Bootstrap Marketing and The Beautiful Idea

Bootstrap Marketing and the Beautiful Idea is one of the keynote addresses I give on a regular basis. It resonates particularly well with startup audiences – although I’ve seen a fair number of big brand marketers in my audiences as well. Apparently, stretching your marketing budget with highly creative, low cost ideas has universal appeal.

The reason I’m bringing up this keynote now? I received a wonderful graphic rendering of my speech’s content from Deborah LeFrank, graphic journalist and owner of Visual Life Stories, who heard me give the talk at the SOHO conference a few months back. I wanted to share the graphic with you, recommend Deborah’s services and – as an added bonus – provide you with a manuscript of the actual speech. Enjoy!

Here’s the picture

Marc Stoiber_SOHO_Bootstrap marketing and beautiful idea

And here are the words

Here’s my favourite bootstrap marketing story.

An acquaintance of mine was a top-notch creative director at Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis, one of the best ad agencies in America. He had just retired when I met him on a consulting project.

In addition to consulting, he told me, he also took on pet projects. One of those projects was to help his young son-in-law get a new business off the ground.

Free brand audit ad

The son-in-law’s business was dog treats. He had figured out how to make dog treats that were healthy, and that dogs preferred over just about anything.

The company was called Scaredy Cat. Because, after all, dogs love a Scaredy Cat. It was a great name.

Scaredy Cat Dog Treats was a classic start up. The son-in-law bootstrapped everything.

He mixed the ingredients himself, baked them in the family oven himself, then bagged and delivered them to local stores…himself.

He asked his father-in-law, my friend, how he could do some bootstrap marketing. No budget, big impact.

How hard could it be?

My friend, who had created multi-million dollar ad campaigns that earned his clients billions, took up the challenge. And started thinking about it.

A few days later, driving home, my friend and his son-in-law saw an old, beat up courier van for sale. One of those big ones that look like rolling billboards. This one had broken windows, no engine. It was basically scrap metal.

My friend said buy it. Couple hundred bucks. Price was right.

Buy it? Why? The son-in-law didn’t have any money to spare, least of all on an old, broken down van. My friend just said… trust me.

They took the van home, and together, painted it jet black. Then they painted a bunch of yellow cartoon dogs on the side that looked like they were jumping right over the driver’s head. The same sort of dogs that were on each package of Scaredy Cats treats.

Next, my friend got a fishing pole, and on the end of the pole, he hung a stuffed cat. One of those fluffy toys that kids love to snuggle with.

He stuck the fishing pole on the front of the hood, so it looked like the cartoon dogs were jumping up over the driver to get to the little kitty hanging from the pole. A bit like the old joke about hanging a carrot in front of the horse.

Final touch? They wrote Scaredy Cats Dog Treats on the side. And their phone number.

It looked great. But this was the 1990’s, when camera phones didn’t exist – let alone Instagram or Facebook. To the son-in-law, it looked like a great idea that would pass in the night, unnoticed by all except a few amused neighbors.

A waste of his zero dollar marketing budget.

Try, try again

But my friend wasn’t done. He said “Let’s tow it down to the local radio station.” Once there, they parked it outside the front door. And left.

A couple of days later, they got the call. “Do you guys own this van with the cat on the fishing pole?” the voice said. It was the radio station.

The son-in-law explained the story behind the van, and told the station what Scaredy Cats treats were. The guy at the station thought the company was pretty cool, and the stunt was funny, to boot. So he asked if the son-in-law would like to come by and talk to the deejays about it, on the air.

They set up a day, and the son-in-law asked that every dog owner at the station bring their pet that day. When he showed up with an armful of treats, everyone’s dog went nuts. The deejays loved the story. They all had a great time on the air, talking about the van, the treats, how great dogs are, and this great local business.

Well, after that success, my friend and his son-in-law did it again. And again. Radio stations. TV stations. Newspapers. When they’d hit every media outlet in town, they drove to the next town, and did it all over.

Sales began to grow. Soon, Scaredy Cat dog treats were outselling every other dog treat in their state, including national brands with multi-million dollar ad budgets.

All for the price of one broken down van.

There are so many things to love about this story. The van, the cat on the pole, the media attention, the success.

What I love most about it, though, is that it’s not really a bootstrap marketing story at all. It’s just a story about a great idea, executed really well.

