Lenovo’s Superfish is Really Bad Marketing, and How to Fix It

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Good marketing means carefully managing every aspect of product (design, manufacture, etc.), price, promotion (advertising, sales, public relations, etc.), and place (distribution). It’s simply not good marketing to secretly alter a product to generate revenue in ways outside the control of unsuspecting customers. That’s particularly true in a technology industry where privacy and security have become such paramount concerns.

Contrary to popular belief, marketing does not mean simply maximizing short-term revenue and profit–at least, not if the goal is to build a sustainable business. That might be fine if you’re selling snake oil on the side of the road and plan to pack up and move on the next morning. But if you’re a company like Lenovo that’s scratching to increase share and ultimately secure its long-term survival in a dynamic and hyper-competitive market, then marketing simply cannot be short-sighted and insulated. Lenovo’s Superfish fiasco is a classic example of a horribly bad marketing decision.

Everyone Does It (and That’s Not Okay)
Lenovo isn’t alone, of course. Every company at one time or another has at least one marketing faux pas under its belt. Apple comes to mind, with the iPhone 4 antennagate kerfuffle where design decisions caused poor wireless reception (a bad thing in a phone) and with iPhone 6/6+ bendgate where the phones are perhaps just a tad too thin (both examples of form over function). Then there’s iCloud security and numerous questions about Apple and its past iTunes DRM policies. Not all have appeared underhanded as with Lenovo’s most recent mistake, but all were results of poor marketing–designing a product to meet aesthetic imperatives while harming how it functions is a marketing decision, and a bad one, just as much as loading adware on a machine to make a few extra bucks.

Not to pick on Apple, of course. Microsoft designed Windows 8 to appeal to the mobile market, while making it harder to use with a mouse and keyboard. That’s bad marketing. They released Windows Vista without working closely enough with their OEMs, resulting in a buggy, unreliable mess due in large part to horrific driver support. That’s bad marketing. They allow OEMs to load crapware (as it’s now known) on machines that slow them down, steal space, and create a poor experience for customers who expect those machines to function as advertised. That’s bad marketing (although in all fairness, Microsoft can’t do much about it given past anti-trust proceedings).

Interestingly enough, Google’s entire business model is predicated upon doing the same things as Superfish. Google offers products and services specifically tailored to gather information about users and sell that information to advertisers. Anyone who uses Google properties should know that by now–Google is often, but not always, very up front about their tactics–but the fact remains that if you use Google, you’re the product that they’re selling to generate revenues and profits. For some reason, however, many of the same people up in arms about Superfish are just fine with Google. Maybe it’s Lenovo’s lack of transparency that’s at the root of the furor.

Marketing Means Making Markets Happy
Of course, the market doesn’t easily forgive bad marketing. That’s a bit of a tautology, though, because in fact, “marketing” means, precisely, to offer products and services according to what the market demands. It can’t possibly be good marketing to do something that harms one’s position in the market–that’s simply a contradiction, and engage in those kinds of practices for too long and a company ends up in the trash heap.

What can companies do differently? Maybe Google is instructive here. Maybe transparence really is the key. Instead of pre-loading a bunch of software on a machine that saps performance and creates privacy concerns, which secrecy feeds, offer a choice. When a Windows machine loads for the first time, add in the option to install or remove optional software. Put it something like this:

“In order to offer this computer at a more affordable price, we’ve partnered with some companies to offer you additional value. The following is optional software that can enhance your experience and make you more productive. Please accept those applications that you want to install, and decline those applications that you would like removed from your computer.”

It’s true that there are some great bargains in Windows computing today. People have access to more power and functionality at lower prices than ever before. And the deals that Windows OEMs like Lenovo and HP cut with application providers is part of that equation. I say, everyone needs to make a compromise here. Offering the software openly and with the option to decline it is just as valuable to developers as pre-loading the applications. Perhaps more so, because it avoids creating an acrimonious relationship that harms the OEM, the developers, and customers. It’s really a win-win scenario

Microsoft has countered this trend with their Microsoft Signature line of computers that come completely stock and optimized, with little or no add-ons to affect performance and elicit privacy and security concerns. They’re a little more expensive, I believe, because hardware costs are what they are and companies need to make a profit. But there’s an alternative model out there already: pay a little more, get a clean machine. Perhaps other companies could offer clean machines for a bit of price bump–again, it’s all about transparency. People can then make the choice between paying a little less or accepting a little “added value.”

Really, That’s Not What Marketing is About
For me, as a professional with 25 years of experience in sales and marketing, I find the Superfish fiasco both instructive and frustrating. It’s an object lesson in how not to market a product, and it gives marketing as a profession and a vital business function a real black eye. It’s just bad business, period.

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