Mean people suck in marketing and what to do about it


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Why does most marketing stink?

According to Michael Brenner, “the reason most of the marketing that we do that stinks and doesn’t work is that some executive with a big ego asked us to do it.”

You may be thinking, why not push back? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Here’s why:

Marketers are not in a happy place.

According to MarketingProfs 2019 Marketer Happiness Report, “Only 10% of marketers say they were very fulfilled in their work.”

They looked at the dimensions of feeling fulfilled, valued, energized by the work, that our work is impactful, and engagement. It’s notable that the majority of the 1,533 respondents were B2B marketers too.

What’s the bottom line? We need more empathy and caring for ourselves so that we can empathize more with our customers.

According to Michael Brenner, “The most counter-intuitive secret to success in business and life is empathy.”

That’s why I interviewed Michael Brenner (@BrennerMichael) the CEO of 

He just released his new book, Mean People Suck: How empathy leads to bigger profits and a better life.

I’m excited to bring his thoughts on empathy to you.

Why did you write Mean People Suck?

Michael: Again, I must give you credit. You were out in front of this empathy topic in marketing.

I think long before me. Kudos to you. It just took me a little longer, but mainly as a content marketer and as a former internal corporate marketer, I reached out to folks that I know that are still living and breathing corporate marketing struggles every day.

And I found a couple of things, number one was that marketers were miserable. It’s like that scene from, I think it’s Poltergeist where the obsessed woman has help written on her. Was it Poltergeist? Anyway, there was a woman possessed, and the words help showed up on her stomach because I feel like a lot of internal corporate marketers feel that way. They’re miserable.

Why marketers are so miserable?

Michael: When you get down to it, what I’ve found is that it’s mainly because they hate their boss.

They don’t love the corporate culture. They’re not happy with what they’re being asked to do. They feel they don’t have an impact.

When I looked at why content marketing programs aren’t successful, the answer superficially was content ROI. What’s the ROI of content? And if you don’t mind me, I’m not being promotional, but I wrote a book called The Content Formula, All About Content Marketing ROI.

And when I went back to folks, I sent the book to, what I found was that it wasn’t enough. The math isn’t enough to get people over the challenges that we’re facing and how to do marketing that doesn’t suck.

Most marketing stinks for this reason

Michael: The answer is the reason I wrote the book is that most of the marketing that we do that stinks and doesn’t work, is because some executive with a big ego asked us to do it.

Executives love seeing logos on stadiums, and they love seeing super bowl ads, and all the things that we make fun of marketing about primarily come from a request from sales or marketing or product people.

And the companies where content marketing is successful or marketers are happy, they’re making an impact because there’s a culture of empathy. Their cultures don’t suck. The companies don’t suck. The leaders don’t suck. That’s why I wrote the book. Maybe a long-winded explanation, but that’s why.

Why empathy is more important now

Brian:  It’s hard for marketers to care about the customer when they don’t feel cared about too. They don’t feel safe. They’re anxious, or they’re frustrated, or they’re overwhelmed. You also talked about empathy. Why does empathy matter, especially to marketers and does it lead to better results?

Michael: Yeah, One of the stories that I tell in the book, the very first corporate book that I read, and I have to give credit to the former CEO at Nielsen, my first company who made most of us in the company read the book. And I was like, “Oh, here we go. And I read the book. I was like,” Wow, this is actually really pretty cool.”

It’s called the Service Profit Chain. I write a lot about it.

It’s a book that isn’t talked about much, but the premise is simple. Three or four Harvard business review professors got together, and they said, wait for a second, we’ve seen this correlation between engaged employees are happy employees, happy customers, and higher stock prices more satisfied stock investors.

They did some actual research, and they found that where there’s employee engagement, there is customer loyalty. Where there’s customer loyalty, there’s higher spend rates and retention and higher stock prices.

The counter-intuitive secret to success 

Michael: The key to those environments, those cultures, those companies where there were happy employees, was empathy. The company’s purpose was to make their employees happy because they knew happy employees created delighted customers. It’s totally intuitive, and yet it’s counterintuitive.

That’s one of the reasons we reconnected was my LinkedIn post’s empathy is the counterintuitive secret to success. The thing is, I think that life has beaten us down and gotten us to believe that we should take what we want, and we should put our elbows out and get to the front of the line. It’s the opposite. It’s counterintuitive that if we help people, we can get what we want.

It’s right for marketing, which really has a bad reputation. Most people think marketing is propaganda and promotion, but the companies that have effective marketing are those that are empathetic. It’s those that are empathetic to their customers and don’t just create advertising and propaganda.

