Lessons learned from the Salesforce vs Siebel protests

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Who would protest a software conference? Salesforce. That’s who.

Maybe you should too?

In this episode, we take you back in time to share one of the most impressive publicity stunts in B2B software history when Mark Benioff and the folks at Salesforce held a fake protest against their then rival Siebel Software.

This story outlines how one single protest was able to generate tons of press, plenty of new customers and put Salesforce on the map as the brand to watch in the CRM space in the early 2000s. 

The transcript

Ross: Four years ago, I found myself in a very interesting situation. I ended up going down to San Francisco for a business trip and I was there for like three, maybe four weeks. I was there doing a little bit of biz dev, but also a little bit of handshakes and kissing babies and just nurturing those existing relationships that I had down in the Bay area.

So it just so happened that the US was in the middle of one of their many electoral campaigns. It feels like they’re always having an election. As a Canadian, I wasn’t familiar with the way that it operates, but it truly does feel like an election is happening on something every single week. When I was there, I can remember walking outside of a WeWork that I was working in and being met with thousands of people with signs and posters protesting something.

To this day I still have no clue what they were protesting. All I know is that there were thousands of Americans that were very upset about something and the press was everywhere. Streets were shut down, police were patrolling left and right. I just had this little backpack on and I couldn’t get a cab because nobody would actually come down the street to pick me up. So I did what everybody else did.

I just joined the protest and started walking with them and people were chanting and yelling. I still have no clue what they were saying, but it was a surreal moment to take part in, to see people so passionate about something and so excited to kind of come together and protest. Is a protest something that you’ve ever done before? It’s the first time that I did it, and funny enough, it was inadvertently. But I’m curious, have you ever been involved with a protest of any sort?

Talia: I was sitting here laughing because this literally happened to me back at CTA Conf. So Ross and I were speaking at the same conference. When was CTA Conf? Was it September?

Ross: It was in September. Yep.

Talia: So back in September, I was there with my husband and we were, I think we were walking around. It was after the conference and we were just kind of enjoying the day and walking around and we had plans to meet friends for lunch. We were meeting Oli Gardner and his wife, Nicole. We suddenly noticed that we were in a real big rush because they invited us over for a certain time. We wanted to get a few bottles of wine, and we noticed that we were right across town from where we needed to go.

So we did what we usually do is just use Google Maps in order to get there. So Google Maps told us to take the shortcut, and suddenly we see all these cars in the middle of the road just at a standstill. I’m looking at my husband. I’m like, “What’s going on? Why all these people sitting in the car?” As you kind of keep walking, there’s like this echo and a sound and I’m walking towards it.

Then you can see thousands and thousands of people with protest huge signs walking. I was thinking, okay, we’re never going to get a cab this way. So what is even going on here? We notice that it’s a climate protest because it was Friday. I was like, okay, this is actually a really good cause and I’ve always wanted to March on Friday for this cause. So Google Maps said that we should keep this way.

So we just literally walked for like 30 minutes with this protest. At some point I think I grabbed someone’s sign because they gave it to me. I was like, yes, I’m so into this. My husband had to remind me that we were going to Oli’s house.

Ross: That’s amazing.

Talia: I was swept away by this. I was so excited. I was like, this is it. This is what we should be doing. I’m so excited. It was amazing.

Ross: That is amazing. That’s awesome. I think protests are a fascinating concept when you think about it. It’s something that a few folks listening to this might be thinking, what in the world does a protest have to do with marketing and communications? I’m so glad that internally in your brain right now, that is the question that you ask, because we’re going to take you back to the year 2000.

In the year 2000, as we all know, the world looked a whole lot different. First and foremost, we just wrapped up the whole scare that all of our clocks, all of our alarms, all of our technology was going to break because of Y2K. That was the biggest fear. But once we got over that, business went back to usual.

For one company in particular, Salesforce, their CEO, Mark Benioff decided that he was going to embrace this idea of protests and do something that in my opinion has never been done to the same level of success using B2B as a place where you can have a whole lot of fun. What they did was this. They actually hired a handful of fake protesters to disrupt what at the time was their biggest competitor, Siebel. Because Siebel was having a conference where they were inviting a bunch of sales executives, CEOs, and organizations from around the world to come in and learn about their company and their software.

Today, Siebel is more commonly known as Oracle, where they were acquired by Oracle a few years back. But back then Siebel was seen as being the leader in the space of CRM. Salesforce today, as we all know is the leader of CRM and they have been for quite some time. But the protesters that Mark Benioff hired to [inaudible 00:05:44] and had signs and they yelled and they screamed. They said, “The internet is really neat. Software is obsolete.” meaning it is time to move away from companies like Siebel and to embrace cloud based services like Salesforce.

