Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: Market Prejudice
The constant crescendo of corporate marketing does not merely leave the lone artisan unheard and unknown. It proactively precipitates upon him a negative image, which induces a multiplex of impervious prejudices within the minds of those who would otherwise be his willing customers.
Through their vast marketing machines, the corporate leviathans relentlessly bombard the consumer mind with mass-media advertising.
They tirelessly repeat their messages about how big, how stable, how established, how reliable, how honest, how upright, how trustworthy they are. They forever enthuse about how necessary, how useful, how reliable, how long-lasting, how satisfying are their products. By this means they install themselves within the common consciousness as benevolent providers of every need. They quickly become household names, familiar friends, immovable idols of the id.
The artisan, on the other hand, does not have the capital to maintain a constant mass media marketing campaign to keep himself, and what he does, in the forefront of the consumer mind. Relentless corporate advertising, whether by intent or default, creates a contrast within the consumer mind between the familiar corporate and the unfamiliar small provider. Corporate advertising thus, intentionally or otherwise, actively labels the small provider as unstable, embryonic, unreliable, dishonest, shady and untrustworthy. Likewise, his products are undeservedly reputed to be useless, unreliable, short-lived and unfit for their stated purpose.
The generic consumer is an individual. When he seeks to buy something for himself, his concern is that he get good value for his money. When he seeks to buy on behalf of his corporate employer, his concern is that he avoid a bad buy so as not to damage his career. In both cases his mentality is essentially the same. He is normally ignorant of the technology of what he is buying. He therefore cannot judge his prospective purchase at face value. His only option is to put his trust in the judgement of others. But in whom?
His natural tendency is to put his trust in that which is most familiar to him within the context of what he is seeking to buy. This is the corporate whose advertising voice he hears loudest above the general mêlée of the marketplace. The one whose relentless powerful shamelessly self-aggrandising message he has swallowed and absorbed. This is invariably the relevant corporate supplier with the biggest marketing budget. The one with the most capital. The largest. This is the image he trusts. This is the image from which he buys.
His purchase decision is therefore nothing to do with the proven quality or suitability of what he is buying. Neither is it related to the proven quality of service which the chosen supplier provides. It is purely to do with the effectiveness of the supplier's marketing.
The conduits of corporate marketing are the media. The most influential of these is the intrepid user magazine. It carries the main thrust of corporate advertising. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it carries editorial reviews and evaluations of advertised products and services, plus journalistic profiles of the companies which provide them. User magazines rely heavily on corporate advertising for their revenue and hence their survival. They do not therefore want to upset in any way those who provide it, namely their corporate advertisers. They will therefore not carry a bad review of the products or services of any of their big-name corporate advertisers - established or potential.
Journalists want work. If a journalist has a good permanent job on the editorial staff of a user magazine, he not only wants to keep it but would also like to further his career. A freelance journalist wants his articles printed by the magazines with whom he deals. Both must therefore write what is acceptable to the magazine editors. This must be in the interest of the magazines' survival and prosperity. What the journalists write must therefore be what will please the magazines' corporate advertisers.
Success of a product is determined almost entirely by the amount of money its vendor spends in marketing it. Consequently, if a journalist gives the product a good review he cannot other than be proved right by events. Furthermore, his review can only hasten and further guarantee the product's success. If, on the other hand, the journalist writes a critical review of the product, its inevitable success will make him a fool. The product of a lone artisan is unlikely to succeed in a capitalist free market. The lone artisan does not have enough capital to compete against the marketing machines of the corporates. A journalist can therefore safely dump his literary assassinations upon the meticulously researched and designed products of these small dedicated hard-working 'also-rans'.
