Subversive Marketing: How to Build a Brand When They Tell You “No”

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The task was daunting, no way around that. Picture yourself facing this: You’re responsible to grow revenue for a company that’s smaller than most of your significant competitors, has a narrower service offering, and no reputation outside its immediate locality. It has no structural source of competitive advantage. It’s a custom-manufacturing / service firm in a high cost-of-labor area. It has no cutting-edge products or services, and a top down strategy to behave as a “fast follower” rather than to innovate. It applies technology developed by others rather than developing its own.

Picture your resources: an ossified sales organization, a small marketing budget, leadership with an operations and finance focus. Picture your constraints: your organization is a subsidiary of a corporate parent that’s command-and-control driven. The parent has developed guidelines for name and logo use that prevent you from using either in any distinguishing fashion. What do you do? Frankly, you do the only thing you can do. You become a subversive. You build a brand without ever telling anyone you’re doing it.

Subversive is a term I like. The dictionary definition is great fun: “Subversive (Səbˈvərsiv/) — seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.” Synonyms include: disruptive, troublemaking, inflammatory, and insurrectionary. Even better, the noun form refers to a subversive person. Synonyms include: troublemaker, dissident, agitator, revolutionary, renegade, rebel. Sounds to me like the stuff of great marketing and great marketers.

A Subversive Role Model

Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, the protagonist in the movie V for Vendetta is a great example of a subversive becoming a brand. V’s intent was certainly to “subvert an established system or institution.” To do that, he made trouble, was disruptive, and was very inflammatory. While I don’t endorse the over-the-top violence of the film, that character is a great role model. For the company I’m describing, it was essential to subvert the established system. That system put the company at a severe disadvantage in the marketplace. The company was bowing to the entrenched positions of established and larger competitors. Creating a strong and positive brand was the essential response.

Many sales and marketing executives are handed big challenges by small to medium sized enterprises. Often those companies were built in an era when a brand wasn’t essential for B2B marketing. “Doing it the way we’ve always done it” is sometimes celebrated, but often used as the trump card defense against anything that hasn’t been done before, no matter how necessary you may know it is now. So what was handed to me wasn’t all that unusual. However, my diagnosis was. And so were my tactics in response.

The diagnosis was simple for someone who had already built four strong brands: without one we’re toast. We’d never get taken seriously, we’d never get included for review by the clients we wanted, we’d never get outside of the local geographical space, and we’d never meet the revenue targets being set for us. Nothing would plow the road in front of the sales organization, enabling them to be effective. Any other approach was a recipe to fail. I’d simply have become one in a long line of sales and marketing executives through a fast-spinning, revolving door. That wasn’t on my agenda. So, here’s what I did to build a brand within the constraints I had:

Create an Alternative Icon

The key to subversive branding in situations like this one is creating a brand icon separate and distinct from the name/logo/tagline combination in the steel grip of the corporate parent / corporate subsidiary. Those will need to appear somewhere, most often given a minimal hat tip. But the major branding icon needs to have power absent from the corporate name and logo. In my case, that was an emblem or medallion (we called it a Service Seal) that expressed our promise and implied that we guaranteed it. The benefit of this tactic is that no one is going to hand you branding guidelines for something other than the corporate identity. So you’re leveraging organizational myopia while happily obeying the letter of corporate law. I was never called on the carpet for having done something that didn’t obey the corporate guidelines.

Make an Audacious Promise

I pushed hard to get the leadership team to agree on a simple mission statement so that I could create a positioning statement from it. That’s Marketing 101 — nothing remarkable there. However, it’s curious that no one else saw this as “mission critical” (pun intended.) I did. I needed to anchor the brand’s claim to the organizational mission, and I needed an adjective. The mission wasn’t especially remarkable. It was a simple statement about being of service. Remarkable was that it expressed the intention to create an experience long before anyone was talking and writing about creation of an intentional customer experience. And the adjective described the quality of that service experience: extraordinary. Therefore, from the top down, the operating company made a commitment in writing to create an extraordinary experience. Perfect. I was armed to make an audacious promise with a completely clear conscience because the company’s leadership had committed to the language I was about to use.

Create a Powerful Voice

Audacious claims often fail to ring true. An audacious claim delivered badly or clumsily will trigger skepticism and suspicion rather than confidence. That’s because an audacious claim or promise can sound like more marketing hyperbole. Fortunately, that’s a bullet that good marketers can effectively dodge by asking “whose voice?” rather than “what voice?”

One of the consistent efforts we made was to solicit actionable customer feedback. We did it through telephone interviews. A brilliant third-party research firminterviewed six customers by telephone each month. We carefully crafted the questionnaire to get to the customer’s experience, perceptions, brand affinity, and the stickiness of the relationship. The interviews were designed to take 30 minutes each. And the feedback we received included verbatim comments from customers that the research firm transcribed for us. That means we got detailed feedback from about 70 customers a year. And that’s a gold mine for a good marketer.

From the verbatim comments of real customers, we were able to easily identify our “raving fans.” And we used their actual words to craft a voice-of-the-customer, testimonial campaign that ran unchanged for almost ten years. New voices appeared regularly in all of our print and digital marketing messages. We used the words of our customers to declare that they were actively receiving what we were promising – extraordinary service. It was incredibly effective.

Stay the Course

Brands are built in increments. To use an over-used metaphor, building a brand is like building a cathedral. It is not like building a retaining wall. A retaining wall can usually be built in a couple of weekends or a few days. A cathedral takes years or decades. To build B2B brand equity, the brand needs to stand for something. But the brand also needs to stand for the same thing, consistently and resolutely, for years. That means that your B2B brand dare not be a slave to fashion.

A brand icon — the combination of a graphic, name or word, and tagline — cannot get repeatedly changed without restarting the building process each time it changes. Brand equity (the presence and power of your brand in the minds of your customers) is far too precious to abandon when someone would like a fresher look or a new theme. Yes, that means frustration for art directors who feel constrained. Trust me, they’ll get over it.

Refine and Polish

Brands do need regular polishing. That’s very different from reinvention or ill conceived “brand make-overs.” Polishing a brand is an exercise in discipline. It’s the search for those elements of your brand communication or brand identity that can be simplified, made cleaner, made clearer, made stronger. But that’s only possible if you began well, with a brand promise anchored to your organization’s purpose. Without the clarity of a powerful, unchanging brand promise that resonates with your customers and potential customers, you’ve no unchanging point of reference against which to gauge potential refinements.

If the promise is a strong one, if it describes how you’re going to create remarkable value for your customers and what they can expect to experience when they become and remain your customers, the clarity it yields can be genuinely startling. It’s also a complete conversation stopper when someone wants to try something that will dilute your brand equity rather than distill it even further.

What Else Does It Take?

Subversive branding relies on a marketer’s willingness to integrate every action and every investment in order to leverage the scarce resources just as far as possible. Leveraging a customer feedback process to create brand messaging is a good example. But this also requires a willingness to make careful decisions about what you can actually execute on your own without much in the way of outside resources.

What Can You Expect?

So, what kind of results can you expect from subversively building a brand? Well, the results of the example I described were telling. In ten years, we tripled revenue while moving from breakeven performance to industry profit leader performance. We built customer relationships so strong that we had more “evergreen” and auto-escalator contracts with our customers than the rest of our sister companies combined. We intimidated our competitors to the point that when one of our customer testimonials appeared, competing salespeople later shared that they simply took that customer off their prospect list. The pursuit would be a waste of time and effort. We enjoyed exceptionally low customer attrition. And we were routinely invited to participate in vendor selection processes. We were almost always a finalist, and usually pitted against a pair of much larger competitors. Our win rate for those opportunities was also industry-leading.

We did all of that despite structural constraints that were very real, and from which we got no relief. We had no other source of durable competitive advantage. But we were able to deliver remarkable results because we built a great brand — subversively.

What do you think?


Part of my practice is creating and building strong B2B brands. If your company could benefit, let’s talk.