The protesters included more than 25 different people saying slogans like, “Red Rover, Red Rover, software is over.” They had these bright red tee shirts that said “Death to software.” They had these signs that essentially were saying, if you are a customer of Siebel, you are making a massive mistake. Benioff went so far that they actually hired a fake TV crew to actually cover the protests. They captured that photos, those imagery, and they blasted it all over the web.

In his recent book or in an interview, I remember reading that he even considered hiring an armored tank to kind of drive into the scene. But some people told him that might be a little bit too much, so they didn’t do it. But this protest turned tons and tons of heads. People began to circle the block just to get a better idea of what was the commotion all about. Eventually Siebel, they had to respond. So how did they do that?

They actually took some semi-trucks and they parked them directly in front of the center to block the Salesforce protesters from actually getting to the conference. The protest was so plausible and so realistic that companies, or media companies from around the world ranging from Business Week to New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Forbes, started to cover this story.

They were calling Salesforce at the time, the ant at the picnic. But that ant had risen up and were able to generate hundreds and thousands of media impressions by simply investing some time and energy to get creative and do something that seems very ridiculous. But ultimately it stirred up the trajectory for the brand as a whole.

A lot of people are very familiar with that Ghostbuster inspired no software logo that Salesforce embraces. It all started from this publicity stunt. This is why I believe honestly, when it comes down to your own publicity, this is an example of news hacking at its finest. There are tons of lessons that organizations, brands, marketers, and creatives can take from it to use in their business today.

Talia: That’s incredible. That’s just, I feel like I knew this story, but I’ve never been told it the way you just told it, Ross. This is incredible.

Ross: Fascinating, right?

Talia: No one does this stuff anymore. It’s brilliant.

Ross: It is. It is amazing. I think it’s one of those things that for some reason, we’ve all become so obsessed with the web that we’ve gotten away from trying to do these interesting, unique, creative, out-of-the-box ideas. I think when you’re early stage in the life cycle of your startup, that’s the best time to do it. Especially when you think of Salesforce. Sure, today, they might seem like a business giant, but in the early days you need to be willing to do things like this.

Talia: Right. Why do you think that this approach worked so well? What made it the something that we’re talking about so many years later?

Why this worked so well for Salesforce

Ross: Yeah. So there’s a few reasons. I think, as I was telling the story, I couldn’t help but hear a few chuckles and I think like you, I find it very funny. I think a lot of people, maybe Siebel and the attendees didn’t, but I think a lot of people find it funny that a software company has protestors around whether or not people should use their software. That’s interesting. It’s funny. It’s clever. It just puts a smile on people’s face.

So I think for that reason, it was able to resonate with folks and people didn’t take it as, oh, this is a very hostile environment. This isn’t something that’s too aggressive. You’re not going to ruffle any feathers. Nobody’s going to cancel you because you’ve done this. I think this is something that we can look at and be like, this is kind of funny. I think that was a key element of this around why it works so well is because it’s just genuinely a funny situation.

But on top of that, what triggered, I believe the mass media coverage for it is when Siebel responded by parking those trucks out front, when they called the police and they were like, this needs to end. That stirred up real controversy. I think that resulted in Salesforce having the ability to really say, “Look, they took notice of us. They acknowledge that we are doing this thing,” and that allowed them to really tell a story that was even more interesting.

Something that you also speak to often is about just understanding your audience and knowing where your audience is spending time and being laser focused with that. How much better does it get when you know that your ideal customers are using your competitor and you’re able to disrupt your competitors conference? I’m not saying that everyone should go out and do this because again, it can be controversial and it can stir up a lot of bad press just as much as it can be good.

But the perfect audience is definitely the conference where your competitors has all of their customers in one spot. If you can be the one that has everybody at that conference talking, that’s a massive win for any brand that is there. So I think that’s the other key piece here. Just being very laser focused with their target audience and getting their story in front of them.

Talia: I love this. As you were saying, it’s funny and that it promotes a controversy. I’m thinking, okay, this is such an important thing to stop and talk about for a moment because so many companies, so many B2B businesses think they can’t use humor. I don’t know why, but people just think that they have to be serious, that it has to be a suit and a tie when it comes to B2B.

But I’ve seen such amazing brands do so well and really succeed by being humoristic, by using a more approachable voice, by being more humane or relatable. So I felt like that that point that you made about people finding it funny, people relating to it and just as you heard me giggling, it really is funny. So I really do think that it’s something to kind of pin to.

Maybe we should get back to this in of our future episodes about how B2B companies can be more funny and more approachable, because really we don’t have to be this serious company. Software, it doesn’t mean you have to be serious is what I’m trying to say. One of the things that I also thought about as you were talking about was the controversy thing.