Creative execution

At it’s core, it’s a brilliant brand idea. Hometown boy makes great product for dog lovers who have a sense of humor.

It had a great insight into the target market. I’m a dog owner. I know dog owners love dogs that scare cats. Even though sometimes, in polite company, we don’t admit it. It’s a guilty pleasure.

It was a great creative execution. And it had great media placement. Right outside the media’s front door, in fact.

My point is, if you start with a great brand idea, you understand your audience, you do a great creative execution, and you have great media placement, you win. Bootstrap or not.

This is fundamental stuff. Unfortunately, though, I think too many of us today look right past the fundamentals.

Marketing shortcuts?

Today, you can shortcut everything.

A friend of mine, Jason, is the creative director of Doner Advertising in LA. He works with a lot of what he calls Yuc’ies. Young urban creatives. He said to me they all want to be Disney moguls like Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez. Actors, singers, clothing designers. TV hosts, CEO’s. They want it all, they want it now, and they don’t really want to hear about the craft and work it takes to get there.

He contrasts this with the heroes we saw in the 1970s and 80s. Rocky comes to mind. An underdog who worked really, really hard on one thing, and got his shot at greatness that way.

That’s not so interesting to Yuc’ies. And, ironically, thanks to technology, they don’t have to focus on one thing. Or even focus on sticking to anything in particular for any length of time. They can create a professional sounding song on their laptop. Shoot a movie. Do a multimedia ad campaign for pretty much zero dollars.

They don’t do a good job of it. The results may be OK, but certainly not immortal.

But in a world where attention span has gone the way of the dodo, they…can…do…it.

Tactics vs ideas

Same goes for bootstrap marketing. Google it, and you get hundreds of hints on how to market your company for almost nothing…right now. Here’s some of the ideas I found on page one of Google.

  • Build your email list
  • Optimize your conversion
  • Get your SEO right, and your pay-per-click
  • Write blogs
  • Organize a flash mob
  • Send press releases
  • Build a list of prospects
  • Network

These aren’t ideas. They’re tactics. And if I put my experienced creative director hat on, they’re not particularly inspiring tactics either.

If you have a non-idea, and you send it out over email, or write it in a blog, or send it in a press release, it will flop. No matter if you get the SEO right, no matter if you optimize for conversion, no matter if you A/B test.

But if you look around, 99% of the noise we see on the internet is just that. Non-ideas mass-communicated.

99% of the media noise we see today is comprised of non-ideas mass-communicated. Share on X

But what do we say when we put a non-idea out into the world and it falls flat as a pancake? Fast fail. Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided it’s sexy to fail, and fail, and fail again. When never think any deeper than that.

Failing has become too easy. It’s a bit like writing ad copy on a computer, as opposed to the old fashioned pencil and eraser way. With a pencil and eraser, you know it’s hard to erase, so you think about what you’re going to write.  On a computer, you can delete…instantly. So you type more, faster, with less thought. I’m not sure that’s better.

Marketing gone wrong

Failing has also become synonymous with painless. Our production and online media are free. You screw up, you haven’t lost any money.

Or have you?

This little bit of free marketing ended up costing Kenneth Cole millions.

And here’s a great example of using technology to respond to your customers. Big time and money saver, that one.

So what’s my answer?

It’s simple. Stop. Stop and think about the problem sitting right in front of you.

By the way, before we leave the topic of brand disasters, you might want to check out my free book Stop Busting Your Brand. A great read if you’re about to press ‘launch’ on your next bootstrap campaign. 

Problem solving

Albert Einstein was asked what he would do if the world was coming to an end in an hour. How would he solve that problem? He famously replied that he’d spend 59 minutes thinking about the problem, and one minute creating the solution.

If Einstein had an hour to save the world, he said he'd spend 59 minutes thinking about the problem, and a minute crafting the solution. Great lesson for marketers who execute first, then think! Share on X

My friend, the Scaredy Cats fellow, didn’t just pop out an idea to his son-in-law. He thought about it for a few days before deciding on what to do.

When I say stop and think, I also mean turn off the computer.

John Cleese famously said “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.”

That’s how I think you come up with brilliant bootstrap marketing.

Brilliant marketing campaigns

I mentioned at the beginning that it would be a shame to think of Scaredy Cats as just bootstrap marketing. It was brilliant marketing. It had everything a brilliant marketing campaign needs:

  1. A great brand idea,
  2. A great insight into the target audience,
  3. A great creative execution,
  4. And great media placement.

