In my opinion, developing and executing an effective marketing strategy is the most important job of any marketer and failure to do so is the single greatest threat to creating anything that looks and feels like business building momentum.

While few would argue with the statement above, marketing strategy as a practical tool remains little more than an academic exercise for most businesses.

Inside Threadless HQ in Chicago

I’ve spent a great deal of time wrestling with the idea of developing useful, real life marketing strategies for small businesses and have concluded that there are a handful of characteristics that can be mined, explored and shaped in order to make marketing strategy the foundation of business building.

The key to discovering an effective marketing strategy lies in understanding first that its essence is much more about why a business does something than what or how the business does something.

These elemental characteristics are rooted deeply in human wants and desires and act to create a connection between a company, its products and services, its people and ultimately its customers.

I believe any company can create a marketing strategy that will actually serve as the catalyst to creating a remarkable business by deeply exploring and embracing one, or some combination of several, of the characteristics outlined below.

Single minded purpose

If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospects, magic can happen.

The idea of higher purpose can be a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to do business with a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do.

The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. You can’t fake this characteristic but you can move your higher purpose front and center in your marketing strategy.

Some of the companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer loyalty focus almost entirely on why they do what they do, as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.

The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – Shatto Milk Company’s marketing strategy is one that claims to bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.

Desperately seeking inspiration

People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire.

We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients.

Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.

Steve Jobs is cited more often than any other company leader for his ability to inspire through telling stories about the Apple brand.

An obvious innovation

Every industry engages is some practice that customers just come to live with. And then someone comes along, either from outside of the industry or as method of survival, and shakes it up but suggesting there’s a better way.

Creating what ends up looking like an obvious innovation in an industry and then embracing that change as a marketing strategy is one way that companies create a clear differentiation.

Rackspace, a hosting company located in Austin Texas, created an obvious innovation in the hosting industry by simply making a decision to provide real service. While that shouldn’t seem like an innovation it was in an industry that appeared to abhor actually talking to its customers.

To sum up Rackspace’s marketing strategy – “Fanatical Support isn’t just what we do. It’s really what makes us, well, us. It’s our need to make a difference in the lives our customers—no matter how big or small. Really, it’s our way of life.”

Let us entertain you

People will give their last dollar to be entertained. I believe this has never been truer than it is today. Since so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free these days, the money’s in the package and the experience.

Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make that fact that yours is a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with central to your strategy and people will be drawn to the game.

Step inside the offices of t-shirt maker Threadless and you’ll be greeted by giant stuffed creatures, two Airstream “think pods,” offices decorated by staff to show off departmental personality, and a basketball court in the warehouse. The place is definitely fun.

The role of convenience

This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non-friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes.

Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.

Being easy to do business with is a marketing strategy that can become a culture and mantra that spreads word of mouth and drives customer adoption faster than any promotion or campaign ever could.

Evernote is easy to do business with. Their products sync across all of my various tools and just work, without the need to consult an owner’s manual.

Simplicity is harder than it looks

Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features.

Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features. If this is to be a marketing strategy it must become a way of life that informs every decision.

37 Signals is a great example of a business that has embraced simplicity as a marketing strategy. They make great software that does just a handful of things very, very well. According the CEO Jason Fried they spend more time considering what features to leave out of a release then what to add.

The element of surprise

Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations as a marketing strategy.

Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?

Again I return to Zappos. Zappos has an unstated policy of surprise. If you order shoes on a Monday, the order confirmation will suggest that you allow 3-5 days for shipping, but don’t be surprised if they show up the next morning.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Love how you use real life examples of companies that follow these marketing strategies

    • Thanks Richard – I’m spending a lot of time on this topic and researching companies that are doing it well.

  • Michael Adams

    Well said. About single minded purpose, Hugh Macleod’s Evil Plans book is one of my favorites on this subject. Like your post, it’s also inspirational, innovative, fun, convenient, and, especially like this post, over delivers. Thanks.

  • Great post John – I think this message is important, because in most industries, there are already plenty of companies that can do everything reasonably well. In order to really stand out, a business needs this kind of focus, not just on execution, but on their very reason for being.

    • I think that’s right Chris and the market pretty much thinks most can do the job reasonably well also, even if it’s not true – that makes this kind of focus even more important I think

  • This is the way business is going. 

    People want less moving parts. They want streamlined, elegant. Would you hike up to the top of everest with all sorts of stuff that would be nice to have? Or would you consider it extra weight and only bring up the stuff you need?The businesses that get this are the future. Those who don’t get it… well they’re already starting to fall by the wayside. 

    • I agree, the trick of course is getting up there with precisely the right stuff – I think that’s the part that involves both art and science and paying very, very close attention to your customers.

  • Jason Fried made the point that he built products that he wanted to use himself. 

    It’s a great way of looking at it as you’re your own customer. The interview is over on Mixergy. 

    • Yes I’ve talked to Jason about that very thing and really that’s why I created the Duct Tape Marketing system – as a way for me to effectively and profitably continue to work with small business owners without going crazy doing it the traditional way.

  • “The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent
    communication of the why. You can’t fake this characteristic but you can
    move your higher purpose front and center in your marketing strategy.”