Empathy really is the key to marketing and business and in life. I kind of wrote the book kind of really trying to straddle all three of those perspectives. I hope your listeners look, and hopefully, they can maybe get back to me and tell me how well I did to try to straddle those three.

Brian: Well, I just want to say I’m excited for you. I’m passionate about this book because big-picture empathy or caring for customers or wanting to help people it’s easy to talk about. Right? I think if you were asking your own executives, do you care about your customers? Do you have empathy for your employees? I don’t think anyone would argue with that, but it’s easier to talk about than it is to do.

Getting customers to care (begins with caring)  

Brian: One of the things you talked about was just the customer journey, and what the experience is for customers, why they don’t care about brands anymore and how the brand doesn’t matter. So why is that?

Michael: Well, the first thing is I think it’s essential for marketers and especially brand marketers, corporate marketers, but I also believe those who are in the trenches there need to understand how to explain this to executives. And that is that we just aren’t that important. We’re not as exciting or important as we think we are.

My former company, Nielsen, did a survey of brands and found that consumers wouldn’t care, 77% said they wouldn’t care if the brands they use disappeared completely. We’re seen as replaceable in many aspects. While we think we’re super important, and we believe we are fascinating. Our customers are just trying to get through every day and trying to meet the challenges they face.

They’re trying to stay awake. The bar is low. Yet so many brands don’t create any kind of messaging or sort of stories that resonate. And so that’s really the trick is if you genuinely care about your customers, you don’t talk about yourself as much.

When I meet somebody new, I don’t say, “Hi, my name is Michael Brenner, and I’m awesome.” That’s the last thing I would ever say.

If I want somebody to listen to me, I say, “Hi, how are you?” My first thing is outreach. It’s empathy. It’s not promotion and propaganda and ego. I think we just forget that sometimes when we’re sitting inside the corporate marketing department.

Brian: Well, you’re illustrating the point, and then I’ll come back, that empathy is more comfortable to talk about than it is to do. We’ve got to overcome our own bias, thinking that we have the answer.

How to use empathy in your marketing approach

Brian: I believe marketers come from the perspective: If I were the customer, how would this appeal to me? Or, as you talked about the leader who wants to see the logo, well, that’s not a customer-focused decision in their calculus.

How might marketers use empathy in their approach to customers?

Michael: In my first book, The Content Formula, I talk about my year-long struggle to get my colleagues inside SAP to see and to have empathy for our customers. I started with data. The data often leads to the conclusion.

For example, at SAP, we were selling a cloud computing solution called SAP HANA, which now has a little brand awareness but then didn’t have any.

What I tried to show my colleagues in marketing was that people weren’t searching for our product name. They weren’t searching even for SAP cloud computing solutions. They were searching for things like what is cloud computing.

In every industry, no matter what thing you sell, if you sell, cybersecurity solutions, and you sell the world’s most excellent cybersecurity solution named alpha, I’m just making this up, people aren’t searching for alpha as much as they’re searching for cybersecurity solutions.

When I found the data didn’t work, I moved to fear, FOMO, in a way, but really fear. I went to the sales team and showed them that I use this term, the buying journey doesn’t start with a search for our product. And the sales team understood that better than my peers in marketing.

And I use search. I said, “Hey, look, when, when I, when I type cloud computing into Google, IBM, and Oracle and Salesforce show up, but SEP didn’t show up at all.” They got angry. That anger then translated to direct mandates over to my peers in marketing, who finally created the atmosphere and environment for me to create customer-focused content. It was kind of like a mafia move if you will. I kind of strong-armed them too to see that it was the right thing to do.

Brian: The point you made is you went to the people who we’re talking to the customer. They had that insight. And ironically, we’re in marketing, we’re supposed to influence messages of customers, but we are not in the building.

Putting customers in the center of your org chart

Brian: You have a lot of great stories in your book. Do you have a favorite story? And if so, which one?

Michael: Yeah. One of the things I talk about how to create empathy inside the organization is to rethink the org chart. I talk about how org charts are boxes and lines, and they show who’s above and below us.

Basically, they highlight who directs orders down to the minions who do the stuff, do the work. I talk about the org charts miss the most important person, and that’s the customer. I’m not suggesting every company should recreate the org chart, but if we rethink the org chart, it will look more like a bullseye, right?

