How To Market a Boring Business
PR, Advertising and Marketing Strategies for Regular, Button-Down Brands
The problem with a lot of marketing advice is that the examples they use are not exactly typical. It’s hard for businesses, particularly smaller businesses, to relate to the bold innovations of companies like Apple or Tesla. Not everyone is an American Apparel.
The reality is that a lot of businesses (and books) are low-key. If we’re being honest, we might say that a lot of businesses are boring. Or, at least they think they’re boring because they read the endless supply of breathless articles about some new Zappos plan to have innovation, realize immediately that this has no chance of working for them, and get depressed.
But boring doesn’t mean you can’t be profitable and it definitely doesn’t mean you can’t use innovative marketing techniques to get quality attention. Let’s look at some of the opportunities and strategies that supposedly boring business can use:
1) First Off, Is Your Business Actually Boring?
There has to be something about your business that gets you excited. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have spent your precious—irreplaceable—time on it. We can’t tell you the number of times we’ve listened to clients describe their business, and were bored out of our minds as they droned on and on about tedious details—and then were shocked out of our stupor by something amazing that they skipped over. It turns out that they were sitting on some crazy fact, or some backstory that wasn’t at all obvious but was incredibly compelling. That thing instantly changes the product from boring to exciting.
Though as a side note, what often gets you excited about something—like accounting—is precisely what bores other people. You have to find what interests them.
What bores people is when a business has not actually taken the time to figure out who they are and what they do—when they haven’t figured out their story and told it properly. More than that, it wastes people’s time. It’s like a friend who tells a story about something you experienced together, but leaves all of the good parts out, and you want to jump in and correct them—you know something is there, they’re just explaining it poorly.
Point being: Before you write your business off as boring and resign yourself to marketing accordingly, I would actually double check and make sure that it is.
2) Tell a Great Story
If the difference between a boring business and an exciting one is a good story, then the key is to find and tell a great story about your business. People love stories, they use stories to make sense of the world. A great example of this is the Significant Objects Project. The project took nearly worthless junk from thrift stores, had writers craft a fictional story about the object, and then posted the object, along with its new fictional story, to eBay. The result? They sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. If you can tell a great story about your product, you can take something boring and make it interesting.
That being said, here is the key to great storytelling: You must make the CUSTOMER the hero and center of the story, NOT you or your boring product.
For example, selling mediocre sub sandwiches doesn’t really blow anybody’s doors off, but when Subway introduced the Subway Diet and its spokesperson Jared, their business exploded because their customers connected the story of their struggle to lose weight with Jared’s struggle, thereby making Subway not just the alternative choice but the healthy choice. Subway is now the biggest fast food chain in the world, based very much on this story that—while only dubiously true—still connected with millions of people.
3) Crazy Marketing Can Compensate For a Boring Product
We’ve all heard of Go Daddy. So many times in fact that most of us have forgotten what a boring ass business it actually is. Go Daddy is a domain name registrar. It doesn’t get more boring than that. But they have always been so over the top with everything they do—from the name itself to their Super Bowl ads—that it’s turned the company into a spectacle. You can say that this is cheap or tacky, but the business was sold for a reported $2.25 BILLION dollars (meaning they don’t care what you think).
The point isn’t that you should be cheap or tacky like GoDaddy, but to understand that a very reliable tactic for promoting a boring business is to use an advertising strategy that is focused on crazy, outlandish or fun things, and then associate your name with those things.
I want to make it clear that here we are not just talking about standard PR & Marketing—advertisements, signage, name, etc. Sometimes craziness here can be fun and a key differentiator. Car dealers are a great example of this. This Eastern Motors ad has gotten over 160,000 views on YouTube, just by having professional athletes lip sync their jingle (which is also really catchy). Remember the Mini Mall commercial? That’s another. I also like this classic ad from a BBQ restaurant in OKC. You can even make taxidermy interesting; this Ojai Valley Taxidermy ad has got over 14 million views on YouTube.
If you run a business that isn’t cutting edge or doesn’t naturally stick out of the crowd, it’s your job to be different and get attention. As you can see with the previous ads, going over the top can work. If you think about what these businesses are doing, it’s really deciding that their current story is too tame—so they’re telling a new one through crazy or funny commercials. Your business may be boring, but you might not be. If not, then use your sense of humor to spice up your business to show there is a real, funny person behind it, and people will be more attracted to it.
4) Do Interesting Things
Holstee started out as an apparel startup in Brooklyn, selling trendy t-shirts and wallets — not exactly earth shattering stuff. But when they created the Holstee Manifesto, an inspiring mission statement about following your dreams and living your passion, their business blew up. Because it was so much more than self-promotion the short video graphic the owners designed went on to be seen more than 60 million times and was translated into dozens of languages. Did the founders expect it to go viral and launch their company in front of millions of potential customers? No, but because it was inspiring, moving, directed at a specific audience, and concise, it had a far better chance of doing so than the countless boring and meaningless mission statements written by other companies each and every day.