    I couldn’t agree with this more, especially from a small business perspective. When I think “higher purpose” I think of sitting down with a sheet of blank sheet of paper and simply writing down every possible problem you can solve for your customer and next to it, every benefit that customer will reap when you solve that problem. I don’t think it gets any more simplistic. Where I think a lot of people go wrong is when they try to over communicate this and start introducing non-essential complexities. These days, less is more, even if it means construction paper and crayons! 🙂

    • Simply brilliant advice – everyone should go through that exact exercise.

    • Wow that is a great exercise!  Thank you Brian

    • Solving problems or focusing on pain points never got a business anywhere – every firm in your market is doing the same thing and the same things.

      Innovating products and services while focusing on real value does. There is a huge gulf between the two.

      • Very well said Jeffery.  I’ll add that being a look a like is ok if your in a police line up but not when you’re a small business and you need to stand out.  

  • The best advice, I’ve heard in a long time.

  • I loved what you
    have done here. The design is elegant, your stuff classy. Yet, you have got
    an edginess to what you’re offering here. Ill definitely come back for more.

  • Riya_Sam

    Hi John,

    I love the points you’ve mentioned, being a marketer, I can strongly relate to the importance of marketing strategy in any business and the points highlighted are truly the essence of doing the right things! I really liked the ‘Let us entertain you’ concept, when work seems like fun and employees enjoy what they do, there would definitely be increased productivity and of course an improved over all image of the company. Thanks for sharing!

    Riya Sam
    Training for

    • I think it can be hard to balance this idea of work and fun, but I’ve seen it do wonders for many organizations.

  • Gia Volterra De Saulnier

    Great tips!  Since we run two Renaissance Festivals as fundraisers in MA, we use entertainment but need to think outside the box when it comes to marketing them, as we don’t get any budget.
    I think our marketing strategy is : Promote anywhere and everywhere possible for little to no budget, Blogging, Twitter and Facebook as well as guest posting elsewhere helps.
    We also believe strongly in having family friendly events, and I also have been building a new fan site for other Renaissance Performers and Merchants – and been writing and sharing my tips with them so they can help themselves!
    Thank you for being my muse.

  • As someone who runs a fairly complex business model, I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to make our business more simple and exciting. You touch a lot on the new Gen Y business environmental tendancies of enjoying the workplace. The why of a business is a great conversation. I bet very few employees out there understand the why of their employer. The what and how are fairly easy, but the why is hard to grasp. Great post.

    • Thanks Steve – by the way we’re a big AG customer here in Kansas City

  • Another great post that makes me stop and rethink my marketing strategy.  The examples are perfect and I would enjoy reading future posts on each of these characteristics.  Thank you John.

    • Thanks Alan – maybe a book 🙂

  • “The key to discovering an effective marketing strategy lies in understanding first that its essence is much more about why a business does something than what or how the business does something.”

    So true… this is also one of the basic tenets of good screenwriting. We identify with our favorite characters because of WHY they do things, not what they do. Peter Parker and Tony Soprano are two very different protagonists – a mutant spider-boy and a mobster from Jersey – who are sympathetic because we understand why they do things.

  • You always hit the nail on the head and keep it in simple, accessible language! Love to have you on my podcast one day!

    • Happy to come on the show – just email request through our contact form

  • Dear John, 
    This was an excellent post. I just read it early on a Monday morning, and I finished the post with an out-loud “Ok, let’s do this thing. Let’s get this week going.” Thanks for the inspiration. And yes … “We can inspire” … and yes … “Firms …  can allow (customers and staff) .. to be their best self.”I’ve posted this on Twitter this a.m. and will include a link to this on my FaceBook Profile Page later today.Thanks … and have a good week.

    • Joanne – this is the general thesis for my next book so I’m quite pleased it has touched a good number of folks.

  • WOW! Awesome stuff that is just enough to get you thinking of all the ways to push your business to a higher level without leaving you overwhelmed. Thanks!

  • Erika L.

    “Every industry engages is some practice that customers just come to live
    with. And then someone comes along, either from outside of the industry
    or as method of survival, and shakes it up but suggesting there’s a
    better way.”-  wonderful way of looking at disruption in the marketplace. Joel Rubinson and Dave Lundahl did a webinar on disruption, and product innovation that dovetails very nicely with this very thorough article. . Thanks for the great article!

  • jamesbuchin

    Real-world information? Woven into Inspirational presentations? And anchored by Highly practical action steps made simple for the small business? Who ever is doing this has got to be from the Old School of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid).

    What’s his name again?
    John Jantsch. That’s who it is!

    From the bottom of the heart of this little business man thank you.
    You’re the man!


  • This was great. I think too many people try to market their business without actually taking time to strategically market their business. What they end up with is frustration. They think they are trying hard but they are not trying “smart”. My husband says it all the time “I’m not trying to work harder – I’m trying to work Smarter”. It makes sense. You have to know your target market! And you have to know the “right” way to market to them. It takes time. You have to do your homework.

  • Really enjoyed your book – now I am hooked on your blog – great stuff thank you.