Is ‘Startup Marketing’ a meaningless concept?

In order to be able to answer this question correctly, we should first elaborate on the concepts of both marketing and startups. Both concepts are more complex than you might think at first sight.

1) Marketing: an abstract concept aimed at acting practically

Marketing is a broad concept, and although there are different definitions of it, as a business function, the idea of it is practically universal. In essence, marketing comes down to the following: creating and maintaining relations between a company and (potential) customers, in which both parties give and take with the intention to benefit. The company acts on presumed desire of customers with the goal to generate revenue.

Marketing, as a discipline, is not directly concrete, but abstract. A product or service can be experienced in different ways, both rationally and emotionally. In this, it does not concern an awareness of an objective reality, but it does concern an increased awareness of the subjective reality. Or, as the American writer T. Goodkind (2015) describes it: “Reality isn’t relevant. Perception is everything.”

Because marketing as a discipline includes a collection of, among other things, elements from (social) psychology and economics, this abstract characteristic can be put in a broader context, because the context and the intention that form a marketing strategy have a deeper foundation than you might notice on the surface. In each consumer’s decision, for example, the subconscious plays a very important role. Our consumer brain does not understand the fact that the many factors that determine each decision are far from rational. American Psychologist R. Cialdini explains why:

We are unchallenged in the ability to take into account a multitude of relevant facts and, consequently, to make good decisions. . . . and, for the sake of efficiency, we must sometimes retreat from the time-consuming, sophisticated, fully informed brand of decision making to a more automatic, primitive, single-feature type of responding. . . . And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes — mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse. (Cialdini, 2007, pp. 206–207)

In other words, effective marketing is often effective because the consumer does not understand why it is effective. It is exactly this abstract approach that forms the connection with reality. Although theoretical concepts are, of course, conceived by humans themselves (such as the terms desire or value), there may not be tangible equivalents in objective reality because they cannot be observed directly, they do theoretically map the complexity of the ways humans think and act. With this, we can better understand, recognize, and manipulate subjective reality.

Marketing tries to explain as much reality with as few concepts as possible by means of abstractions and generalizations. For example, think about why you want the things that you want. The answer is undoubtedly more complex than the question, and that is an understatement. However, this has not restrained many thinkers from answering this question. Marketing professor P. Kotler, for example, defined the concept of desire as “the idea of an individual that he lacks something. He experiences a difference between the factual and the intended situation” (2016, pp. 11–12, own translation).

There is an apparent contradiction between thinking abstractly and acting practically. Abstract science is seen as impractical by many marketers: given all those pompous, meaningless definitions and formulas, they simply want to take on the problem directly and use their common sense. It is, however, a fact that exactly by means of abstraction, any approach to concrete marketing challenges becomes much more effective because each marketing challenge is part of the bigger structure of the DNA of our consumption society. A statement of the British scientist F. Crick applies here: “If you want to understand function, study structure” (1988, p. 150).

2) Startup: an overvalued concept without true meaning

When is a company a startup? There is no ready-made answer to this question. For example, according to the dictionary, a startup can be seen as a “starting company”, or, as Adora Cheung (2013), CEO of Homejoy, stated in an interview with Forbes: “Startup is a state of mind”. But how do you define “starting”, and when do we speak of a startup mentality? Although the opinions on this vary, several generally accepted characteristics and features of a startup apply. Some more objective than others:

  1. The annual turnover is less than 20 million dollars.
  2. The number of employees is below 80.
  3. The company is not quoted nor is a stock market listing considered.
  4. The potential of the product or service is geographically unlimited.
  5. The founder still has an influencing role.
  6. There is a fresh, innovating, and future-aimed mentality that suggests a factor of influence (Robehmed, 2013).

Although startups are often mentioned in the same sentence as information technology and the internet, not all startups are technologically oriented in practice. Without technology, however, undertaking, innovating, and growing become less efficient and less future-proof.

As appears from the above list, a distinction can be made between the characteristics of a startup which refer to a company’s phase of development and its mentality. Some characteristics are objective and concrete, while others subjective and abstract. But when we look more closely at these characteristics, it appears as if distinctions between the abstract and the concrete are less clear than we might think.

For example, a (concrete) increase in staff has a logarithmic relation with the (abstract) intensity of company progress. Because of this increase in staff, productivity will increase, but, initially, this is not the kind of progress that a startup aims for. The ultimate goal of a startup is to progress in the direction of an abstract ideal (mentality) that does not exist, but should. With each decision, the formation and development of this existence of the startup mentality are re-determined. But the larger the number of staff members involved in making a decision, the more concrete, practical, and common the company’s goals become.

In other words: the further a startup proceeds, the harder it becomes to remain true to the ideals that form the basis of its existence as a startup. Due to factors including responsibility and liability, the abstract ideal is first affected and then replaced by a set of concrete goals. The factors that determine the company’s progress grow under the influence of each other. With more progress comes more publicity, turnover, staff, customers, investors, capital, expectations, responsibility, and liability. The paradox of the startup is that progress stagnates because of progress. The ideal of progress undermines its future as the real company keeps moving forward. In this sense, the mentality of a startup can be compared with the rich fantasy and creativity of a toddler. The older one becomes the more we understand of the reality around us, which comes at the expense of our imaginative power.

If all factors are equally important, then it must be the case a startup is nothing more than a company that innovates because it has not stagnated ideologically. This is completely nonsensical as every well-governed company wants to grow or feels the necessity to innovate. In this sense, each company needs some sort of startup mentality. Because the competition is always present, capitalism is a constant battle, in which lack of innovation means bankruptcy.