Or take something we did for one of our own clients, Jerry DeWitt, author of Hope After Faith. Jerry had been a Pentecostal minister for 25 years before he left the church and became an atheist. Near the release of his book, Jerry started a full-fledged atheist “church” and held a Sunday service in Lake Charles, LA. Plenty of people write about religion, but the idea of starting an atheist church was so different and interesting that it was picked up by The New York Times.
Or take the transportation startup Uber. They’re basically an on-demand town car service. But they make it interesting by delivering flowers for your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, bringing ice cream to your office during the summer, and even delivering Christmas trees during the holiday season. They’ve also managed to turn pretty standard lobbying and political influence into activist causes by framing their transportation issues in an exciting way.
5) Own What You Are; Honesty Works
So many businesses try to put on a facade, pretending to be something amazing and revolutionary, when they are just very normal businesses. Why not lean into what you really are, and stand out by being honest about it. If you’re a plumber, don’t act like you’re something else; you can even turn that around by saying things like “We clean up poop, so you don’t have to.”
Far too many companies obscure what they do out of guilt or embarrassment by embracing meaningless business buzzwords. In fact, a recent study showed that those buzzwords are costing companies tens of millions of dollars a year because their own employees don’t even understand what they mean. For example, can any normal person actually say what business Cisco Systems is in? Their tagline is “The worldwide leader in networking that transforms how people connect, communicate and collaborate.” Telling a story is great, but it has to make sense, and that one does not. Why not just be clear, “We make networks work” or “We make the devices that connect the world”? See how much more that story resonates? It’s because it makes sense and fits the facts.
Instead, take a good, hard look at what your business does and tell people what you do in an honest, compelling way. People are sick of the obfuscation and lies of corporate behemoths, they love when a business is upfront with them. Take the moving company, College Hunks Hauling Junk. It started with a group of college friend and a cargo van. They did a great job and had a name that differentiated them from other boring moving companies. Word quickly spread and they eventually landed on Inc Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Companies (and note that, in both our examples of being starkly honest about what you actually do—the plumber and the mover—you open up opportunities for humor).
6) Reframe Your Business
Lots of industries are boring not because they aren’t important, but because we take them for granted. Clean water is boring, safe food is boring, electricity is boring, internet service providers are now boring—yet these are quite literally the most important developments in human history!
People forget how important clean water is, because it’s always there, it’s become a commodity. If your boring business is something utterly crucial, but taken for granted, then show them what a world would be like without you. This lets them appreciate what they have, and creates a lot of appreciation for what you do.
In this same vein, a lot of businesses seem boring because they’ve chosen to frame and sell themselves exactly the same way as their competitors. The more there is of something, the less unique or special it seems. A way to change that is to reframe what your business stands for. Take Chipotle for example. Good, fast Mexican food is generally cheap and easy to find. But Chipotle has reframed their business from a fast food company to an advocate of the sustainable food movement, or Food with Integrity as they call it. Their latest ad promoting this angle, “The Scarecrow,” has gotten over eleven million views on YouTube.
But of course, Chipotle has been like this from day one. That doesn’t mean you can’t change, or reframe your business. One of our clients, Microventures, originally billed itself as a crowdfunding platform but that didn’t stand out in a crowded space or properly explain their real strengths. They’re now in the process of rebranding as the “Gateway to Venture Capital”—in other words, an entry point for investors looking to make their first startup investments rather than a technology platform. Their branding, imagery and framing will change and more media attention and customers will follow.
7) Reframe/Rethink Your Business Model
Selling shoes isn’t inherently exciting, but TOMS shoes—even though they are basically a single style of slippers—are exciting because they baked great marketing into their business model. The story of TOMS is about a business model of giving—for every pair of shoes they sell they give one to a child in need. The key is that in their story, the consumer is the protagonist in a heroic story of helping poor children worldwide. Every aspect of the TOMS story, whether generated by the company or the customers uniquely furthers the TOMS company story. They built that interesting activity into the heart of the brand instead of just taking it on or doing it as extra.
Or look at Dollar Shave Club. They disrupted a boring business (men’s razors) by rethinking the business model. They saw a gap in the market (quality razors are actually cheap to make) and made a great recurring revenue business out of thin air by making it subscription based. They also launched their business with an honestly funny video that has been seen over twelve million times. Even better, the founder of the company wrote the script and performed in the ad himself—you can’t get more authentic than that.
When James Altucher released his last book, he got press and attention simply by deciding to accept a new payment method. By being the first author to exclusively take Bitcoin as a payment method, he was was picked up by some of the biggest news sites in the world, like Yahoo! News and CNBC. By tweaking the business model of his book release a little, we were able to get major attention for James’ book during launch week.