The effect on the market of the industry consultant (or professional advisor) is almost identical to that of the journalist. The consultant's advice is shaped by both corporate advertising and industry editorial. All he does is extend and particularise what he sees and reads to suit his client's situation. By recommending a market leader, a consultant cannot be other than proved right by events. His advice cannot do other than increase the market leader's dominance of the market. But if, on the other hand, the consultant recommends a technically and functionally superior product from a market outsider, its inevitable demise will make him a fool. It will leave his client up a blind ally as regards the future maintenance, development and expansion of his system.
A consultant's clients are exposed to the same corporate advertising as he is, although perhaps not to the same depth. The client therefore expects the advice he gets from the consultant to be consistent with what that corporate advertising has already planted in his mind. In other words, it is in the consultant's interest to tell his client what he wants to hear.
So what is the essence of this advice which the market receives from its influencers?
Small Equals Cowboy
"Never buy from a small supplier." This is the clear and present message of corporate advertising. It is the evergreen of industry editorial which is conformingly reiterated by every smart-suited lap-dog advisor. It results in an end-user purchasing policy which appears to be based on a form of 'logic' which I feel sure neither Boole nor Aristotle would recognise. For instance, it accepts the assertions:
- "We've never heard of you, therefore you must be a cowboy."
- "We've never come across your product, so it can't be much good."
- "You're a one-man-band: so you'll be here today, gone tomorrow."
as logically sound. It defines the consumer mind's entire mode of thinking. It infects not only the actual purchaser, his advisors and the industry press but also those who supply the loans with which the purchaser makes the purchase. All are convinced that the lone artisan has insufficient knowledge and expertise to design and build a complex product which is reliable enough to be trusted in a mission-critical role.
According to this logic, if you want your portrait painted you should naturally engage an art firm employing at least 100 young freshly qualified arts graduates: they have the up-to-date knowledge and resources to paint the best possible portrait. It would be rash and foolish to go to a one-man-band like Rembrandt.
Among the legion of possible valid reasons as to why "We've never come across your product..." could be:
- "therefore your marketing can't be much good"
- "so we may not have been looking in the right place"
- "because we may not have been paying proper attention"
The other overwhelming reason the market gives for rejecting the one-man business is doubt concerning his long-term survivability. All fear that by intent or by fate he will immediately disappear, leaving them high and dry without technical support. "What happens to us if you go under a bus?" I was asked by many. Yet these would happily trade with a medium size limited liability company whose propensity for legal demise must be considerably greater than that for the physical demise of a human being.
Where Are My 50 Fools?
The do-gooder user magazines forever 'warn' buyers to 'beware' of computer software which has not already got at least a certain minimum number of satisfied independent users. "Never buy from any vendor who cannot refer you to at least 50 satisfied users" is their typical advice.
But a little thought soon reveals that if absolutely everybody were 'sensible' enough to take this advice then clearly no vendor would ever be able to sell the first 50 copies of his product. It also implies that anyone who buys a product which does not already have 50 satisfied users is a fool. It thus brands the first 50 purchasers of any new product as fools. What then does this make the people who subsequently take this advice? Could one describe as 'sensible' anybody who would buy a piece of computer software recommended by 50 fools?
If this advice were meticulously followed by all then clearly no new software could ever enter the market. Most people assume that although this be true in theory, there is always some way into the market for everybody. Not so. I have seen this false and irresponsible advice force the demise of many a good piece of computer software into which skilled professionals have poured hundreds of hours of dedicated effort. For the lone artisan it raises a barrier which relentlessly denies him that vital first sale. In fact it delayed my first sale for over 5 years, until happily I met a 'fool'.
The Ignorant Judge The Wise
"Always evaluate before buying," say the do-gooder magazines. And to 'help' their readers do so they print 'check lists' showing what each genre of product should contain, and how it should look and feel. These check lists are invariably based on the corporate market leader's offering in each case. They blindly assume that all software packages which address a given business task must use the approach adopted by the market leader. This precludes the possibility that other smaller software producers may have adopted different - perhaps even better - approaches with regard to which their check list makes no sense.
