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 just 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 my favorite 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.
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 spend, 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 up 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 $0 marketing budget.
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 DJ’s 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 DJ’s 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.
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.
We’re living in times where 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 Hannah Montana or iCarly. Actors, singers, clothing designers. TV hosts, loving children, 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 1980s. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This nice little online campaign got American Apparel in the news, in all the wrong ways.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
And another one. The brand idea – it’s easy to transport yourself somewhere else with this travel magazine. Add a little exaggeration, a little mixed media, and bingo, you have a viral campaign.
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.
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.
Here’s another great example. Based on the simple insight that we all hate baggage handlers.
And another great example, this one 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 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.
The stunt made national news. And if you think about it, it’s all based on the simplest guy insight. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.
By the way, nobody broke the glass.
Now let’s finish off by talking about a great execution, and a 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 product 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.
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.
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.
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 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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Brands were created to make us happy – for a fleeting moment, at any rate. After that moment passed, they trained us to be dissatisfied until we hit the ‘buy’ button again.
This cycle of desire, fulfillment and dissatisfaction worked beautifully in our economy, built as it was on the concept of planned obsolescence.
But lately, something strange has been happening.
Blame it on sustainability or internet-induced transparency. Blame it on people getting fed up with feeling compelled to buy more on smaller paychecks. Blame it on enlightenment.
Today, people want to be makers, or they want to enjoy experiences. Buying new shiny things is starting to look less, well, shiny.
In this context, I wanted to introduce you to John Habibi.
John caught my eye because his business was teaching tech entrepreneurs to close more deals and take more time off. As I spend considerable time with tech entrepreneurs, this promise seemed like the holy grail. Intoxicating, and unreachable.
When I dug a bit deeper, it turned out John was helping many of these entrepreneurs discover happiness through mindfulness and spirituality through meditation. Again, a concept that seemed incongruent with my impression of the average alpha tech entrepreneur.
John and I have had a number of conversations on his practice, and how our yearning for something ‘more’ than material success is changing the face of our society. As a brand specialist, I dug into his thoughts on how mindfulness could destroy brands, or reshape them.
If you’d like to hear the conversation, press play below. If you’d simply like the Coles Notes version, I’ve summarized some of the highlights for you. Either way, enjoy!
Habibi said key to attaining happiness was being aware of living in the present. Easy to say, hard to do.
“Society has trained our brains to think in terms of the past or the future. Brands do this by constantly promising happiness just ahead. What’s interesting is if we can discover mindfulness, and use it to find happiness in the moment.”
Not surprisingly, this isn’t easy when you’re dealing with tech entrepreneurs. As Habibi said, men are generally wired to be more goal and action oriented – always striving for more. And men comprise the overwhelming majority of tech entrepreneurs.
“I teach them that happiness is a process – like a marriage. The point is enjoying the results every day, at multiple levels. Happiness comes not from trying to make your marriage better tomorrow, but in making it better moment by moment. To be a happy entrepreneur, you need to figure out how to treat your job the same way.”
This concept is also core to brand thinking. We have created a linear approach to consumption – desire, buy, use, discard. The results have been environmentally disastrous, and haven’t made us very happy in the process.
Habibi believes this linear approach to consumption is coming to a close.
“Most tech guys are just passionate about what they do. But some of them are coming around to the idea of a circular world. In the same way, authors like Peter Diamantis have shown that we live in a world of abundance – ruling out the brand-centric concept of linear consumption and scarcity.”
According to Diamantis, ‘exponential’ technology unleashes new thinking and ways of getting things done. At this stage, the technology is monetized as it is taken to market. If successful, it creates a wealth of new products at progressively lower prices, until those products are given away – completely demonetized.
Where does this leave brands?
Look at the trajectory of demonetization. Through exponential technology – and our search for happiness beyond consumption – we discover that money cannot buy us spiritual happiness. What we discover all around us (again through technology) is a growing movement toward mindful living. For free.
So where do brands go as we happiness becomes demonetized? That’s the big question.
Habibi believes looking at our current reality and fixating on that to determine the future is like looking in the rearview mirror to drive. Pointless and dangerous.
However, there are some signs of brands in transition as we move toward demonetization.
The ultimate experience is created from the inside out. We need to find happiness inside, not in the world around us.
Nike’s Find Your Greatness campaign is a good example of this. The athletic equipment manufacturer asserts that we already have everything we need inside us. All Nike wants to do is join us on the journey.
This is a wonderful example of a brand that understands how people on the road to mindfulness think. The further they get from their personal essence, the less happy they’re going to be. The closer they get, the happier.
Rather than signalling doom for brands, Habibi thinks it will be a motherlode of creativity. “If a brand person has to imagine creating a product for people who don’t need products to be happy, imagine the new avenues they could explore!”
