Marketing Is a Tax You Pay for Being Unremarkable


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Robert Stephens, founder of The Geek Squad, the IT support company that changed the way consumer technology support is delivered, has a great quote on how a distinctive customer experience makes marketing spend almost unnecessary in some cases:

“Marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable”.

I love that. Robert takes a distinctive approach to marketing. I remember once interviewing him whilst he was driving his car, for one of my books. I kept hearing a swishing sound. I asked what it was. Robert answered it was cars overtaking him. Not him overtaking other cars. Other cars overtaking his Geek Squad-branded vehicle. I apologized if I was slowing him up and he laughed and said it was his policy.

Robert had worked out that if he drove at a couple of miles under the speed limit, three times as many cars would see the Geek Squad branding on his car as they passed than if he kept up with the traffic.

The Geek Squad is like living theatre or, as Robert calls his band of technology fixers, with their Dragnet-style faux cop cars, FBI-style badges and NASA Geek chic short-sleeved shirts, white socks and clip on ties, “a living comic book”.

Now, Robert Stephens is a man who knows how to create a distinctive customer experience and build the whole business upon it. He’s recently gone into partnership with one of our clients in the UK, Carphone Warehouse, to bring the Geeks to the UK, having gone from strength to strength with his alliance with Best Buy in the US.

We all have a lot to learn from The Geek Squad in building a customer experience that makes you stand out from your commodity-like competitors. Here’s a picture of a couple of his Geeks, with one of their fans – Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer:

Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co the leading UK based Customer Experience consultancy. Shaun speaks and consults internationally on the subject of the brand purpose and customer experience. Shaun's latest book 'On Purpose- delivering a branded customer experience people love' was co-written with Andy Milligan.


  1. Shaun

    Interesting April 1st post.

    As everyone knows, if your product sucks then all the marketing in the world won’t help you. But if your product is just average, marketing IS a powerful tool in your armoury. And the majority of products and services are thoroughly average.

    As research on the uptake of new products shows, marketing helps take customers through the earlier stages of the communications effects cycle until they are ready to try your product. It is then up to the customer experience, particularly the long-term usage experience with the product. Without marketing, most customers will not even reach the trial stage.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. I don’t really like the idea of being marketed to. I guess marketing is necessary for keeping customers informed but beyond that… I don’t like it. Strangely, it is commodities that sell the best without any marketing. All this while marketing was considered to be an investment and now all of a sudden, its a “tax” :). I don’t completely disagree but however good your product, there’s a basic minimum level of marketing that it will require to take off.

    Piyush Bakshi

  3. Interesting post Shaun,

    I want to defend marketing, and perhaps explain what marketing is for the unitiated.

    Firstly, let me admit that I’m not personally familiar with the Geek Squad but it’s clear from Shaun’s description and my subsequent web-search that Robert Stephens’s creation of such a stand-out strategy is pure marketing bliss. The man’s a marketing wizard! Differentiating the offer from competitors is basic marketing. Marketing isn’t just the communications piece after the innovation has hit the market. It includes the product/service development process and the innovation itself. Indeed, marketing without innovation is like bread without yeast, stodgy!

    Francis Buttle

  4. Francis,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, there is a place for Marketing but I found Robert Stephen’s positioning of it as being secondary to having an innovative service product refreshing. All too often we see creative marketing and advertising used to try to put a shine on what is an unispiring offer.


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