Customer in Center of Org Chart

Bullseye org charts focus everyone on the common goal of serving the most important person to the organization, the customer via

You have the customer at the center, and all the departments branching out from there would be thinking, how should I best serve this customer? There’s a couple of stories in the book of people, and they’re not all necessarily marketers, but indeed a few who’ve done that.

Cleveland Clinic empathy story

One is Amanda Todorovich from Cleveland Clinic. She has a viral empathy video. If you Google Cleveland Clinic empathy video, you’ll see an internal… It was initially an internally created video to try to get the executives inside Cleveland Clinic to see that Cleveland Clinic is more than just a business. It’s more than a hospital operation.

It’s an organization that serves patients. The concerns that patients have are matters of life and death and giving birth and dying. Amanda’s teams’ video was incredibly impactful. I get chills just talking about it. I use it in every presentation, and it has 4 million views online.

They released it publicly at the behest of their executive team because they really understood the impact of, hey, you know, what makes us different isn’t because we have great surgeons, and we have utilized some particular technique or equipment, what makes us unique is that we really care for our patients.

It’s kind of empathy writ large in a way to a corporate mission in many cases all the way down to the content that Amanda and her team create every day, which serves patient needs. And so that’s one of my favorite stories from an empathy perspective.

There are probably 15 stories. I could keep going. I’ll stop myself because I love talking about the people, I call champions, the champion leaders, the people that celebrated others, and achieved success because of that. That’s the counterintuitive nature of empathy. It’s helping others, live your life in service of others, and you get what you want. And that’s really at the heart of the book.

Brian: Well, in my experience, I 100% agree. I’ve always had the best marketing selling feels like helping because it is. But I had a Jerry Maguire moment where I realized I wasn’t living that. My team was more focused on trying to convert people instead of connecting and help.  We asked hey, what do customers care about? How can I help them get it? Ironically when we stopped trying to get leads, we got 303% more opportunities because we were really helping people.

Do you have tips for developing more empathy customers that you could share with our listeners?

Ask this: what’s in it for the customer? 

Michael: Yeah. There’s a couple of, I guess, tools I wanted to develop for your listeners. For the people who were like me who was sitting, getting asked to do stuff that we know won’t work. And the sort of the highest-level insight is asking what’s in it for the customer.

For example, your sales leader comes over and says, I’d like a brochure for this niche industry event we’re going to. It’s going to cost you $4,000, and it’s a couple of designers and a printer to get created. Just ask, “What’s in it for the customer?” Do people really read our brochures? Are they going to throw it right in the trash? You might think it’s essential to stuff that inside the conference bag, but I’ve never read a brochure myself from a conference.

If we ask what’s in it for the customer as opposed to thinking of our jobs as just doing what the sales team or the product team or our boss tells us to do, the answer, I think, is sometimes surprising.

We wouldn’t do half of what we do if we asked what’s in it for the customer.

The pushback questions

I offer three deeper level questions that there’s a couple of examples of people who have done this. I call it the push back. It just goes a bit deeper.

Who is this for?

Why is it important?

How are we going to measure the impact?

And if you ask those three, those are three deeper level questions from them what’s in it for the customer sort of overview.

Again, you wouldn’t put your logo on a stadium, you wouldn’t create a brochure that costs a lot of money to print and kills trees. You wouldn’t do a lot of the things that we do that we roll our eyes about when we think about marketing and when we think about really all the propaganda that comes outside of companies.

Brian: It’s so funny as I listen to you. As I talk with marketers, often, VPs will lament, and we forget what it’s like to be a customer even though we’re all customers ourselves. That’s kind of the crazy thing.

Any other things you wish I would’ve asked about before we just close?

Michael: No, I think we’ve covered the primary tips. I appreciate you bringing me on and letting me share these tips with the readers. I’d love for your audience to read the book.

Again, everything I do, I’ve done in support of this desire to try to help people. I started blogging before I had a business just because I wanted to share what I know. The keynotes I give, the books that I write, and even the client work that I do get paid for are really to try to help people, and it’s worked for me.

I don’t think I’m smarter than other people. If it works for me, I think it’s the secret for many of us to live a life that’s maybe a little more meaningful, a little more impactful. I just talk to so many people. I talk about this crisis of engagement and empathy. The world feels like a meaner place these days.

Three takeaways from the book

The three takeaways from the book are: be kind, be cool, and be you.

Be kind is just because it’s the right thing to do.

Be cool is don’t take things personally. A lot of the mean people we meet aren’t psychopaths and narcissists, they’re just having a bad day.

Be you is because the people that are, I think, living their fullest life, but they know what their purpose is, and they’re working in support of that, and it’s often in service of others.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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