The year was 2000, our Gen Z Head of Social Aidan, wasn’t even born yet (which makes me feel OLD), and “the cloud” was just something that brought rain and blocked the sun.

Manually installed software from Siebel Systems was dominating the customer relationship management industry (CRM), enabling the best Salesmen and Marketers to excel in their job. Their revenue was about to cross the 10-figure mark (aka $1B), there wasn’t much competition, and the future looked bright.

And in February of 2000, Siebel Systems was set to host their annual conference in the hustle of San Francisco. All of the nation’s top performing Marketers would be at this event, it was a can’t-miss conference that also doubled as massive PR value for the giant, Siebel Systems.

That was until a scrappy startup, founded just up the road, came to hijack all of the attention from Siebel Systems.

Let’s get into the story…

A tiny little team of former Oracle execs in their 30s in San Francisco had the desire to build a more efficient way to manage customer relationships. The existing solutions in the market were old, clunky, and SUPER complex to manage. So what if there was a way to make it substantially easier to manage?

That’s when this idea of “the cloud” came into play and a $267B business was born. 

Now one of the largest companies in the world, employing over 70,000 people, and running Siebel Systems SWIFTLY out of business within 5 years of launching, Salesforce is a prime case study in how to win market share through guerilla Marketing tactics.

At the annual Siebel Systems conference in February of 2000, Salesforce had the out of ordinary idea to draw attention to their recently launched product. 

The conference was attracting Salesforce’s ideal customer profile (ICP) and being a small startup with minimal traction in the market, this was an unique opportunity.

For Salesforce to get a large chunk of their ICP in one place would be incredibly expensive and difficult, but for a giant like Siebel Systems it was routine, so this was a chance for Salesforce to speak to their ICP in abundance.

So what did they do? Paid  $50,000 to set up a booth in the Siebel Systems conference to sell their cloud-based CRM. They held a FAKE protest against software, right outside the doors of the conference. 

Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, hired actors, gave them signs that read “The Cloud Must Go On”, and had them chant “The internet is really neat…software is obsolete”.

Benioff even hired a fake “Channel 22” news network to pull up to the front of the conference in their “news truck”, film the protest, and interview the actors.

The protest built so much buzz outside of the conference that REAL news networks began to show up and record the Marketing stunt.

Suddenly the attraction was no longer the happy hour networking events inside the conference and became this scrappy startup pushing the agenda of a cloud-based CRM. The stunt was all over the news and Salesforce began to gain a little notoriety in the space.

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Siebel Systems was unphased. 

To make an analogy, this was the equivalent of your little sibling making a scene to get Mom and Dad’s attention, as the older sibling you don’t care, you don’t need that attention.

So Salesforce took a second big swing at Siebel Systems months later in France that proved to be a MASSIVE hit. Hosting another event in Cannes, this was Siebel’s most exclusive annual event that had attendees fly into Nice and take a cab over to Cannes.

Salesforce was still tight-budgeted, scrappy, and incredibly aspirational…emphasis on that last piece.

Knowing that ALL event attendees would have a 45-minute taxi ride to the event in Cannes, Salesforces decided to rent ALL of the airport taxis in the area.

They slapped their ghostbuster’s inspired “No Software” logo that gained notoriety after their initial stunt in San Francisco, and hired their own taxi drivers which also happened to be extremely knowledgeable on the services Salesforce provided.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down??

Literally Salesforce made sure NO OTHER rides were available for event attendees, so the attendees had to ride in the Salesforce cabs, and pitched them on Salesforce the ENTIRE 45 minute ride there.

That’s the definition of playing chess while the competition is stuck over there playing checkers.

(Salesforce CEO, Marc Benioff, pictured below. 👇)

In both the protest and the taxi stunt, Siebel Systems called the police which was a MISTAKE. A tried and true phenomenon is that any attempt to suppress information ends up drawing MORE attention to the very thing you’re looking to suppress (aka The Streisand Effect). 

Siebel Systems thought they’d be nipping both stunts right in the bud by bringing in the police, and instead they amplified the message Salesforce was pushing.

On top of that Salesforce is a great example that proves it’s okay to make some people mad with your Marketing. As Marketers we’re looking to tap into the emotional sides of consumers, oftentimes it can be joy or humor, but in Salesforce’s case, it was anger.

Now the person you piss off CANNOT be the person you’re trying to target with your product, that just wouldn’t make any sense.

The right group to make mad with your Marketing is a third party that wasn’t even going to buy your product in the first place. That won’t impact your total addressable market (TAM) because they weren’t in it in the first place. And the group you anger will act as an amplifier for the message you’re putting out, just like Siebel Systems in Salesforce’s case.

I can only imagine how much more viral this type of campaign would have been in the age of social media, but to turn a small group of former Oracle execs into a $267B+ business isn’t too shabby.

In 2002 Siebel Systems reportedly held 45% of the CRM market share, but 3 years later they were bought by Oracle after being outmatched by the more nimble and customer-centric Salesforce.

And to make the entire situation more ironic, Marc Benioff was one of the first investors in Siebel Systems, he was very good friends with Tom Siebel (the founder of Siebel Systems), and Salesforce was NEARLY a subsidiary of Siebel Systems but a last second change of mind from Tom Siebel forced Benioff to go off on his own.

Daniel Murray
Daniel Murray
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