A computer software package is the result of thousands of hours of work by experienced dedicated specialists who have in-depth knowledge both of software techniques and of the business task which the package addresses. The prospective user normally has little or no experience or knowledge of designing computer software and is often too close to the business task to view it analytically. Nevertheless, the magazine, with its check list, supposedly equips the prospective user to 'evaluate' the package during a stolen half hour and then tell its designers whether or not it is any good. This kind of unqualified evaluation is not only arrogant, it also bars many a worthy product from the marketplace.
Technical Award Schemes
Certain professional bodies, industrial sponsors, government departments and notable personalities patronise various technical award schemes. These frequently culminate in well publicised national television presentations. Their aim is to encourage and promote discovery and invention. Unfortunately, such technical award schemes all too obviously restrict their philanthropy to that insignificant minority of innovations which possess the mandatory elements of high visuality, social topicality and entertaining wonderment.
They invite entries. They must receive thousands. They select only a handful to receive an award. The award winners receive capital with which to develop and market their inventions. They also by default receive free publicity and promotion. Most valuable of all they receive universal credibility. This opens the doors to bank loans, further capital from third-party investors and large-scale sales outlets. The thousands whose entries they reject receive nothing. Neither do the tens of thousands who did not apply.
Each scheme has a relatively few 'experts' to sift through the thousands of entries which are submitted. They can afford to spend only a short time assessing each one. In a few minutes, therefore, each 'expert' must assess the merits of thousands of hours of intense effort by a dedicated professional who specialises both in the business task which his invention addresses and in the techniques he has employed in its design. And in neither of these is the assessing 'expert' likely to be an expert. But this does not matter. He is not assessing the real merit of the invention, but merely the extent to which it meets the three mandatory criteria of high visuality, social topicality and entertaining wonderment.
This is because the primary aim of such an award scheme is to provide public relations exposure for its sponsors and social dignitaries by hosting a novel television event. Its declared aim of encouraging and promoting discovery and invention is just part of the public relations paraphernalia. If for some entrants the award scheme happens to fulfil its declared aim then this is merely a fortuitous spin-off.
In keeping with the character of the capitalist free-market system which champions them, technical award schemes create a handful of winners and tens of thousands of losers. Furthermore, whether an entrant becomes a winner or a loser is nothing to do with the benefit his invention could bring to humanity or the revolutionary techniques which brought it into being. By any equitable scale of merit
(if indeed there is such a thing), the winners do not deserve to have received their awards any more than the losers deserve not to have received them.
This undeserved gain by a handful of winners would be tolerable if that is all there were to it. But it isn't. The very existence of the award puts the thousands who do not win it at a forced disadvantage. It positively labels their innovations as having failed. Further, it implies that the failure is technical rather than what it is: a mere lack of visual appeal, social topicality and entertaining wonderment. Consequently, if you have developed and are marketing an innovative product for which there is an award, and you are not the one who won it, then you are, and will forever remain, an 'also-ran'.
The absence of an award, which a competitor has, is seen by the buying market as an anti-recommendation - a real and tangible but wholly unearned mark of disapproval.
Corporate marketing generates a destructively negative image of the one-man business. This feeds the career-sensitive journalists of the industry press whose output reinforces the corporate message. These in turn feed the consultant with the basis of the advice he gives to his clients. Award schemes arbitrarily promote certain favoured suppliers. All these then feed the end-purchaser with his decision-making input. His purchases feed corporate profit which further re-empowers the marketing process. Thus is completed the unchecked super-regenerative economic loop which increasingly excludes the lone artisan from his only means of turning his work into his needs of life.
This negative image is the opposite of the reality I observed during the 15 years I was running my own business.
Quality of Service
I provided what my past customers insisted was an excellent software product with a first class support service. This was well evinced by the findings of a transcribed telephone survey which was conducted by a business counsellor from my local Training and Enterprise Council. Because my package gave such trouble-free service, all but one of its users very soon dropped my support service. My revenue fell.