This thought also forms the basis for “Wat bedrijven kunnen leren van succesvolle start-ups (What companies can learn from successful startups)”, an extensive article written by E. Klaassen (2014). In it, he states that when a company grows, its complexity grows, too, with the effect that progress becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on: “Because of their complexity . . . the decision-making slows down because companies prefer avoiding risks over taking risks.” The title of his article is thus a paradox. What it actually says is: what big startups can learn from smaller startups.

There are some exceptions, namely the market leaders. Although companies such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Tesla Motors may be innovating as if they are startups, they are not. The only well-established idealistic companies are the ones that innovate as if they were startups.

3) A meaningless concept: who cares?

Words are supposed to have meaning. The entire idea behind using a specific word or phrase is that it describes something specific, and not anything else. Because of that reason, a phrase is only valuable if its meaning is more concrete and refined than the words by themselves without losing the meaning of each word on its own.

Due to misuse, unnecessary or meaningless phrases weaken or alter the meaning of the words that form them. The concept of “correctness,” for example, has lost a lot of its meaning on account of its inclusion in the phrase “political correctness. Clinical psychologist and professor of psychology J.B. Peterson says: “In the modern world, flooded by meaningless speech, words have lost much of their immediate procedural power, under normal conditions” (1999, p. 479).
The phrase “startup marketing” is a good example of this phenomenon. So is the meaning of the concept “intelligence.” Philosopher and scientist P. Frank (1957) states that when an abstract concept has an analogy that we are familiar with, it becomes easier to understand.

The concept of intelligence is broad, but according to D. Wechsler (1958), it is essentially “A global concept that involves an individual’s ability to act purposefully, think rationally, and deal effectively with the environment.”

According to Psychologist D. K. Simonton, intelligence reflects the extent to which the individual is capable of quickly and efficiently adjusting, in whatever environment. It encompasses:

. . . certain set of cognitive capacities that enable an individual to adapt and thrive in any given environment they find themselves in, and those cognitive capacities include things like memory and retrieval, and problem solving and so forth. There’s a cluster of cognitive abilities that lead to successful adaptation to a wide range of environments. (Simonton, 2003)

Throughout the years, the concept intelligence has had different definitions, but all predominantly come down to the above. Knowing this, we can ask the question: what is multiple intelligence? This theory of H. Gardner (1983) distinguishes 8 different sorts of intelligence: linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, physical, inter-personal, and intra-personal and natural intelligence. Someone who is good at dancing is therefore intelligent. Physically intelligent, but nevertheless intelligent. This example is a simplification of the truth, but it is no oversimplification. Besides Gardner’s theory, multiple other intelligence theories exist, like the theory of R. Sternberg (1988) that distinguishes creative, practical, and analytic intelligence. R. Cattell’s theory (1941) speaks of fluid and crystallized intelligence, on the other hand. Moreover, D. Goleman popularized the concept emotional intelligence in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Due to all these different theories and approaches, intelligence has completely lost its benchmark and meaning. The concept has been bandied about far too often. J.B. Peterson states: “If everyone is intelligent, then the term loses all of its meaning . . . any term that you can apply to every member of a category has absolutely no meaning” (2017, 12:05). A pianist who plays beautifully is not necessarily intelligent, but simply has an extraordinary musical talent. There is only one kind of intelligence, and that is “[the] ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments” (Legg & Hutter, 2006).

My point is that there are both practical and philosophical reasons to avoid using meaningless phrases, and marketing is rarely a well-defined concept. Marketing blogger Scott Brinker suggests there are at least 131 different kinds of marketing.

Door-to-door marketing is not a type of marketing, but just a sales method. Marketing is not the same as sales. Sales is a component of marketing, but marketing is not necessarily a component of sales. Telemarketing is not a type of marketing; it is merely a sales method in which customers are approached by phone. Sports marketing is not a type of marketing, but just a marketing strategy adjusted to the sports sector. Likewise, we do not speak of online marketing as a general concept, but of online marketing strategies in specific.

Startup marketing is also not a type of marketing. It is a marketing strategy that is adjusted to the phase that a company is in. For a startup, this predominantly means focusing on branding and searching for new customer insights, or as R. van Raemdonck, managing partner at the Antwerp marketing agency BUBKA, states “searching for the key that allows you to communicate with people in the right way” (personal communication, February 15, 2017, own translation). According to van Raemdonck, the key questions in marketing for a startup are: “What do we want to tell the people, how do we do it, and does it relate to a desire or a value?” A good marketing message should connect with the customer at an emotional level. Although budget plays an important role in the frequency of the campaign’s message, the medium is often inferior to the message itself. This applies equally to a startup with a small budget and to a multinational with a budget of millions.

As you can see, the concept of marketing is losing its meaning. As J.B. Peterson states “. . . any term that you can apply to every member of a category has absolutely no meaning” (2017, 12:10).


Is “startup marketing” a meaningless phrase? Yes. There is no true substance behind the concept. Indeed, even the word “startup” does not seem to have a clear definition. In many ways, a startup is too undefinable, complex, and contradictory to properly describe. However, we are driven by the desire to add meaning to it because now that this word exists in our language we think that the concept behind it must also exist in reality.

In the abstract, to be a startup means a company is engaged in a continuous rediscovery of the future and itself. And because this is also a characteristic of the concept of marketing, you could say that startup marketing will always be a constant process of rediscovery.

Reference list

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