us, and this is the most profound, primordial truth." ("Ten Thousand Things" is a Chinese term that means "everything.")

Simplified, what Lao Tzu says is human reality, and the reality in which your customers live, is shaped by language that introduces a distinction. If you say "small" you separate the world into large things and small things. If you say dark, people start comparing dark with light.

In politics we might call this "framing the debate." Ronald Reagan was a master at the art of introducing distinctions that created an advantage for him. Mitt Romney`s inadvertent introduction of the "47%" contributed to losing the presidency.

Fast forward to today and listen to how Sergio Zyman, a modern-day sage, laid out for me during an interview his approach to marketing, and you will see the same dynamic at play.

Why listen to Zyman? Here are a few reasons. He was arguably the world`s first "Chief Marketing Officer." He was born in Mexico, grew up in a middle class family, and decided he wanted to get into the world of business. So he convinced his dad to let him study marketing. His career brought him to P&G, then to an ad agency, then into the soft drink business in a series of ever greater roles all over the world including Japan, Brazil, and the US.

According to Zyman, he joined Coca-Cola in 1979 and saw that "Coca-Cola was really struggling to compete [with Pepsi]" because Pepsi had been effectively repositioning Coca-Cola by introducing the "Pepsi Generation" distinction. It divided consumers into new and old, young and old, cool and out-of-date. This is not unlike what Apple did by separating the world into Macs and PCs.

Zyman was asked by Coca-Cola`s chairman to help the company respond. Until that time, marketing was synonymous with advertising. But Zyman was able to negotiate a much bigger role for himself, agreeing to take on the challenge only if Coca-Cola allowed him to be "in charge of growth."

Now Zyman is, unfortunately, known by many as the guy who eventually convinced Coke to launch "New Coke," but under his tenure, Coca-Cola nearly doubled in size (to 15 billion cases per year from 9 billion) and enjoyed a 4X rise in stock price.

Here is how Zyman approaches big marketing challenges. After leaving Coca-Cola he built a 100+ person consulting firm. He was working with an insurance company and realized that you can divide insurance into two types: mandatory (like auto insurance) and voluntary (like disability insurance). By playing on this distinction, marketing differently to these segments, he was able to help his client disrupt their market. He did the same thing in the car rental market.

So to create an advantage, introduce a distinction that gives you the upper hand. Look for a way to divide your market along a line that resonates with buyers and puts you on the preferable side.

How can you divide your market?

What distinction can you introduce to gain an advantage?

For me, I will distinguish my readers as people who lean forward in life versus people who lean back in the couch and watch life happen. You want practical, actionable tools that help you shape your world. So, in that vein, here was Zyman`s last piece of advice. Three keys to success:

Be insecure (don`t take your success for granted). Be curious. You are going to fail, expect that. Get up, dust yourself off, learn, and move forward.