The Iceberg Theory of Marketing

Behold! The iceberg theory of marketing.

There’s what we see: product, tactics, messaging, etc.

And what we feel: values, strategy, brand, etc.

The tangible versus the intangible. The explicit versus the implicit.

You with me?

The things we can see, we’ll refer to that as “above water”, are what people think they want: a budgeting software, a new mug, etc.

The things we can feel, we’ll refer to that as “below water”, are what people actually want: empowerment, sustainability, etc.

Everything above water requires hard skills, like coding or throwing clay on a wheel, to develop.

Everything below water requires soft skills, like empathy and creativity, to develop.

The tangible stuff scales with money.

The intangible stuff scales with emotional labour.

When you work at the tangible, above water stuff your customer experience will improve. You will see short-term gains.

When you work at the intangible, below water stuff the trust between you and your customer will strengthen. You will lay the foundation for long-term growth.

You can, and must, develop both.

The tip of the iceberg does not a business make. That’s how you get fragile companies and hollow brands that crumble unexpectedly (think of all the VC-backed companies we’ve watched fail in the last year…).

You cannot, no matter how tempting it will be, ignore what’s going on below water. The work is less sexy down here and progress is harder to measure (it’s easy to know when ads are working but how will you measure empathy? Creativity?), however, this is where change lives.

Resilient brands are rooted brands. All the above-water stuff we see as customers (social media profiles, products, advertisements, web copy) is an expression of what’s going on below (strategy and values). Products reflect values. Tactics reflect strategy. Messaging reflects brand. You can mess up the tangibles if you’ve got a strong foundation. If your audience trusts you and is enrolled in the change you represent, they’re going to be a lot more forgiving when your app breaks or you send out the wrong link in your newsletter. It’s not that it makes mistakes okay! It simply means that your audience trusts you to figure it out. They’re not going to seek out alternatives at the first sign of inefficiency or discomfort.

You cannot build a business by writing code or making mugs, by only working above water. That’s how you end up with a commodity.

What we truly want, what we’re actually buying, and the change you seek to make lives below. This is how you build something remarkable.

Start there.

When is doubt, look there.

And remember: marketing is a privilege.

It’s a privilege to be able to show up and advocate for a group of people that trust you to lead the way.

Use that responsibility wisely.


My expert graphic skills at work AGAIN, aren’t you lucky. There are about a zillion ways you can slice and expand on this theory but this feels like a good place to start. And it’s certainly not original to think of it in terms of an “iceberg”, this is simply a take on this theory that makes sense for my brain. See here for iceberg theory and applying the iceberg theory to content marketing.