I’m going to show you other bootstrap marketing ideas that really nail these four things.

Take a look at this. Big company, sure, but this ad cost nothing. Thanks to social media, it’s been seen by millions. Behind it all, there’s a great brand idea. Slim-Fast is a wonderful way to lose weight on the go.

Now if you stop to think about it, there must be a million places on the go where you could get this message out.

Slim-Fast thought of that. Here’s another piece they did.

What I love is that they took a simple idea – great weight loss on the go – and through exaggeration, made it hilarious. You’re allowed to do that in marketing.

What about this one? Calgary Farmer’s Market hung these apples from trees in the middle of winter with little tags saying Fresh All Winter. I’m sure the folks at the farmer’s market used that line when they were talking about what their brand represented. Fresh all winter is not a clever ad line. By exaggerating it, though, it becomes a brilliant bootstrap marketing idea.

Understanding your audience

So those are great brand ideas.

What about the second part of the equation: understanding your audience?

In the Scaredy Cats example, my friend knew that dog owners think Scaredy Cats – the real, live ones – are pretty funny. Even if they won’t say so in polite company. Because at the root of it all, as the book says, Cat Spelled Backwards doesn’t spell God.  Dogs are better than cats, so making fun of cats is fair game.

Here’s another great example of understanding your audience. 1-800-Got-Junk.

I can remember back when there were only two options for getting rid of junk. Take it to the dump yourself, or go through the yellow pages and hire a couple of shady characters to move it.

Brian Scudamore turned the whole business upside down with 1-800-Got-Junk. And a big part of his success, right from day one, was his truck billboards.

Not only were they parked everywhere. But they were clean. And they stuck a phone number in your head.

In other words, they knew that I didn’t know how to get rid of my junk. And I needed to be reminded on my way home. In a way I could remember without trying to scribble something down while I was driving.

Great ideas in action

Here’s a great idea from my friends at Rethink. This one deserves a bit of explanation. See the 3M logo? You’d think it was 3M that did the ad. It wasn’t. It was a small local dealer of 3M film that you applied to windows to make them shatterproof. He didn’t have any budget.

Now you see the bus shelter? Bus shelters are expensive. What you don’t see is that there was only one bus shelter in this media buy. Right in front of Rethink’s office.

What they did was cover the bus shelter ad window with this special film. Then they put money inside. Real bills on top, fake ones underneath. (I know, I asked them.)

Then, they told the journalists – who dutifully showed up to film countless hooligans trying to break the glass.

The stunt made national news. And if you think about it, it’s all based on the simplest  insight into dude thinking. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.

By the way, nobody broke the glass.

In bootstrap marketing, your medium could be your execution

Now let’s finish off by talking about a great execution, and great media placement. In the context of bootstrap marketing, they’re kinda the same thing. Because often, your medium is your execution.

Like here. A bit of paint that washes off in the rain, a nice ribbed grating, and a camera phone. Nothing fancy, but a great way to really get the condom’s benefit across to millions of people on the internet.

Here’s another one. This one makes the Slim-Fast can ad look positively big budget. A barbecue fork, a stencil and paint, and a great eye for stuff that looks like beat up barbecue grills. Take the picture, post on internet, rinse, repeat.

When it comes to bootstrap marketing executions, that is often the mark of a great one. Finding something that looks like something else, but that nobody takes the time to notice.

Walk stripes look like French fries.

Bus straps look like watch straps.

A pizza box looks like a mouth. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done for shark week.

A door knob looks like a…well, anyways. You get the point.

Marketing that makes sense

The thing is, I could go on all day about how much I love bootstrap marketing. In a country where 99% of the employers are small businesses, I think bootstrap marketing is the only marketing that makes any sense.

I know it’s easy to do a terrible job of it. But if you get back to the fundamentals, understand your brand, understand your audience, and use the world around you as a canvas for a great creative execution, you’ll do great things.

Now, I’m going to end on a challenge. I have 10 copies of my book Didn’t See It Coming that I’ll sign and send to the first 10 brilliant bootstrap marketing ideas I see coming from you. Do them, take a picture of them, and send me the photo.

There you go. Now get bootstrapping.

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This story was originally published on October 11, 2016, and has been updated. 

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