4 Marketing Lessons from The Martian


I’m a huge fan of survival stories – from the balloon-wrecked castaways of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island to 80′s legend and mullet-master Macgyver. I’m inspired by stories where creative solutions are found just by using the tools at hand–turning a cement mixer into a makeshift aircraft, or creating explosives from random items found in the woods. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, he does just that in a story about surviving for years before being rescued in the most inhospitable place imaginable. While this is a story of survival, I realized in reading it that it actually has some important lessons in it for marketers too.

FYI I wouldn’t call this post a spoiler for the Martian, but if you like surprises, maybe go read the book first.

1. Constraints create focus

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars with only 30 days of supplies, yet has years to wait until a plausible rescue mission is mounted. Food is perhaps his biggest initial challenge. He has to apply his botany background to a completely new pursuit: growing crops on a planet without oxygen. He puzzles out how to blend martian soil with soil samples from earth, and how to multiply a meager supply of potatoes into years of sustenance. The fact that he has limited supplies focuses his energy and drives decisions forward.

For marketers, often the biggest constraints are budget and resources. Certainly we all fantasize about what we could do with a bigger team or more budget, but the reality is usually underwhelming by comparison. Yet these constraints are a great thing. With less disposable budget, you’re forced to make more creative uses for the money you do have.  With less budget and human resources, you’ve got to figure out how to make your own potatoes go farther. Small teams like those at Basecamp build incredible products with tiny teams and budgets by focusing on the critical stuff, and ignoring the rest.

Ultimately the best marketers thrive because of constraints posed on them, not despite them.

2. Look at problems sideways

The limit of food supply for Watney was a scary constraint, but the real creativity came when he realized he didn’t have nearly enough water supply to actually cultivate the crops he wanted to grow. He could have just tried to grow what he could, and ration it as best as possible, but this sort of linear thinking would only have delayed the inevitable, and probably would have gotten him killed.

Instead, he approached the problem sideways: instead of trying to optimize the supply he had, he thought up a way to actually increase his water supply by re-purposing the base elements found in the hydrogen fuel of his landing craft.

The best ideas are rarely landed through lateral thinking. Often they come by imagining methods and technologies outside of their intended purposes, or thinking in a wildly new direction. In marketing automation, I’m exposed to many situations where this sort of sideways thinking is a necessity. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the job, though marketers of any skill set can benefit from non-linear thinking. In a time where marketing “best practices” rule, we must not neglect the power of original, and unconventional ideas.

3. Experimentation drives innovation

Watney’s Mars is unforgiving. His barebones equipment is constantly breaking down or insufficient for the new tasks at hand. He experiments with different tweaks to his tools, all meant to further his goal of survival and rescue.

The basis of marketing experimentation is rooted on the scientific methods of hypothesis development and A/B testing. It’s a popular topic among marketers, but few in B2B experiment enough. It’s always surprising to me how many marketing decisions are still in many ways driven by gut, intuition, or the aforementioned best practices. These are still valuable to decision making, but continuous testing and observation is often left out of the process. And yet it’s one of the only ways for marketers to achieve bulletproof credibility.

4. Think in terms of years, not just weeks

Staying alive from day-to-day was priority #1 for Watney, but he never lost sight of the long term goal: getting rescued. After all, daily survival does no good if you fail the day before rescue.

For marketers, losing sight of strategic goals  for tactical initiatives is an easy trap to fall into. On mars, short-term thinking undermines any chance of rescue. Back on earth, that equates to lost productivity, profitability, and credibility. The individual campaigns initiatives that make up a marketer’s efforts are important, but only when seen as part of the bigger picture: growth in the marketplace, greater brand visibility, or reaching ubiquity in a new market. It’s the big stuff that takes years to build that ultimately matters in the end.