Salesforce.com is known for pushing the envelope with their controversial marketing strategies. The CEO responsible for their ascension from startup to Billion valuation, Mark Benioff, has provided some candid insights into their marketing growth strategies along the way. Here are 12 of the most controversial and unconventional philosophies.

1. Controversial Marketing Strategies: Position Yourself

Even before salesforce.com officially launched, we understood the value of a mar- keting-obsessed culture, and we strove to generate excitement about our new on- demand delivery model. Don Clark, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal , visited us while we were still based in the apartment, and he wrote a front-page story called “Canceled Programs: Software Is Becoming an Online Service, Shaking Up an Industry.” Published on July 21, 1999, the article illustrated the shift that was occurring. Clark cited our company, founded only six months before, as one of the examples. He wrote that I was “driven by a chance to make high-tech history,” and he closed the article by quoting me saying, “This will be the spawning of a new industry.”   -Marc Benioff, CEO

This statement, only 6 months into the early development of Salesforce, positioned the company exactly where they wanted – As REVOLUTIONARIES.

2. Controversial Marketing Strategies: Party with a Purpose

As the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000, we readied ourselves to introduce salesforce.com to the world properly and officially. This was the era of the extrav- agant dot-com bash (one company hired performers from Cirque du Soleil; an- other flew in an accordion player from Turkey).² Even against this backdrop of ex- cess, I wanted the salesforce.com launch to stand out.  We held our event at San Francisco’s Regency Theater. Although we wanted our guests to enjoy the party and planned the menu and entertainment to ensure that they did, the event also carried a much larger mission. Unlike other dot-com par- ties, which functioned to introduce a company and its products, we needed to introduce an entirely new market (on-demand, or SaaS, or cloud computing) and promote a new way of doing business.

This level of excitement signaled to the entire market that Salesforce was doing something BIG. They believed it, and they demonstrated the confidence early and often.

Salesforce was doing something BIG. Click To Tweet

I stood up at the party and made a daring comment, but one that I believed wholeheartedly: “We are going to be a $100 million company three years from now,” I declared. “We’re going to be the last dot-com.” 

 

3. Create a Persona

I played the role of revolutionary at our launch party and even wore army fatigues because I needed to demonstrate that I was ready to lead our battle against the established software industry. This readiness to fight for what we believed represented the vision and values of our company. As the founder of this mission, it was my job to walk the talk.

You are ALWAYS telling a story. How you dress, how you act, how you spend your time. Leverage this to your advantage at all times.

 

4. Differentiate, Differentiate, Differentiate

When starting any new initiative, I like to seek the insight of the brightest minds. My “go to the guru” approach led me to hire Bruce Campbell to help brand salesforce.com. Bruce is one of the best admen in the business. I shared with him our “End of Software” mission, and he came to me with an idea for a NO SOFTWARE logo (the word SOFTWARE in a red circle with a line though it; think Ghostbusters). It was perfect. It was simple. It was sexy. It was fun. I especially liked that it fit on a button. I also appreciated the phone number it inspired, 1-800-NO-SOFTWARE, which provided customers an easy way to find us.

To shake up an entire industry like Salesforce did, you need to be perfectly clear in your messaging. You are presenting a radical new idea, and it requires precise clarity to get your message across.

You need to be perfectly clear in your messaging. Click To Tweet

5. Make Every Employee a Key Player on the Marketing Team, and Ensure Everyone Is On Message

One day, early in our occupancy at the Rincon Center, our marketing director, a developer, a quality assurance person, and an engineer were in the elevator when another tenant in the building asked, “What exactly does salesforce.com do?” To my surprise, everybody gave a different answer.

Every employee you have is a potential marketing opportunity, with everyone they talk with. It’s important they are equipped with a clear and concise description of what they company does.

To ensure that everyone was on the same page (literally), our PR firm, OutCast Communications, produced a two-sided laminated card. It was a marketing cheat sheet that stated in one sentence what we did. It also provided information about the benefits of our service, our newest customers and partners, and our most recent awards. With this card, we leveraged everyone—from developers to engi- neers to quality assurance people—as integral parts of our marketing organization.

6. Always, Always Go After Goliath

Salesforce only acknowledged one competitor—the market leader. After all, that was the only position for which we were vying. Furthermore, it cast us in the right role as the underdog and the visionary. It’s always wise to play the visionary card. Everyone roots for you. If there is no Goliath in your industry, go after the status quo.