8) You Don’t Have To Appeal To Everyone
Every client wants to be “in the news.” They want the front page of The New York Times. They want to go viral, or they have absurd expectations about who wants to cover them. Outside of (totally understandable) vanity, when you really ask them why, it’s usually for a simple reason: they don’t know who their actual customers are and therefore default to a shotgun approach. They think that reaching millions of people nationwide is the best way to get to the 250 people within a mile radius of their business that are actually interested in their product. Which is silly right?
My friend Brandon Mendelson likes to point out the example of Blendtec, who you’d think would be a great example of successfully marketing a boring business. After all, their videos got millions of views and drove tons of “awareness” for their expensive blenders. Except sales didn’t really go up very much. Why? Because they sold expensive blenders. The audience for these are very small, and they generally aren’t watching videos on YouTube.
Marketing a boring brand should still have the key strategic objective of, you know, selling products. You could argue that while they successfully told an interesting story, they erred by telling it to the wrong people.
If you sell a product that appeals only to a small niche, perhaps your industry press is the best place for you since that’s where your customers are. Noah Kagan, founder of the daily deal site AppSumo, explains it simply: “Marketing has always been about the same thing—who your customers are and where they are.” Do your research and find out where your customers congregate. Smaller media niches can be not only A LOT easier to pitch but the results are usually much more effective. It might not boost your ego, but it’s what gets results.
This point overlaps with #1, but what we are saying here is simple: Your business is probably boring to most people—so don’t try to sell it to those people. It probably isn’t boring to your prospective customers…so sell it to them!
9) Build the Marketing Into the Product
Word of mouth is ultimately the most effective and most desirable form of marketing for any product. First, we’ll assume that whatever service or product you’re selling is worth sharing. After that, you have to encourage the growth you’d like to see by adding campaigns that enable sharing.
When the iPod came out it it was clear the product was incredibly exciting and innovative—and we understand that not every product is going to be like that. At the same time, Apple’s best marketing decision for the whole project may have been a choice they made on a relatively standard accessory: the color they chose for their headphones.
Think about it. Before the iPod came out ALL headphones were black. When people started hitting the streets with the white iPod headphones, everyone knew what they were listening to — an Apple iPod. Millions of people all around the world were marketing for Apple because they built it directly into the design of their product. Apple took a boring part of their product and turned it into a marketing opportunity, which is something you can do for your “boring” business as well.
Another great example of this Evernote, the note-taking software company. It’s nearly impossible to make note-taking software sexy or exciting, so instead of forcing it, Evernote took a different route. When building Evernote, the company didn’t spend a dime on marketing, instead using that money for product development. While that decision definitely slowed growth in the beginning, it has paid off because Evernote is now far and away best productivity and note-taking application on the planet. It’s so good that Evernote started hearing from users that they were getting into trouble in meetings because they started taking notes on their laptops with Evernote. In response, the Evernote team made stickers that said, “I’m not being rude. I’m taking notes in Evernote.” Thus, their most loyal customers were turned into billboards that went from meeting to meeting.
Or consider Dropbox, the cloud storage company. At this point there are a handful of cloud storage companies competing for users—why is Dropbox so much bigger than other cloud companies, like Sync? For one, Dropbox doesn’t make boring Twitter ads like the one above. Sync’s ad only vaguely tells users how they’re different than Dropbox when the whole point is to get Dropbox users to leave and sign up for Sync.
Instead, Dropbox bakes marketing into their product with their storage referral program, which incentivized people to share the product with their friends. For every friend you signed up for the service, you received 500 MB of free storage from Dropbox. The results for Dropbox were astounding. Signups increased by 60 percent and they now have 2.8 million direct invites a month because of the referral program. Think about creating incentives for your customers that will make them want to organically share your product or service.
So…what are you going to do with your boring business?
Of course the typical options are also available to you. You can spend tons of money on advertisements or you can hire an expensive traditional PR firm. But I have to tell you, it’s going to be a hard slog. It’s like running into a headwind…through sand. And it is expensive.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. Your business doesn’t have to be boring. You can lean in to what makes you different by telling your unique founder story. Or you could throw caution to the wind and make a crazy, funny ad that only your business could think of. You could also bake marketing into your product or even your business model, giving yourself a marketing advantage that your competitors won’t be able to replicate.
When we meet with “boring” companies or see their marketing efforts out in the world we’re sometimes puzzled; it’s almost as if they’ve given up and decided to simply do what all the other businesses in their niche do.
No matter how staid you think your business might be, there is an aspect of it that you can create a story around to make it compelling to other people. Turn up what makes you different or unique and don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd. It is precisely in doing this that will make other people attracted to what you do as a business.
Ryan Holiday is a founder of StoryArk Creative, a marketing and advising firm whose clients include Tim Ferriss, American Apparel, creativeLIVE and Microventures. He is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing—his monthly reading recommendations are found here.