It’s interesting because I think it was Martha Stewart years and years ago where someone took a picture of her house. Do you know the story where they took a picture of that house and no one even knew about it, but then she made this whole commotion about it. So everyone started looking for the house and now they know where she lives.

I think Beyonce did the same thing where they took this terrible picture of hers and no one would have known, but because she went really mad about this picture and she didn’t want anyone to know about it, then it blew up. So it’s all this idea of putting a focus on something that when you don’t know if people would be interested in, but kind of blowing it up, if that makes sense.

Ross: Yeah. A hundred percent. I think what we oftentimes do when it comes to marketing is we always want to respond. So when we see our competitor do something, when we see someone write a blog post that’s just like ours.

When we see someone that is creating content like ours, rather than just letting it be, we oftentimes add more fuel to the fire and that results in them winning more than anything. I think that’s exactly what happened here. If Siebel would have ignored them and just pretended they didn’t exist and that none of this was happening, they probably wouldn’t have gotten as much press as they did.

But because they responded, because they reacted, the incumbent was essentially in the disadvantage because they were giving so much press and so much publicity to Salesforce that they allowed them into their world and into the conversation. So I think you’re right. I think in many cases we need to embrace that idea of when there’s controversy happening, sometimes you do just have to sit back and let it happen and try not to add more fuel to the already existing fire.

Is this something that you’ve ever seen, like an organization in your experience where there’s been a bit of a fire and rather than them throwing fuel on it, they’ve kind of just allowed it to kind of go away? Is that something that you’ve ever seen and has it worked well, or have you seen it have bad, negative effects?

Examples of brands who’ve used this approach

Talia: That’s a great question. I’m trying to think. I mean, there’s always, these days of social media, every single thing you say or do can be wrong. I feel like there’s a lot of tweets. Tweets is the big issue right now. I feel like one of the best examples is when you see brands tweet about something and then the other competitor just kind of take advantage of it or reply to them, or to kind of start an entire conversation around it.

A great example that I actually have, which isn’t really controversy, but there was the great blackout during the Super Bowl. I can’t remember what year that was. It was Oreo cookies that immediately after that blackout was done, they came out with the ad where you had, it was completely black and they just had that cookie, the Oreo cookies dipping into the milk.

They took advantage of something that went completely wrong, something that went really bad and they turned it into such a huge success. So I feel like those are the biggest examples I can think of right now, but I’m sure there’s so many more.

Ross: Yeah. I love that example. It’s something that for in the last few years I’ve been calling it reactive storytelling, when you react to something that is happening around you and you add your own brand spin to it. A company that also does it really well is, and it’s essentially a combination of what we’ve been describing for the last few minutes, but Wendy’s and McDonald’s go back and forth with subtle jabs at each other nonstop through social media.

A few years ago Wendy’s released a mix tape that was kind of just completely dissing McDonald’s and saying their burgers are frozen, ours are fresh. They had actual rap artists like making songs about how bad McDonald’s food was. Then McDonald’s had responded to them over Twitter. Then Wendy’s and them were just going back and forth, back and forth with just a complete Twitter war.

But what was interesting is recently Wendy’s put out something, I forget exactly what it was, but they essentially put out a campaign that was again, dissing McDonald’s, but McDonald’s just didn’t respond. They wanted to take an approach where they just sat back and they hoped and crossed their fingers that the world would overlook it.

Eventually that did kind of happen. If McDonald’s did respond to them, it would have resulted in more fire and more fuel on that flame. But because they kind of just sat back, the conversation just dwindled away and Wendy’s was kind of able to come out of it on top.

Another interesting piece with the Salesforce story is outside of just the ability to add more fuel to the fire. It’s also very timely. The conference that they boycotted was going to happen whether they liked it or not.

So I think just being timely is also a great way to ensure that your approach has success because it’s easy to always try to create evergreen ideas and things that can last forever. But when things are topical and things are happening right away, like right now in this moment, there’s a lot of value in being something or creating something that is very timely and relevant to people today.

Talia: 100%. I love it. Actually, while you were talking, I remembered an amazing way that two brands went against each other, which was Burger King and McDonald’s again. I don’t know if you saw this, but this year in 2019, Burger King revealed that in every single ad they had a McDonald’s burger behind their own burger.

Ross: Oh, I saw that. So good. So good.

Talia: That was incredible. They just went back and showed you every single ad they did in 2019 had a Mac burger behind it. I was just like, wow. It was amazing. It was amazing. So I just had to bring that up.

Ross: It’s a great example, 100%.

