Marketing on $0 a Day

Money’s scarce, but results still matter. Here’s how to get your message out.

Experienced travelers know how to tour Europe on $5 a day. Savvy home decorators have mastered the art of tasteful interior design on a bargain-basement budget. Any self-respecting clothes shopper can tell you how to find designer brands at outlet prices.


Well, now it’s marketers’ turn. Here’s the problem: Just when you’re being called on to introduce a new product, revive a lagging brand, or generate more-robust top-line results, your marketing budget gets whacked again in another round of cost cutting. Sure, it’s not fair. Hey, life’s not fair! So what do you do when the marketing needs are many and the marketing bucks are few? We asked a panel of senior-level marketing executives, assembled at Wieden+Kennedy’s offices in New York for a forum cosponsored by Fast Company, to share their tactics for broadcasting a powerful message on a narrowcast budget.

1. Pour what you’ve got into making your product best of breed. In 1998, Amy Curtis’s job as the first vice president of marketing for JetBlue Airways was to launch the new airline in five cities. Her marketing budget? “Absolutely nothing,” she says. After setting aside a little pool of cash for TV ads from the tiny budget she was allotted for sales and product development, Curtis took the rest and devoted it to making the product distinctive: the logo, the snack service, the gate area, the uniforms. Her budget became part of operations’ budget — and vice versa. “Product and marketing should be intimately involved — in each other’s face and on the same side of the fence,” says Curtis.

2. Listen twice as much as you speak. Ideas are free — and they can come from anywhere. Instead of paying consultants for expensive ideas, tap untraditional (and cheaper) sources. “Fresh ideas come from our youngest and newest people,” says Steven Sturm, vice president of marketing for Toyota Motor Sales USA. New hires and colleagues outside of the official marketing area are free of the notion that marketing programs have to be big and expensive to be good. “They bring in stuff untainted by the company’s culture,” he says.

3. Choose your battles. Rather than trying to cover the most ground, pick the one or two things you do best, and focus on them. Carol Gee, global director of brands for DuPont Textiles & Interiors, says deciding what not to do is the best strategy of all. “We all get caught up in the marketing game,” she says. “Instead, we should keep things simple and concentrate on what it is that we do exceptionally well.” No budget often means simple plans — which usually means real success. “Our marketing worked because we kept it so simple,” agrees Curtis.

4. Get out more. Can’t afford to pay for expensive marketing research? Curtis suggests getting as far as you can from your everyday grind, without leaving the culture in which you need to market. Spend a week walking the mall and checking out the competition. Talk to people. Listen to how they feel when you’re not trying to market to them. When you come back, move your office into the product-development space, and act as if you’ve never been there before. “Get a real sense of what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in your own company, and I guarantee you, you’ll have 50 new ideas,” Curtis says.

Sidebar: Brand Aid

The folks at Crispin Porter + Bogusky know how to stretch an advertising budget. The independent Miami-based agency has made its name (and annual billings of about $226 million) on sexy, funny, stirring ads for smaller clients that don’t have a lot to spend — companies like GT Bicycles, Compass Bank, and Madeline shoes. The agency hit the big time with its national campaign for BMW’s Mini brand, but in a down year, even that launch had to be played conservatively. CP+B president Jeff Hicks proposes three core solutions for building a brand on a shoestring.


1. Sell the stuff — and grab attention. Most advertising is consumed for free. But for BMW, CP+B created vending machines for showrooms that dispensed (for modest fees) Mini marketing materials and doodads. The idea was to capitalize on self-aware consumers, turning the brand into a collectible.

2. Leverage the distribution channels. For its relaunch of the tired Molson beer brand in the United States, CP+B created mock labels that would attach to bottles, six-packs, and cases. Every time a beer shipped, an ad shipped with it. “We salivate when we see those sorts of opportunities,” Hicks says. “We don’t have $140 million to play with. So we have to think, How can we cheat?”

3. Turn the business model into a marketing campaign — and vice versa. CP+B made the suggestion that Mini dealers leave a mint on the driver’s seat after each service visit. Buyers were even mailed a “birth certificate” after they put down a deposit, allowing them to follow their own car’s production online. And CP+B convinced BMW executives to create a “motoring lease” (echoing the core theme of the ad campaign) with no mileage caps. The idea behind it: The ownership experience defines the brand. Keith H. Hammonds

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.