In August of 2012, the Harvard Business Review ran one of its most controversial articles ever. It was called “Marketing Is Dead” by noted consultant and author Bill Lee. Lee claims that the article had more than 650 comments and 4,000 recommendations.

“In today’s increasingly social media-infused environment, traditional marketing and sales not only doesn’t work so well, it doesn’t make sense. Think about it: an organization hires people — employees, agencies, consultants, partners — who don’t come from the buyer’s world and whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with his, and expects them to persuade the buyer to spend his hard-earned money on something. Huh?”

                                                              – Bill Lee, “Marketing Is Dead”

Look around and you can see evidence that Lee’s recommended solution to traditional marketing’s demise is something he later called “Advocate Marketing” in his book, “The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most Important Asset” It’s also often referred to today as “Customer Marketing.”

In a previous blog posting here, David Peltz talked about how Salesforce has repositioned itself around customer success, and they’re not alone.

Many companies have bought in to the new era of marketing. (And odds are, those are the companies that will still be around ten years from now.)

Take the often-referenced Zappos, for example. Zappos is a billion-dollar-a-year company that invests very little in traditional marketing efforts. Why? Because Zappos isn’t in the business of selling shoes. Zappos is in the business of “WOWing” its customers.

If you read the Zappos Family Core Values, you’ll notice that none of them have to do with selling shoes. Since the beginning, Zappos’ leaders have insisted on maintaining a company culture that fosters relationships and trust among the “family,” customers included.

How do those values play out? It seems like every other month I hear an outstanding story about a Zappos employee who went above and beyond reasonable lengths to make a customer happy. Read some for yourself. Or better yet, ask a Zappos customer.

But how can a B2C company like Zappos invest so much in “WOWing” their customers in a low-end market like online shoe sales? Shouldn’t they just focus on getting as many sales as possible?

Well, by keeping their customer relationships at the center of their business philosophy (in often expensive and time-consuming ways), Zappos has built a tribe. And that tribe doesn’t just offer up repeat buyers—that tribe likes to talk.

Zappos’ customers are its greatest marketing asset.

Our business is based on repeat customers and word of mouth. There’s a lot of value in building up our brand name and what it stands for. We view the money that we spend on customer service as marketing money that improves our brand.”

– Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com

If a company like Zappos can cultivate incredible loyalty and relationships exclusively over the internet, how much could your company do?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what business you think you’re in. It doesn’t matter what you think your products do, or to whom you think they’re marketable. The only things that matter are the problems you solve for your customers, your relationships with them, and what they’re saying about you to other potential customers.

“If you ask an employee from a software company to describe the business his company is in, you’ll likely hear the typical statement about what their products do and maybe the industries they serve. Ask one of their customers what that company does for them, and you’re more likely to hear about the problems that the company’s software has helped them solve – and often, what that has meant to them in terms of real-world benefits. These are the stories that marketing and sales departments should be delivering to prospects – and the customers themselves should be telling them – since they have all the credibility.”

– David Peltz, Founder of Credible Customers

Try it yourself. Call up one of your loyal customers and ask them what your company does. And if they don’t initially include this, ask what your company does…for them. Better yet, ask them why they remain one of your customers. Odds are, they’re not going to say, ‘software,’ or ‘Oh, your company makes excellent cold calls,’ or ‘I really enjoy those banner ads you put out.’”

They’ll tell you one or two specific ways your company has made their life or job easier. That right there is the business you’re in. Isn’t that a more compelling marketing message?

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About the Author: Daniel Caughill is a freelance writer who recently relocated to Shanghi, China. Daniel is an insider in the software-as-a-service (SaaS) world, having served in both Client Services and Marketing at K-12 administrative software provider, Frontline Technologies.