It’s much easier to win the crowd when you are trying to improve areas where they current “Goliath” is lacking. Which makes it much easier to win early users, as well.

7. Tactics Dictate Strategy

One idea alone is a tactic, but if it can be executed a number of different ways, it becomes a great strategy. Because the guerilla tactic of directly leveraging the activities of our competition worked so well, we repeated it and made it one of our marketing strategies. I learned this idea from the marketing classic Positioning: The Bat- tle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

Salesforce became famous for the tactic of providing free transportation to attendees of conferences (especially competitor conferences), as a way to buy time with thousands of potential power users. This was so successful for them, they continued it time and again.

8. Engage the Market Leader

We were always looking for new ways to differentiate ourselves, and we began considering an ad campaign that would directly take on the competition. I called Rick Bennett, who had done the biplane ad, and he came up with “Don’t get bullied,” a campaign featuring a schoolboy writing on a chalkboard. One advertisement showed the schoolboy (my cousin) writing the message, “I will not give my lunch money to Siebel” one hundred times. Another had him writing, “I will not spend my summer vacation installing Siebel.”

Salesforce, with their creative PR tactics, was able to consistently rattle the cage of the market leader, Siebel. This helped legitimize Salesforce as a brand, and continued to attract more and more press, because of the interesting story.

9. Reporters Are Writers; Tell Them a Story

Although the battle between salesforce.com and Siebel wasn’t driven by a personal feud, the press didn’t see it that way, and reporters loved building drama around this story. That makes sense. After all, reporters like to tell a story with a protag- onist and a villain.

Salesforce was fortunate the press already viewed Siebel as a villain, but they were also successfully able to continue that narrative.

The reality was that in terms of revenue and customers, we were still just a tiny little start-up. No one at the Wall Street Journal , the New York Times, or Busi- nessWeek really cared about a small start-up. However, they did care about a small start-up that pledged to upend the industry leader. Journalists welcomed hearing from a challenger that was a harbinger of an industry-wide transformation.

Being an agent of change was a key element of our marketing strategy. A David versus Goliath story is interesting, but we had to pitch the bigger picture. That’s where The End of Software story came in. We painted a picture that showed that the industry was changing. We talked about what our competitors did wrong. We introduced our solution. We explained why it was good for customers. We talked about the future and tapped into the large audience of people who cared about what would happen next.

10. Cultivate Relationships with Select Journalists

I enjoy meeting with journalists. As an author and someone who prizes communication as the most essential part of my job, I also identify with them. Even while I appreciate the conversations I have with these professionals who care about what they are observing in the world and who are constantly thinking about the future, I also consider my relationships with journalists and bloggers to be a pivotal part of our marketing strategy.

Make it easy for key journalists in your space to reach you. Become valuable to them. Understand their job and how to craft a compelling story around your industry.

11. Make Your Own Metaphors

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to say to journalists and how I want to say it. I like to come up with simple metaphors to help explain what we are doing and communicate our message. Early on, for example, I said, “salesforce.com is Amazon.com meets Siebel Systems,” then it was “AppExchange is the eBay of enterprise software,” and later, “Force.com is the Windows Internet operating system.”

Metaphors are a simple and effective way to communicate ideas. If you can craft a vivid metaphor describing the benefits of your product, sales will flow. Here is how to do it: Relate your product to something that is current and relevant and that everyone understands.

Metaphors are a simple and effective way to communicate ideas. Click To Tweet

12. No Sacred Cows

Roughly two years after we started our company, George Hu, an analytical and enterprising Stanford MBA student, joined salesforce.com as a summer intern. (Six years later he would lead our global marketing organization.) George was tasked to investigate new vertical markets, such as health care or financial services, for our business to pursue, but on his own initiative he began to examine our sales process and analyze the effectiveness of our marketing dollars. At the time, we were spending $2 to $3 million a month on direct mail and advertising campaigns.  

George used the Salesforce application to determine the number of sales leads being generated by our direct mail campaigns. He found that we had fourteen leads in six months. We were shocked, and none of us could believe how much money we were wasting. Although some of the campaigns were extremely successful at differentiating our brand and garnering a firestorm of publicity, George’s metrics demonstrated that they weren’t winning customers. It was time for a drastic change. After all, it didn’t make any sense to create something truly innovative and then rely on tired methods to market and sell it.

Ruthlessly track your marketing spend. If something is not working, focus more attention on what is.

Do you have any crazy or unconventional philosophies within your company?