The Maui Dolphin is the world’s smallest and rarest subspecies of dolphin. It was discovered as a separate species in 2002 when genetic analysis showed it wasn’t just a regional variant of the more common Hector’s Dolphin. It’s estimated that there are 55 adult Maui Dolphins left. They are only found in the waters off the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, which were made into a marine santuary to protect the dolphins. In mid-2014 the New Zealand government opened the sanctuary for oil drilling.
Opposition political parties saw an opportunity to attack, and by the time of the general election later that year, a vote for the incumbent government had become a vote for the extinction of the Maui Dolphin.
Even to someone with only moderate understanding this seems like an oversimplification of the issues, but it’s exactly that simple symbolism that works so effectively as marketing.
The environment is a huge and complex system, intertwined with the economy and our everyday quality of life and activities. In New Zealand in 2014, there were certainly more significant environmental issues than those 55 dolphins. Lots of issues that were objectively much bigger and more important, but just too hard and too complex to explain. So the political marketers found a symbol, and an easy-to-grasp, salad-defying message – “this government kills dolphins” – and they focused on that.
If you want to understand the leading edge of marketing look to political marketing. Look to the spin doctors. Symbols are the best weapon in their arsenal. In the world of politics symbols stick better than drawn-out arguments and appeals to logic. It’s the same in the world of startup marketing – symbols stick.
When Sonar6 said “At last, performance reviews that don’t suck”, we weren’t talking about the complicated problem of improving people management; we were talking about the symbol of the problem. Even though we built complex software that solved a complex problem we only talked about a symbol of broken people management in business: the shitty performance review.
The market won’t grasp the detail of what you do, or be interested. This is especially true if you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. Focusing on a symbol will simplify things. The easiest way to simplify your marketing is to look for the symbol of the problem your business solves.
Simplifying things often means that some of the accuracy will be lost. But you have to be ok with that. The rule is: As long as you are trading accuracy for clarity, it is ok.
If John and I had walked into that meeting with Sequoia and said, “We’re Sonar6. We fix the broken performance review”, salad chaos or not, we would have nailed it.