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Leading North American advertising agencies used to be headed by creatives and innovators. Today, managers and accountants hold the reins. The result? Less focus on innovation, and more on efficiency and maintaining revenue.
This has created a crisis in confidence in the sector, with vital young talent pursuing their passion in sectors like tech.
Andrew Carty’s agency Send+Receive is rethinking the role of agencies, and changing a number of accepted practices to put the focus back where it belongs. Crafting great ideas.
Carty’s agency is also re-emphasizing the importance of selling, striving to achieve outcomes that should make any client CFO smile.
Andrew joined me for a lively discussion where we covered these issues, and more.
You can check out the actual interview by pressing play. Or skip ahead to the highlights that follow. Enjoy!
Advertising is the business of selling things. We are vital cogs in the machine of capitalism. And while the bloom may have gone off the capitalist rose, it remains our most effective tool for creating outcomes we all desire – comfort, wealth and security.
Carty feels advertisers have grown bored with selling, chasing more ethereal, complex measures of success instead. Driving impressions, creating engagement… everything but sales. This could be a direct outcome of an hourly billing structure, which tends to encourage adding non-essentials to justify more work. Or it could simply be the result of sales becoming disassociated from marketing – a trend that could put advertising agencies in serious jeopardy.
Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs. As Carty says “Our job is to get to the heart of what makes a product special and figure out how to sell that. It’s simple. And, I believe, endlessly exciting.”
Post-recession, consumers may have less money, but large companies and brands are sitting on unprecedented wealth. How do advertisers get them to unlock the war chest?
According to Carty, it isn’t by doing defensive, status quo work. “We aren’t in the maintenance business – we’re in the creation business. But the creative modus operandi contradicts the status quo mandate of holding companies and shareholders. Risky, bold work is, by its nature, well, risky. Unfortunately, timidity has become the new normal. What client would pay vast sums of money for work that, at best, maintains market share?”
Carty bemoans the sameness of most advertising. While he does point the finger at the ‘status quo mentality’, he also sees another fundamental fault in the system – consumer insight driven research. “We’ve come to believe that ads should cater to consumer needs. This completely de-emphasizes the awesome stories products have to tell. I believe if you start by unearthing the magic of the product, then go to consumer, you create much more original, impactful advertising.”
Carty’s agency Send+Receive was created to answer to rapidly shifting client priorities. “We haven’t seen the agency model fundamentally change in 50 years, despite the last half century being one of unprecedented change and innovation.”
Carty points out simple fixes like moving to an outcome-based fee as progress. He also emphasizes the importance of building an agency that’s small and nimble, without the burdens of network overhead inflating client costs.
Ultimately, it’s about getting to better results, faster. A mantra of modern capitalism. And, with any luck, a breath of fresh air for ad agencies.
Brands sell happiness. And, of course, brands sell perennial unhappiness.
They’re two sides of the same coin – on the one hand, we promise consumers that their next purchase will make them happy. And as soon as they’ve made the purchase, we tell them they need to update to the latest model / version / colour to truly be happy. It’s sad, but this method of selling planned obsolescence is a reality of 20th century marketing.
Consumers are getting wise to marketers’ superficial promises of happiness through consumption. They’re beginning to understand that happiness without consumption isn’t just possible, but natural.
How will brands survive?
To decode happiness from a brand perspective, I brought aboard author and psychologist John Marshall Roberts. Check out our lively discussion below!
Culture is a word everyone in the corporate world uses, but few understand. What we do know is that companies with strong cultures outperform their rivals in everything from customer engagement to employee retention. Culture works.
So how do you ‘get culture’? David Reeve, author of Unleash Culture, has made corporate culture his career. He’s won 45 major awards for helping companies reboot and upgrade their culture, counselled companies from startup to Fortune 500, and made the workplace a happier place for thousands of us.
I spoke with David on how to develop a corporate culture, the impact it can have, and how strong culture translates into a powerful brand.
Enjoy the interview!
Cleantech Canada asked me to write a series of op-ed pieces on effectively branding technology. This story describes how to make your pitch simpler, and more compelling. Enjoy!
In this podcast, I brainstorm with behavioral psychologist John Marshall Roberts on the causes of our dependence on our digital devices, what that means for brands, and how we can break free. Enjoy!
The global economy is turbulent, and not getting any better. Jobs are changing, jobs are being lost, people are striking out in new directions.
In an atmosphere like this, one of your most valuable assets is the story you tell. Your vision of the future, your path, and your adventures along the way – if you can bring these elements together, you can capture your listener’s ear and make yourself unique.
I published Why You Need a Personal Pitch on Linkedin today. The uptake was phenomenal. Think this one struck a nerve.
Take a look, and tell me what you think. And if you like it, please make sure to pass it along.
In my final episode of the Ian Jessop show for 2015, Ian and I explore which brands will thrive, and which will dive in 2016. Enjoy the fun!