Punk Marketing – Interview with Richard Laermer

By Think Jar Collective member Peter Cook.

Punk Marketing – An interview with Richard LaermerRichard Laermer is a marketing genius from New York, who provokes his clients into much better marketing by helping them break away from tried, tired and worn out marketing strategies and tactics.  He is also a correspondent for the Huffington Post and a regular bon vivant.  I met him when we were both delivering keynotes at International Marketing and Leadership conferences in Athens during the massive strikes late last year.  Imagine our surprise and delight when we learned that we had both written books with Punk in the title:  Richard’s Punk Marketing and my Punk Rock People Management.  We became superfast friends and I wanted to find out more. We arranged to have a dialogue. Or really…to talk.

What is the essence of “Punk Marketing”?  What marketing demons do you want to purge?

“Punk Marketing” started when my friend Mark and I were talking at a grungy bar sometime in the mid 2000s. We realised so many marketing people had become entirely complacent. They were doing things that they knew did not work and they were hoping that nobody would push them off the cliff.   We realised that Punk Rock came about in the 1970’s when the music industry was at its most complacent.  The Osmonds, The Carpenters, Debbie Boone and so on.  When Punk Rock started, with The Clash, The Sex Pistols and so on, they crashed that party, they screwed up the mentality of the music industry and they made the staid industry wake up.  So we said, let’s do the same thing for marketing now that punk rockers did for music in the 1970’s.  We started this movement with a series of points in a manifesto, not a manifesto that says things that people already know, but not together, and have mostly forgotten. We made it an agenda for getting off your ass and becoming part of where marketing is today.

Editor’s note – at this point, we must have a bit of Ian Dury, having discovered our mutual love of his work through the occasional gig with the magnificent Norman Watt Roy:

The critics would say that punk only lasted two years and then it was all over?

Did it really?  There are essences of punk in everything these days.  Basically punk mainstreamed.  Punk to this day still makes people feel alive and “punk marketing” is the same way.  When something that happens makes people say “holy crap” they know that it’s something different and new and they can’t get enough of it.   We wanna destroy the old outdated marketing adages and start anew with points that are destined to make people feel as though where they are today is- finally- where they should be.

I interviewed Richard Strange, the Godfather of Punk the other week and he was talking about innovation in music.   He pointed out that all music is mongrel, so what can marketers do that is genuinely innovative?

Marketers need to have balls.  They are basically risk averse—a great many of them.  They look at a marketing project and say, our constituency is stupid so let’s just put out a fun tagline and some cute colours and everybody will think we’re great.  It’s all just clichés—dumb slogans and a lot of colors. Big deal.  What marketers should be saying is: “we suck”.  People don’t love us for what we should be.  People don’t see us for what we are, what we were, or what we have become.

A marketer has to stand up and say – You know what?  This is really stupid.  All we do is follow rules that don’t exist for any reason any more.  Why don’t we just shake it off and just go with the craziest idea?  The idea that everyone has been laughing at, the one that disturbs our competitors, the one that makes shareholders and board members nervous, because that’s the only thing that will give us any long term value.  And when you have that idea, don’t water the f****er down!

Is there room for market research in punk marketing?

The consumers do not know what they want.  They want to be told what it is they need.  So market research has limited value. And I believe that the most successful companies (ahem, Apple) are resolute in their offerings.

What do you consider to be the future in social media?  What should go into room 101?

I’ve been working with web diaries since 1996 and I’ve watched this thing called social media drift up and off.  When you get people talking about stuff that you or your company put out there is a gift.  I got a call from a major fast food chain whose ads were being mocked on You Tube.   They wanted me to stop it happening and I said to the Marketing Director – Are you crazy?  People are taking time out of their day to make videos about your ad.  You should be paying them!

When someone calls me to tell me oh my God, one of our staff is going on and on about one of our products on his Tumblr, I tell them to buy them some editing software so they can show it off right.  So, people have to realise that controlling the message is about NOT controlling the message.  You must then participate in the conversation.  That does not mean just letting people talk – it’s like what Stalin said: You do have to control the people some of the time.  That means participating in the arguments, telling people the rules of engagement, making sure that people see what you are all about etc.  The problem with Twitter is that people are not that interested in what kids say about things.  They don’t have the breadth of experience to talk about things in ways that others are interested in.  They should use the most passionate people online.

People are now using all sorts of amazing new gadgets to create quick filmic looks at their lives and pinning things on Pinterest and so on.  But if what you put up there is brand new and not related to your mission statement and so on, then all the money in the world is a complete waste of time.  Proctor and Gamble can say a lot on social media but none of it makes people shake and shiver.  Look at their Man of the House, which was obviously something fantastic—and it turned out to be ditchwater. You will succeed because your audience goes Holy Crap.  If it doesn’t pass the shake and shiver test on social, it can go in room 101 and put its head on the desk.

With the tendency to graze, the “punk marketer’s”  job is to get them to stop for more that a millisecond?

