The Back-Handed BenefitA friend of mine used to be a salesman for a company where the big bosses came in to meet with the sales team every month. I’m not sure what the bosses used to call these monthly pilgrimages, but to the rank and file they were referred to as “clap and slap” sessions. Apparently the meetings followed a standard format. A salesperson would be recognized for some accomplishment, closing a deal for example, and then was torn down for all their perceived shortcomings. Much to the bosses’ surprise, they had trouble keeping sales personnel and, even more perplexing, found it exceedingly difficult to hire new ones. Hopefully, we haven’t all worked for a company like this, but we are all familiar with a more common variant of the “slap and clap”, the back handed compliment. At one time or another we’ve had our egos “boosted” by left handed words of praise like, “I’m surprised I had a good time”, “That tasted better than it looked”, “I didn’t think they made your butt look big” and “You sweat less than any fat guy I’ve ever seen”. While these endearments are usually someone’s twisted effort to comply with social etiquette, I was surprised to see that some companies are adopting the back-handed compliment for marketing purposes. For lack of a better term I think they’ve invented the “back-handed benefit”.

We all want to lead with our strengths in our advertising since this is the sizzle we hope will entice prospective customers to give us a call. But by advertising that their facilities will do things like save enough energy to power thousands of homes I’m not exactly sure their claims generate as much enticement as they do head scratching. I will admit that this is a more effective approach than saying something like “We waste less energy then Chernobyl” but what exactly is the benefit here? If you’re saving enough energy to power thousands of homes, your data centers must be pretty big. But if your big data center saves enough to power X number of homes, wouldn’t I be better off going to an bigger competitor who is probably saving enough energy to power whole sub-divisions? I’m just saying.

What’s in it for me? I think we can all agree that the green story is often hard to quantify, but as a customer what exactly do claims like “powered by re-usable energy” really translate into? Am I going to save money if I move into one of these locations, or do I just have the comfort of knowing that thousands of homeowners lie asleep in their beds comforted by the knowledge that their lights will go on in the morning due to their anonymous data processing benefactors? What if your Dad is a coal miner? You see how these things can cut both ways. Maybe PUE has become an antiquated concept and the real measure of data center performance should be metrics like “number of equivalent flat screens supported” or “dirty energy jobs eliminated”. I’m not trying to be difficult here, but isn’t this a little like when your wife tells you that she saved a bunch of money buying something on sale that you didn’t need in the first place?

Marketing is always a tricky business since you never know what the public will respond to. The line between genius and “that’s stupid” is a fine one. And I ought to know since our ads have a fairy in them. Maybe these guys are on to something with their back-handed benefit strategy. I just think that sometimes in our urge to be clever we tend to muddle the message. It’s like I tell my marketing guy, “Creativity is so overrated”.

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