Are software products and services held back by tired marketing thinking?

Legendary UK ad man and author Dave Trott was recently asked whether advertising was the price you pay for offering a mediocre product: “Did Facebook have to do advertising to become a huge success? Did Airbnb? Did Dropbox? No — these were great and relevant services that sold themselves.”

Dave’s response is illuminating:

“Now you’re asking a marketing question, which is: ‘Why advertise in the first place?’ I’m not a marketing person — I’m a creative person. That’s not our job. Our job is not to decide whether or not to do advertising — our job is to do better advertising. Most creatives have forgotten that. They don’t know what their job is anymore, which is to use creativity as a legal unfair advantage. Creatives should find ways to make the smaller clients beat the bigger clients, the one with less money beat the one with more money.”

Leaving aside whether or not the services mentioned above used advertising to grow (AirBnB did, Dropbox tried, and Facebook has spent a lot of money over the years advertising its platform), I think Dave’s response also points to the inherent reluctance of SaaS marketers to try any kind of creative advertising.

What was the last memorable or creatively outstanding piece of communication you saw for a software product or service?

I loved Wieden and Kennedy’s ‘Sleeping Tapes’ campaign for Squarespace from earlier this year and, and having recently led the marketing efforts for Beagle — an online tool for creating proposals — I grew to admire a lot of the work Mailchimp do to grow their brand (everything I thought about doing, Mailchimp had already done).

But I can’t think of a single ‘classic’ software campaign along the lines of DDB’s iconic advertising for VW, or Red Bull’s Stratos stunt and there is no software in Ad Age’s Top 15 Ad Campaigns of the 21st Century. (Apple makes the grade, but for its Mac Vs PC hardware campaign.)

One honorable exception may be Salesforce’s ‘No Software’ campaign, which successfully differentiated the company and earned them millions in free PR at a time they were trying to establish themselves. That said, there’s obviously a certain irony to the fact that arguably the most successful software campaign of all time is premised around the idea that people hate software. But that’s a different story.

Did nobody even try, or is it just very difficult to do a timeless creative campaign for something that is essentially a utility? (And by campaign, I don’t mean TV advertising exclusively. I’m talking about anything creatively noteworthy, online, offline or below it.)

I can think of a couple of reasons for this but there’s no doubt more:

1. Funnel vision

The marketing methodology for most software products is, by now, almost generic. The funnel, as it’s known, looks like this and is essentially premised on the idea that the product should be sufficiently sticky that its users do the advertising for you (virality):

This model is highly seductive. It makes marketing measurable, and gives it a respectable, scientific sheen. It led to the pre-eminence of ‘inbound marketing’ as the foremost strategic tool of most ‘digital’ marketers. Here’s a telling screengrab from Google Trends for the term itself:

Why hire a creative agency to create a campaign that might work, when you can test and learn smaller-scale activities that you can then optimise to deliver the top-of-funnel traffic you need. Once the traffic’s incoming, you just tweak your landing page until it converts at an acceptable rate, right? Thank you, marketing department.

This modus operandi stems from the needs of early stage companies to run a tight (lean) ship where you focus relentlessly on traction (user growth) over all else. Brand building can wait, right? I’m not so sure.

2. A still maturing category

If we take Apple’s classic 1984 campaign as approximately the time computing went mainstream, then software as a category is still relatively immature, at least in comparison to household goods or automobiles:

The software products and services that have emerged as fully fledged brands in the past decade (Facebook, AirBnB etc) are all now beginning to launch higher profile advertising campaigns (often on TV). This is classic big brand behaviour… shore up your niche then go mainstream and outspend your competitors to ensure market dominance.

So while we’re seeing the category grow up in that sense, I can’t help but wonder why smaller players aren’t working with creative agencies to differentiate themselves and get on the map. No, you can’t make up for a shitty product with great communication but the presumption that markets are meritocratic and that all great products will find the traction they deserve is naive.

To return to Dave Trott’s point, the job of creativity is to help you find an ‘unfair, legal advantage’. Why not use it? Who’s to say which of the myriad shuttered software products and services might still be here today if they had advertised? And which of those might be now considered iconic had they advertised in the groundbreaking way George Lois employed to put the then unknown designer Tommy Hilfiger on the map?