Consider two hypothetical restaurants: type one and type two.
Restaurant type one: Imagine yourself wandering the streets of a new city. You could be on Ocean Drive in South Beach, or Piazza Navona in Rome. You're thinking about dinner, and you come across a restaurant conveniently located on a busy stretch of street. Outside, it displays its panoply of meal choices in wax replica splendor, or "freshly cooked" under Saran wrap. On the sidewalk, an aspiring tan model flanks a manager-host, who wears a loud tie to go with the even louder voice he uses to solicit passersby. "Would you like to come in and eat 'world famous x'? Or maybe try the daily cocktail special?"
Restaurant type two: You want to have a couple of special dinners during your travels so you've done some careful research prior to your trip. You find out about a restaurant that's somewhat out-of-the-way, does not take reservations, has humble décor, and is only open for dinner five nights a week. None of that deters you. Your foodie friends recommended it -- "amazing artisanal, local dishes," they say. Pete Wells wrote something nice about it in The New York Times. Your favorite restaurant blogs concur.
Where would you rather eat? More to the point, if you have a business, which would you rather be?
Type one represents what marketers call "push." Type two is "pull." Push marketing uses advertising (billboards, spam, direct mailings, banners, cold calls, and similar techniques) to hunt for the customer. In contrast, pull marketing bets on product quality and its ability to create awareness and eventually a brand that will lure and keep customers.
One is a bullhorn, the other a magnet. Or, as I like to say, one is karate and one is judo. More on that in a sec.
You obviously need a mix of both push and pull marketing. But businesses and businesspeople tend to lean toward push. That may be fine, but it becomes a problem -- a big problem -- if all you have is hype that is driving customers to try a product that isn't good enough to inspire long-term loyalty. Such a situation is a treadmill of disaster, since eventually there won't be sufficient cash to lure enough new customers to replace all those who have left. As I have argued in a prior blog post, the best business models focus on recurring revenue.
In the venture and start-up world it is sometimes easy to confuse marketing, publicity, and "push" with progress and success. People begin looking at site visitors, PR impressions, or leads generated as key performance metrics rather than looking at these in conjunction with real performance metrics such as customers, product usage, and oh yeah, sales and profits.
This is the fallacy of "push" -- it yields results that sort of look like and feel like customers (e.g. visitors or member sign-ups), or like product acceptance (e.g. PR stories via expensive PR agencies), and that even feel like performance (e.g. leads or sales generated without profit). But none of this is enough to sustain a business. In contrast, if a product and its brand are strong enough to "pull," then metrics such as NPS (net promoter score), recurring profitable revenue rate (i.e. customer loyalty), product usage level (i.e. customer utility) begin to sing. These are examples of real pillars of a great business -- and you can't get there just by yelling louder than the next guy.
So how do you shift to more of a pull mindset? Simple: think more judo and less karate. The word judo translates to "gentle way," and this martial art focuses on using an opponent's strength and weight to one's advantage. Karate, in contrast, is characterized by punching and kicking. We need much more of a judo mindset in business. Not just in marketing, but in negotiations, product design, communications, and selling.
Here are the three possible outcomes of business karate:
a) It works because the product or deal really is that good. This is a best-case, but not common scenario; you have the right to push and shout.
b) It feels like it works short term, but creates long-term disappointment. There is an expectation gap that gets discovered over time, leading eventually to customer defection.
c) It triggers defensive mechanisms. As one investor in my VC firm has told me, "A yellow light always goes off in my head when someone is pitching hard. I don't want to be sold something."
That is the irony of it, and why business judo can be more effective -- especially when you have something authentic, good, or purposeful. People don't mind buying, but they don't want to be sold. In a similar fashion, regarding product design or presentation of information, people prefer intuitive self-discovery over complex how-to instruction.
This is the real judo counterweight to understand. We are by nature predisposed to want, to desire, to deal, to buy. Yet while we don't mind being gently guided there, we are wired for mostly for self-control. The key principle in the judo of business is to create and allow the conditions for people to make your goal their own conclusion. A colleague of mine says he sometimes will wait a few minutes in a meeting for everyone else to figure out something he knew at the beginning. It's that important for them to arrive at the answer themselves and sell themselves on it.
Such restraint does not always come easily. But focusing on the core of what matters for long-term business success -- real customers embracing authentic, purposeful, and compelling products -- is the stuff of really great companies and leaders. As in judo, if one masters it, it's possible to triumph over seemingly much more formidable competitors. It is also -- at a time of much cynicism towards business -- just a more pleasant way of doing things.
This article first appeared on Harvard Business Publishing on Jan. 24, 2012.