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September 14, 2023

A Lesson in Marketing Innovation from Popeye the Sailor

Popeye the Sailor is copyrighted in the US by King Features Syndicate, Inc. Used here through fair use doctrine.

Years ago, my employer was acquiring a small company. In a meeting with their CMO and executives of both companies, the CMO walked us through the marketing team structure in which, we learned, the buyer journey had been mapped, segmented into portions, and then assigned by segment to the marketing team members.

In other words, instead of a team with responsibilities that aligned with professional skills, they were each held accountable for a segment of the buyer’s journey. How they integrated their work with other segment owners was left up to them.

Here's a buyer journey template from Slidesgo. There are zillions of these freely available online. Pick one.

It sounds innovative. I recall the president of my company remarking after the meeting that he appreciated the fresh thinking that had gone into the team structure. But what I saw was a group of marketers with overlapping skills who worked in compartments. Because of the segment ownership idea, the CMO had hired more people than would normally be in place, compensating for the budget impact by hiring people with no work experience.

The CMO's thinking may have been innovative, but it wasn't practical. The marketing team was performing badly and was overburdened with headcount which, sadly, had to be addressed upon acquisition.

Of course, we should introduce innovative thinking to our marketing roles. But let’s be serious: I’ve often been hired into new roles after a previous and less successful marketing crew has moved on, and I most frequently have a mess to clean up because someone before me attempted to innovate without first putting in place the basics that every marketing team needs to be successful. These basics include: message plans, buyer profiles, two-minute stories, process definition, closed loop marketing, reporting, and more.

The cartoonist Bill Mauldin in a publicity photo during World War II

Bill Mauldin was an American cartoonist who grew famous while living with and observing American G.I.s during World War II, and recording his experiences in a series of amazing and often thoughtful cartoons. In his autobiography, The Brass Ring, A Sort of Memoir, 1972, Mauldin told a great story (which I’m about to relate from memory as I can’t find my copy of The Brass Ring in the jumble of books I call a library – so apologies if I get part of this wrong.)

A Bill Mauldin cartoon featuring "Willie and Joe," his disheveled WWII characters. Mauldin was once personally taken to task by General George S. Patton for portraying American soldiers as slovenly instead of spit and polish.

Mauldin, born in New Mexico, moved to Illinois early in his career to study under the famous Elzie Segar, the creator of the Popeye cartoon character and series.

Take a close look for a moment at the "anatomy" of Popeye in the cartoon image at the top of this article. In Segar’s world, Popeye and all other characters were physically distorted into shapes and proportions that were simply impossible for a human to achieve. Popeye, had he lived, would likely have died in his cradle gasping for breath.

In Segar’s art class, "real life" models came into the classroom to be drawn by the students, including the young Bill Mauldin. With Popeye on the brain, Mauldin began drawing the models in similarly distorted ways – until Segar yanked the brush out of his hand and told him instead to draw the figures as he saw them. It was only after Mauldin had proven his ability to create accurate, “real life” sketches, that he could begin to experiment.

Bill Mauldin's

Marketers – let's take Popeye to heart! First, focus on building a platform for innovation that equips you to design, build and execute campaigns that drive real impact on company revenue.

Real World Experiments

I've tried many experiments in marketing, especially demand marketing, with varying degrees of success. Some ideas turned out great. Others are better forgotten. But all of them were worth trying, and all were built on top of a go-to-market machine of proven competence.

I had such a machine in place at a company with a technology solution that was persistently difficult to sell. Lead generation was happening through my field and corporate marketing teams as we would normally expect. The top of the funnel would fill, and leads would convert more-or-less normally into the middle. But there, they became stuck. Month after month, I met or exceeded my lead quotas and watched in frustration as opportunity close dates slipped again and again.

My product counterpart (I led the company's go-to-market team) and CMO were convinced this was a product challenge. Our opportunities became stuck because our product was considered a nice-to-have, losing the battle of priorities for IT spending.

But that didn't stop me from experimenting with campaign ideas.

IPAs in real life

My team and I created an Intra-Pipeline Acceleration or IPA Campaign aimed at raising the perceived value of the product by sending value-driven use cases, supported by customer experiences, to a segmented database. My theory was, as the perceived value of our product increased, the likelihood of successfully closed deals should also increase, and sales process cycle time should accelerate.

We included a customer segment in the IPA campaign, believing the use case scenarios would trigger awareness of further applications of the product. (We had seen this in the interaction between customers on our advisory council.)

Because it was an experiment, I wrapped a couple of other things into the mix. We incorporated gifographics – a new (to us) communication format that replaced static infographic images with animation. And I tried a test of the old saw "never send email on Fridays" in both the US and EU.

IPA Campaign Findings

Getty image

At its primary purpose, the IPA Campaign failed. That is, it performed moderately well in terms of response rates from our non-customer segments, but deals remained stuck in the funnel. This dialed up our belief that product was the source of the problem.

However, the campaign performed literally 10x better among our customer segment. While something like this may have been expected, it generated real revenue that would otherwise have been left on the table. The campaign showed a 5x ROI during its first phase of execution.

I also proved there was no statistical performance difference between emails sent on Friday versus Tuesday in either the US or EU. (The next time you hear that tired old maxim, ask the speaker to prove it.)

And gifographics, which are fairly easy to create, performed twice as well as landing page links. (See the example below.) They're certainly more fun for the viewer than static PDF files.

What Ultimately Happened?

The company was acquired months later -- literally during the run of our IPA Campaign, which came to an end well before its time. So the full truth will never be known.

But, while the story is ended, my desire for experimentation has not.

Just remember Elzie Segar. And don't hesitate to send that email on a Friday.

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