You’ve gotta get people thinking.  And I know that’s hard. Everybody says the consumer is stupid.  Not true.  The consumer is constantly talking and getting information.  To think that somehow we’re gonna get their attention because we are more intelligent is ego.  Kodak died because they thought they knew more than the consumer.  They never stopped to think that we know more than an old complacent camera company from the suburbs.  This is also happening in media companies, social networking companies and so on.  You got to look around and pick up the intelligence that is swarming around you. Learn from it—get the info that you’re scared to hear about why some may hate your guts.

You are a one-man brand in terms of having developed an innovative and hard to copy USP.  Tell me your secrets?

Most people start out with the idea that they want to set their brand aside from everyone else but forget that a personal brand cannot be about making money.  It is about making people see the one or two things that people should know the most about you.   That’s it. If you are selling and selling and selling everyone smiles and clicks away. People think that if they talk about themselves endlessly and if they keep going across all the media, like the EverReady battery bunny, it will work.  What happens is that people finally get tired of it / you.  Be yourself. At all costs.

There is a personal fear of doing or saying things that they think will offend.  This assumes that anyone is listening or even cares.

What I do is spend a lot of my time looking at trends that are bubbling up and bringing those trends to my followers – I become a resource to those people.

Whatever you do on social media should align with who you are. Don’t try and film yourself doing acrobatics if you’re not a gymnast. You want to be consistent in everything you talk about so you become the go to person for some specific attribute.  That’s what makes a true personal brand. The other crap is all about making money, and you look desperate when you’re selling all the time.  (I’m looking at you.)

Can you give me a couple of Punk Rock lessons as a taster from the book Punk Marketing?


Punk Marketing is based on a manifesto.  Here’s a couple:

When you avoid risk, you die – Have balls, the mortgage will follow – don’t worry about the job leaving you.  Worry more about doing things that people care about that touch a nerve.  When someone says to me, “This isn’t the right time”, I’m the first person to find their competitors doing something really great and sending it to the people who just told me it isn’t the right time.  General Mills and Kellogg Company found this out in the Great Depression of 1929.  At that time Kellogg was the number one cereal maker.  In the Depression Kellogg decided not to do any more advertising, due to the recession; they even cut their worker’s hours to 30. But General Mills, then the number 2, decided to go whole hog, even introducing Betty Crocker in the biggest possible way. Guess what? General Mills became number one during those tumultuous years—and still is. Kellogg learned a lesson I’m sure they never forgot.

Why not ask why not – People always assume that things are the way they are for a reason. Keep asking why things cannot be done differently. There’s always another way. Try a little creativity with your kindness.

Make enemies – These do not have to be the competition.  It only has to be positioning yourself against an alternative.  For example Oil of Olay made an enemy of a concept – they said that the enemy is aging. Women bought it (literally).

Don’t let others set your standards – What I mean is when someone else sets a standard for what they consider to be good, change the standard. You decide how to be measured. You make the rules. You… get the point.

Give up control – Realise that the control is all in your head, because a smart marketer will look at all the things that people say about them and the will love it and use it.  Domino’s Pizza used to have a terrible reputation, typified by the phrase “Dominos Sucks”.  They turned it round and told their customers “yep we suck so we’ve changed completely”. They introduced new recipes and tested them all round the U.S.  Within six months they had turned their reputation round. And they’re a leader in the diminishing pizza industry.

What part does music play in your life as a thought leader?

Music is a vital part of my life.  The other day for example, I played about 30 hours of Todd Rundgren songs on Spotify, but I don’t know why.  I get inspired by music but only at specific times and moods.  When I wake up I want to hear a particular piece of music and that used to be hard.  You had to go and search it out.  And God, it’s so easy to find anything you want.  It’s an embarrassment of riches.  I wish we all remembered when we had to run to the nearest Our Price to get what we wanted. I almost hate the fact that everything is so easy to find now as nothing is worth anything anymore.

Editor’s note :  This calls for a bit of Todd Rundgren for his lovely wife Michelle and all blog readers:

So, the big question has got to be why?

When I started in PR I realised that there was a game being played between people that knew a lot about what was going on in the world and people that were being told a lot about what was going on in the world.  My career has always been about trying to close that gap, because information is the biggest commodity of all.  Good, fun, cool information that people take to their grave is the best thing that anybody can own.  That’s the why of Richard Laermer. That’s my ken.  And leave Barbie out of it.

How can people find out more about what you can do for them?

My website is http://laermer.com/

Twitter @laermer

Huffington Post

You can also learn about the launch I’m doing right here in an article about that very product, ThankBank

Peter Cook runs Human Dynamics, a creative management consultancy. With 20+ years’ business, academic and consultancy experience in leading innovation teams, international trouble-shooting, internal business and OD consultancy and leadership and management development. Peter Cook, MBA, MRSC C.Chem, FCIPD, FRSA  www.humdyn.co.uk and www.academy-of-rock.co.uk




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