Upstream vs Downstream Marketing

Upstream marketing is a process which attempts to identify customer needs and then fulfill them. It takes place during the early stages of market segmentation and creates a place of focus when bringing products or services to that demographic. The goal is to find a competitive advantage by examining value propositions and price points so that the development cycles can be accurate.

Downstream marketing is the “traditional” form of marketing. It attempts to reach customers by promoting goods or services that are already developed to a targeted demographic. This may be done through advertising, displays, trade shows, and other forms of promotion. It enhances the acceptance and awareness of goods and services, but makes assumptions on the value propositions and price points that specific demographics will accept.

In a perfect world, an organization should perform both marketing efforts. The upstream vs downstream marketing debate is like comparing an apple to a banana. They may be similar at a core level, but very different in appearance, taste, and style.

Upstream vs Downstream Marketing: An Analogy

Here’s an easy way to compare the differences between upstream and downstream marketing. Let’s go fishing.

There are several things you must do in most places before you can legally fish. You’ll need to purchase a fishing license. You will need a fishing pole. You’ll need equipment to use with that pole, like a lure or a hook. You’ll be purchasing bait based on the type of fish that you’re fishing for when you hit the water.

Then you’ll need to decide where to go fishing. Will it be at a lake? A river? Do you have an ocean beach nearby?

Even when you make it to your preferred location, you still have choices to make. Do you take a boat out onto the water? Do you put on some waders and walk out into the river?


And what beer are you going to bring with you?

Then you set your bait, make a cast, and hopefully catch a big one. Everything up until the point where you cast happened before you actually fished. That is what happens with upstream marketing. You must make the necessary decisions before you start so that you can have the best possible results happen when you do finally begin.

Imagine trying to go fishing using downstream marketing tactics. The first thing you would do would be to cast. Then you’d need to reel it back in, set a bait that you hoped would work, and then repeat. And repeat again with a different bait if the first didn’t work. Maybe you’ll catch a fish, but maybe you won’t catch one.

And you’ll also need to explain why you’re out there fishing without a license if you get caught.

That seems more difficult to do, right? So why is upstream marketing often ignored outright?

Upstream Marketing Forces Tough Questions to Be Asked

Upstream marketing makes you ask the important questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

That means it is more of a set of principles or concepts that must be applied consistently instead of an outreach effort for an established product. To begin an upstream effort, you must have an identity and mission set forth that the organization, as a complete brand, as bought into.

Success is difficult to measure with upstream marketing as well. You’re not counting sales or clicks or website visits as a metric for success. In many cases, you don’t even know if your efforts are going to be successful. You know you want to go fishing, so you buy the stuff to go to give yourself the best possible chance.

Chances are not guarantees. Downstream marketing seems to offer more guarantees and it provides an aura of immediate gratification. That’s why downstream tends to be more appealing. It gives you an adrenaline rush.

Yet ask anyone who goes fishing what it feels like when they’ve planned to catch a big one and it actually happens. All the previous attempts that ended in disappointment are forgotten. There is an intense pride and satisfaction in knowing that a well-planned strategy brought profits.

The bottom line is this: upstream marketing is just as important as downstream marketing. Both options can produce leads and conversions on their own, but they work a lot better when they’re implemented together. By knowing what your customers want and developing goods and services that meet their needs, your brand can make an immediate impact – even if a conversion doesn’t happen.

You only need to be successful once to potentially hook a repeat customer. That’s why the upstream vs downstream marketing comparison is important to remember.

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