Is Zero Budget advertising an Urban legend ?

Something really stuck with me after reading the amazing four-part blog post series at Wait But Why about Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX.

In the first article in the series, Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man, author Tim Urban notes “… he [Elon Musk] refuses to advertise for Tesla, something most startup car companies wouldn’t think twice about — because he sees advertising as manipulative and dishonest.” (emphasis mine)

I dug deeper and couldn’t find other evidence that Elon’s dislike of advertising is what keeps Tesla from advertising. It’s true that they do not currently advertise, but it sounds as though that’s because Tesla is currently production-constrained. There’s more demand than they can keep up with, so advertising would only make things worse. They haven’t ruled out advertising at some point in the future when production catches up.

But Elon Musk’s feelings about advertising and Tesla’s plans for it bring up an interesting conversation. What if you want to grow a business without advertising, whatever the reason?

I know entrepreneurs who are morally opposed to most forms of advertising, sales, commission-based affiliate marketing and customer-unfriendly technologies and tactics. Leo Babauta once called marketing The Scourge of the Internet. Comedian Bill Hicks called advertisers SAtan’s little helpers. Even Gary Vaynerchuk, who never passes up a marketing opportunity admits that marketers ruin everything.

Despite a handful of outspoken objections to advertising and marketing, you’d have a hard time feeling normal for disliking marketing if you spend any time in the world of “Internet marketers.”

Depending on who you subscribe to, it might seem like selling your soul is the only way to earn a living independently. It might seem like you have to treat your potential customers like prey to be “captured.” Maybe you’ve accepted that you have to get comfortable with pushy tactics, because they’re just the cost of doing business.

But what if there was another way?

There is another way, and you already know it. You just aren’t sure how the other way applies to you.

Think about it: why doesn’t Tesla need to spend money on advertising right now? Because their product is so remarkable and innovative, people are talking about it. “Advertising” is happening organically because people (and press) want to talk about this amazing breakthrough product.

They want to talk about how Tesla built a car that performed better than any other car ever had, so well that it broke Consumer Reports rating system. They also want to talk about the incredible David Vs. Goliath story unfolding as Tesla takes on one of the biggest industries in the world, and how they’re fighting against the rigged system of laws that preserve the antiquated car dealership model, even though 75% of people hate the car dealership experience.

Since the new Tesla Model 3 was unveiled this month, nearly 400,000 people have put $1,000 down to reserve the car, even though they likely won’t be available until 2018 or 2019. That’s over $17B in future sales from $0 spent on advertising.

Here’s the dirty little secret about advertising: the more impressive, extraordinary and irresistable your product is, the less you need advertising.

The inverse is also true: the more mediocre, ordinary and forgettable your product is, the more you have to rely on advertising and marketing to convince customers otherwise.

Don’t believe me? Just look at this list of top advertisers in India  (based on the amount spent in 2014):

  • Unilever India
  • Tata Motors
  • Samsung
  • ITC
  • GlaxoSmithKline

Would you call any of the products those companies produce impressive, extraordinary or irresistible?

Sure, maybe Tesla is an unfair example. You’re not likely to build a product so groundbreaking that it generates that much buzz. Very, very few products do. But I want you to think about Tesla as you’re dreaming up your next product or planning to improve your current one.

Better yet, look at Kickstarter’s most funded projects list. Pay attention to products that were launched by people without huge followings, like the Pebble watch, Coolest Cooler, and Baubax jacket. Don’t get sidetracked by the individual stories, just pay attention to the products themselves. What made each product so remarkable, despite being in already crowded markets?

If the part of your 1-page business plan that keeps you up at night is the marketing section, you need to think carefully about whether the reason marketing scares you is because your product is mediocre, ordinary or forgettable.

Remember: the better the product, the easier the marketing.

For most of us, even when we build something with Tesla or the iPhone in mind, our products will fall short. Our products will need some kind of marketing to find traction.

This is where many business ideas die at the hands of the “if you build it they will come” fallacy. Sure, if you build the world’s most advanced electric car you might find demand without advertising, but we already admitted we’re not building the next Tesla.

Your job then, is to create the most impressive, extraordinary and irresistible product you possibly can to reduce your need for marketing to something you can live with (and afford).

But first, what marketing can you live with? We talked earlier about moral opposition to advertising and how some might even compare advertisers to the devil’s spawn.

I’m guessing you’re not quite that extreme, which is good because you’re going to have to do some kind of marketing, even if your product is amazing.

That’s right, even incredible products need some help in getting the word out. Even Tesla relies upon unconventional marketing, press, social media and customer referrals. Not advertising, but yes, marketing.

Here’s where you have to get past your gut reaction to advertising and marketing and ask yourself specifically what you’re comfortable with, because every business has to engage in some kind of marketing.

We’ve used the terms advertising and marketing both here, sometimes interchangably. Let’s start by clearing that up. Technically, advertising is a subset of marketing. Advertising specifically refers to paying for placement of advertisements, whereas marketing in general includes any kind of communication between your business and your potential customers.

Marketing can mean all kinds of things, from the sleazy “devil’s spawn” stuff Bill Hicks talks about, all the way to something as simple and innocuous as explaining what your product does to someone you met at a restaurant. Even Bill Hicks’ events were marketed, even if he didn’t do the marketing personally.

Again, you have to decide what you’re comfortable with.

If you find yourself venturing into using tactics that used to make your skin crawl, you have one of the three following problems:

  1. Your product isn’t as great as you imagined
  2. You’ve been convinced by some “internet marketer” you subscribed to that these tactics are essential
  3. The tactics that used to make your skin crawl as a customer now magically don’t seem so bad when you’re the business owner and stand to gain from using them (not unlike when your liberal friends grow up to become republicans once they start earning more)

All Sizzle, No Steak

See, you have a choice here: you can focus on making a better product, or you can focus on convincing people you have a better product.

Most businesses do both at the same time. Companies have “product” functions responsible for building a better widget, and “marketing” functions responsible for convincing people how great the widget is.

How much time you spend on each depends on what you believe about the world and how capable you are at creating something truly impressive, extraordinary and irresistable.

Building great products is hard, so many companies spend more effort on marketing than product development. All sizzle and no steak.

Some of those marketing-first resorting to the worst kinds of marketing tactics, even though they themselves used to believe in a world where pushy and deceptive marketing didn’t pay off.

From now on, when you notice pushy advertising or marketing of any kind, ask yourself: “why do they have to push so hard? If the product really is great, why do they resort to marketing like this?”

Then use this as an internal barometer for your own marketing efforts. Ask yourself

1) how you would feel about a company you respect using the tactics you’re considering, and

2) whether your marketing messages honestly reflect the value of your product, or if you’re making up for some deficiency you’d be better off fixing in the first place.

We all need marketing to get the word out about our products. Your job is first to build the best product you possibly can and second to find a way to market that is effective but true to the kind of business you want to build.

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