How you can leverage this kind of strategy for your own biz

Talia: But just bringing it back to the actionable conversation, because it is the Action Driven podcast. How do you think that at the end of the day, not all of us have these insane resources and budgets to do things like this. So how can we leverage this kind of strategy? What are your thoughts on that?

Ross: Yeah, so I think one of the key things that you can do is first, I think it’s a mindset flip internally. I think organizations mentally and culturally need to get over the idea of doing risky things and experimenting with risky ideas isn’t a bad thing. For some reason, in B2B, it’s oftentimes where we’re kind of told, just play it safe, do the safe thing. Don’t do anything that’s a little bit extra or anything that’s a little bit out there.

But I think you kind of need to. Salesforce is a great example of why it works. When Salesforce was in their early days before they ran the wonderful world of CRM, they needed to stand out. So how did they do that? They ran protests. They did a bunch of things that by many standards would seem a little bit extra, but because they were able to do those things, even in the early days, they were able to grow into a massive brand.

Of course, it’s important to have a great product behind you and having a great culture and a great organization. You have to actually sell something that people want, but Salesforce, wasn’t afraid to get a little bit extra with their promotion and generating press. I think internally within your culture, you need to embrace that as well.

You have to inject creativity into your marketing mix to ensure that you do stand out. The only way to do that is to be okay with the idea of putting yourself out there, doing something that might not necessarily land well. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay. You move on to the next one. I think really embracing that idea of experimentation is key. What do you think?

Talia: Obviously I’m an optimizer. So for me, experimentation is a love word. I think that it really is so important to step out of that comfort zone and be able to try things that you won’t necessarily would have gone with to begin with. Especially because of the type of world that we live in today, where every other minute there’s something blowing up on Twitter or on TikTok or Instagram or whatever.

So I actually really do like the whole offline approach right now just because it is different. It does attract that eyeballs, those eyeballs that you need. Again, it depends on what we’re going through and what the times are looking like and where your audience is.

As you mentioned before, you want to be able to tackle that thing. I think that’s also probably one of the most important things to do is to start where people are. So you don’t necessarily have to go and broadcast this insane or new, extra idea that you have to the whole world, but start where your audience is. If that makes sense.

Ross: I love it. No, I a hundred percent agree. I think that makes complete sense. Another opportunity that I think brands can leverage here is not being afraid to go up against the incumbent publicly.

The reason why I also love this is because we already have an episode that is kind of talking about the importance of picking fights. When it comes down to it, you can pick a fight with your incumbent. If you do that well, you can stir up a lot of conversation and you can clearly allow yourself to be positioned well when it comes to identifying what makes you different from that other brand.

So the last way that I think you can leverage this strategy, and this is one that I have personally been leveraging for the last few months and it has worked wonders, is this. This is a very tactical insight, folks. So if you were kind of just coasting through this podcast, listen up. This one I think you can start using ASAP and find some success with it.

Test your messaging on a small scale, and then start to use the ones that resonate with folks on a large scale. What do I mean by that? Let’s say you send out a tweet and it’s something like Red Rover, Red Rover Salesforce or software is over. Let’s say that was the tweet and we’re back in 2000s. If that tweet generates tons of retweets, tons of likes, tons of engagement from your followers, that means that that message resonated with them.

So what can you do with that message? It means that you can take that small message and start to turn it into a full on story. Maybe you turn it into an ebook about why software is over. Maybe you turn it into a Twitter thread. Maybe you turn it into a YouTube video. Maybe you turn it into a podcast episode.

There’s so many opportunities that you can do when you identify a message that really resonates with your audience and then turning it into something bigger because that’s exactly what Salesforce did. They noticed that when they did this whole no software campaign where they were petitioning and protesting the idea of software, that they got a bunch of buzz. So what did they do? They launched an entire brand and logo around this idea of no software.

They started to print it on their tee shirts. They started to print it on their website. They started to print it on their materials, et cetera. No software became a mantra at Salesforce until they got to a point where cloud became the priority and cloud became the kind of default approach that every organization was taking.

Talia: Love it. This is wonderful. I really enjoyed listening to this entire thing. I know it’s for everyone else, but I just really loved the story so much.

Ross: I think this is a great way to wrap it up. I hope folks can take some insights from this that they can use with their brands. I hope folks can also get a little bit inspired to be okay with the idea of just thinking differently and getting a little bit creative.

Talia: So, guys, join us on our Facebook group.

Let us know what else you want us to be talking about and to cover during our episodes and leave us a five star review on all of your favorite, where are they supposed to leave review?

Ross: Leave a five star review on all of your favorite streaming platforms and places where you are listening to us.

Talia: Exactly, what Ross said. Awesome, guys. See you soon.

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