When I buy a software product from a large company, I know from experience that despite their proclaimed hot-line support, I am essentially on my own. If ever I have a problem and write to them about it, I rarely get a reply. If I phone them, the person on the telephone will not be able to give me an answer and certainly will not get back to me. They seem only able to answer simple button-pushing problems which I invariably find answered in the documentation. Increasingly, any contact by telephone involves waiting for hours on the line listening to silly music sparsely punctuated by off-handed announcements as to your current position in the answering queue.
This is in stark contrast to the quality of support I provided for my clients. When they phoned, they got immediate access to the product's ultimate expert who could there and then answer any answerable question, and on discovery of a product fault had full authority, ability and the sense of obligation to implement and despatch an immediate correction. Which I always did. To get even a critically serious bug fixed in software produced by those who dominate the industry, one must wait until the next release and then buy the upgrade hoping that the bug has been fixed. It often isn't.
The major fear which corporate marketing has induced into the consumer mind is that small businesses are short-lived and prone to sudden disappearance. The consumer fears that the proprietor will suddenly decide to pack up and take a job with a large company. This may be so in some cases. Nevertheless, the predominant attraction for being a one-man-business is the direct control one has over one's activities. One is not accountable to the non-technical manager who does not understand why research and development, by its nature, cannot be straight-jacketed into a commercially expedient time scale. One is free to develop a completed product rather than one which has to be out of the door by a given deadline. This is not something the dedicated artisan would wish to give up lightly. Besides, in my case,
family circumstances make home-based working the only practical option. I am not free simply to pack up, relocate family and home, and take a job with an uncertain future with some distant corporate.
The fact is that though I became officially unemployed over 10 years ago, I still support the software I have installed on client systems. I corrected a small fault the other day in a date entry field which flagged 29 FEB 2000 as a date error. It was not a critical fault. The software underneath was still fully Millennium compliant. Nevertheless, correcting the fault provided cosmetic completeness to a package which was written in 1985.
"What happens to us if you go under a bus?" I was frequently asked. Firstly, software does not suddenly stop working if its author dies or otherwise becomes unavailable. There is ample time to replace it before it becomes out-dated or out of fashion. In any case it can still perform its original job. When I released my main software package on the IBM PC in 1985 it was fully Millennium compliant (even though the machines it ran on at the time were not). Secondly, as witnessed by countless large-scale multi-million pound white elephant software projects over the past two decades, the probability of a software artisan dying within the life-cycle of his product is negligible compared with the likelihood of:
- a project-critical employee leaving a corporate supplier
- a project team becoming critically depleted by poaching
- a company going bust within the life-cycle of its product.
I ran my business for 15 years. I am still supporting customers after 22 years (although to charge for that support would now invoke impossible bureaucratic complications). I think my customers have been supplied with outstanding quality. They still to this day have full continuity of service.
The average purchasing decision-maker is technically unqualified to judge a high-tech product. And the depth of knowledge possessed by his average advisor is not much better. They are both terrified of taking responsibility for making a judgement decision on a product or its supplier. The only criteria by which either of them can judge such a product or service is by what is usually called 'appeal to authority' which is in actuality 'appeal to image'. Judgement of the technical attributes and applicability of a product is therefore supplanted by a judgement of commercial image - who you are, who knows you, what sort of premises you inhabit, what sort of coverage your product has had in magazines and what reputation it has.
Prospective customers and their advisors therefore have a natural prejudice against the one-man business. They look upon the lone artisan as suspicious. They perceive him as unreliable and fly-by-night. They assume that the support they might receive from him is bound to be poor. Consequently, the one-man business is heavily discriminated against in purchase decisions. The majority of purchasers simply will not buy from or take on a one-man-business. Failure of the one-man-business is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Corporate marketing thus sustains an insurmountable barrier between the artisan and the only means by which he could otherwise turn his hard work into his needs of life.
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©May 1998 Robert John Morton