Secrets From Marketing Sages, Past And Present

What do 6th century BC Chinese wise man Lao Tzu and modern marketing guru Sergio Zyman have in common? A lot. Including plenty to consider for your brand.

Secrets From Marketing Sages, Past And Present

Warning: I’m about to go a bit deeper than perhaps 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. Two sages, one who shared it with us in the 6th century BC and another who speaks of it today, point to the path there.

About 2,500 years ago, 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 his losing the presidency.

Fast-forward to today and listen to how Sergio Zyman, a modern-day sage, laid out for me 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 United States.


According to Zyman, after joining Coca-Cola in 1979, he 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 It divided consumers into new and old, young and old, cool and out-of-date.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 verus PCs.

Coca-Cola’s chairman asked Zyman 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 (from 9 billion to 15 billion cases a year) and enjoyed a fourfold rise in stock price.

Here is how Zyman approaches big marketing challenges. After leaving Coca-Cola, he built a 100-person-strong 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 its 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.

[Image: Flickr user Theilr]


About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique.