How to Become an ‘Unmarketer’: Stop Marketing and Start Engaging

Marketing guru Scott Stratten says that everything has changed, but nothing is different. Translation: The tools and techniques of marketing have changed radically in recent years, but the fundamental goal remains the same: Deep engagement with customers. How can banking marketers keep their eyes fixed on that north star?

Scott Stratten has built his career around embracing and then espousing unconventional wisdom, beginning with the brand he chose for the marketing firm he launched 22 years ago: UnMarketing.

Stratten literally wears the word “unlearn” on his sleeve — as one of numerous tattoos also adorning his arm — and has parlayed that and other “un-” words to lead a number of Fortune 500 companies toward more authentic and resonant interactions with customers.

headshot of scott stratten

The Toronto-based Stratten, working in tandem with his wife Alison, has written six books encapsulating his beliefs on marketing, taking lessons for what he’s done for the likes of 3M, PepsiCo, Walmart, Adobe, IBM, and Microsoft — helping them “navigate their way through the landscape of business disruption.” The couple also host a podcast called, naturally, “The UnPodcast.”

Stratten declares “everything has changed and nothing is different,” reminding marketers that even though technology has dramatically transformed how to communicate with customers, what they look for in the companies they interact with remains the same.

Books in the Stratten library, like UnMarketing, UnBranding, and UnSelling (with UnLeadership just published) are giving businesses a playbook for how to diverge from outmoded conventional practices to better and more authentically connect with customers.

Stratten is a featured speaker at The Financial Brand Forum 2024, May 20-22 in Las Vegas, part of our Forum X program, a series of high-level talks designed to help banking executives prepare themselves and their organizations for the future. Other speakers in the Forum X program include Amazon’s Tia White, futurist Mike Walsh, and global marketing guru Bonin Bough. See the Forum website for more info on Forum X, and details on the full program.

Here are some of the anchor tenets of the UnMarketing mindset that Stratten champions, celebrating the three pillars of authenticity, integrity, and connection, while emphasizing the importance of building community.

Stop Marketing and Start Engaging

This point leads Stratten’s online treatise on unmarketing, and it’s central to what Stratten teaches and speaks about.

He says, “When you focus on building trust and connection, so when your market needs your product or service, you are the logical choice.” Initially, the idea sprang from being mindful of how you yourself like to be marketed to. Stratten’s line of thinking is that if you hate cold calls — and a lot of people understandably do — why would your customers welcome them? “If you believe business is built on relationships, you make building them your business.”

“Marketing is a verb, and it doesn’t matter what your fancy mission statement says, what matters is what you do.”

He adds, “Customers don’t see silos.” Companies may have a strongly defined and delineated marketing, sales, and branding teams — but to the customer, any outreach from your company is perceived as something done by the company, good or bad, rather than the product of a particular department. Stratten says, “Marketing is a verb, and it doesn’t matter what your fancy mission statement says, what matters is what you do.”

That idea even extends to hiring with the advice, “Value frontline workers because they are your brand. Period.”

There is No Neutral Brand Experience

Stratten says that one facet of the unmarketing umbrella is “unselling”, and that starts with a concept he terms “the pulse.” Customers and potential customers move through one of three parts of a spectrum when evaluating your company.

One is “vulnerable,” the state in which your customer is susceptible to moving from your company to a competitor. Maybe a potential customer hasn’t landed on a purchase decision. Maybe it’s a current customer who’s experienced past unpleasant interactions. An unselling mindset means you want to move people from this state.

Then, there’s “static,” which he defines as “the space where companies have the greatest direct effect on customer experience – for good and bad. Here we see interactions like ‘great customer service experience’ or ‘frustrating return policy’ as the customer and brand interact.” Because there’s no neutral brand experience, each interaction moves a customer up or down along the spectrum.

Finally, there’s “ecstatic,” which he defines as “brand fans and ambassadors.” The difference between static and ecstatic is that “static customers exist — but ecstatic customers refer.”

Innovate When It Makes Sense to Your Customers

In 2013, the Strattens wrote a book highlighting various marketing missteps that companies made, illustrating how to better connect with audiences. Their playful title, QR Codes Kill Kittens, referred to the QR Code fad embraced by marketers but not necessarily consumers. As they pointed out at the time, “Only a vanishingly small portion of consumers knows what they are, has the ability and knowledge to use them, and, most importantly, actually does scan them.”

That eventually changed, and in 2021, a New York Times reporter asked Stratten why what he once maligned was now catching on. Stratten cited two reasons for the change: Apple iPhone technology introduced in 2017, allowing for much easier reading of QR codes, and their role in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic three years later, upon which he observed, “It’s amazing what a pandemic can make us do.”

According to Stratten, unmarketing asks “why” before adopting innovation and new technology. It’s not good enough to appear cutting edge to to keep up with innovation. He says, “We innovate to build and maintain loyalty, and when we do, we are sure to understand how the tech works first.”

Social Media is an Amplification Tool

By itself, with an unmarketing perspective, social media doesn’t make you better or worse. It just makes what you are, but louder. Stratten, himself named a top-five social media influencer by, says that going “viral” boils down to first creating experiences that are worth sharing, and then making them easy to share.

But you also have to have something to say. As he puts it, “The best time to share content is when you have something worth sharing — not because it’s Tuesday or vaguely related to a trending topic.”

You also have to be conscientious about how you use social media. As he says, “integrity is not a renewable resource,” and it can take just one ill-timed, ill-conceived social media post to undo a good reputation built over decades.

 “The best time to share content is when you have something worth sharing — not because it’s Tuesday or vaguely related to a trending topic.”

Building loyalty is the key to surviving and thriving during disruptive times.

If your brand builds relationships, it’s more likely to weather uncertainty. Unmarketing prescribes a formula based on four words that start with C — comfort, cost, convenience, and convergence.

Building loyalty includes the idea that a company “does not throw aside anyone not ready to purchase — good business is about relationships, not buy or goodbye.” Stratten warns against what he calls “funnel vision” — an outdated and myopic view of busineess “focused on sales and conversions,” which doesn’t work today for several reasons, including all the work customers do to research purchase decisions online, as well as the fact that “almost 60% of all B2B purchase decisions are made before customers enter your funnel.”

But building loyalty is also about the final point Stratten makes in defining unmarketing: “If you are your authentic self, you have no competition.” He invites people to celebrate their unique gifts and bring them to the table.

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