The Pros and Cons of “Lipstick on the Pig” Marketing

Lipstick on PigYou are the vice president of marketing at a software company. After months of planning, it’s time to launch the new version of your flagship product. Everything is ready to go – the press release is written, the analyst interviews have been scheduled, the new website copy is approved – except for one little thing: the software doesn’t work very well.

What do you do?

That’s a question that marketers face every day, and in many cases it’s a no-win situation. Proceed as if everything is working fine, and you risk getting back in the media (and among potential users) for having a lousy product. Go to the management team and encourage them to push the release date back a few months, and you’ll probably get a lecture about how important it is to have the product on the market by a certain date. Either way, you will probably be the person caught in the crossfire.

Assuming that the company decides to go with the first option, is there a way to protect the reputation of the organization, as well as your personal reputation and marketing community? In other words, is there a way to launch product that’s not ready for prime time without causing long-term damage? The short answer is yes – but it needs to be done carefully.

One of the reasons that the marketing profession has such a dubious reputation in many circles is the reputation for “spinning” negative stories into positive ones. Here are a few ways to manage a company’s marketing with integrity and in alignment with the company’s values.

1 – Before you start communicating with outside audiences, make sure you have internal agreement about the “real” situation. A lot of people are good at deluding themselves, so it’s critical to have a check with the people whose opinions matter. You may find that the senior executive team thinks that everything is great, while the line-level employees may sense impending doom. Make sure that the top brass takes off their blinders and that the rank-and-file stops grousing long enough to achieve consensus. You may find that things aren’t as bad as they may seem. For example, a software product may be working perfectly except for one feature, which is a lot different than crashing users’ computers when they try to install it. Know the scope of the problem.

2 – Deal in reality, not hypotheticals, when trying to assess the scope of the problem. An engineering VP might try to save his or her own skin by claiming that everything will be ready only two weeks late, when the reality is that it will take months to have a functioning product. It’s impossible for marketers to come up with an effective strategy when they don’t have all of the information.

3 – Once you know the situation, it’s time to draw up a revised marketing plan. This may involve announcing the product as a “coming attraction” and then waiting for several months to announce general availability. This may not be ideal for senior management, but it is a great way to protect the integrity of the company. Getting caught announcing vaporware is one of the best ways to develop a terrible reputation in the industry.

4 – If you are going to launch a product that is missing some key features, acknowledge that new features will be forthcoming in the near future rather than implying that they are already beginning. Customers in any industry for smart people, and notice if something doesn’t work as advertised. And they’ll make sure to let everyone else know, as well.

5 – if you absolutely need to launch a product by a certain date, and it is not ready for market, be sure to acknowledge this to the people you’re trying to impress. That’s why many software companies feel comfortable talking to reporters and analysts about beta versions of their products.

All of these examples are from the tech industry, but they are applicable across just about every vertical. Marketing has a reputation of being a BS-driven business, but the visibility created by social media and a 24-hour news cycle have made it increasingly difficult to get away with chicanery and obfuscation. The bottom line is that there are ways to make the best out of a bad situation without sacrificing your integrity or reputation.

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