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Multi-million pound marketing secrets that REALLY work

Multi-million pound marketing secrets that REALLY work

Multi-million pound marketing secrets that REALLY work

How do you promote a start-up with a limited marketing budget and help turn it into a million, or even multi-million, pound business?

This question was a central theme at the exclusive Plusnet Pioneers Marketing Masterclass, held in London in March 2017, where successful entrepreneurs behind fast-growth companies including Vita Coco UK, Girl Meets Dress, Gymbox, and Karmarama, gathered to discuss lessons and advice on marketing.

While all of the panel admitted that, even now, they sometimes feel like they are “winging it” when marketing their brands, each inspiring entrepreneur had pearls of marketing wisdom to share on how start-ups can better promote their business.

From marketing lessons on taking risks to standing out from established brands, the Masterclass event – hosted by Plusnet and – stirred up thought-provoking marketing insights.

To help you market your small business, we’ve compiled our favourite anecdotes and snippets of advice from our Marketing Pioneers. Prepare to be inspired by their marketing secrets…

Marketing Masterclass: The panel

L-R: Richard Hilton, founder of Gymbox; Pip Brook, marketing director of Vita Coco UK; Ben Bilboul, CEO of Karmarama; Anna Bance, founder and CEO of Girl Meets DressL-R: Richard Hilton, founder of Gymbox; Pip Brook, marketing director of Vita Coco UK; Ben Bilboul, CEO of Karmarama; Anna Bance, founder and CEO of Girl Meets Dress

Marketing Masterclass: Entrepreneurs reveal their marketing secrets

Use guerrilla advertising tactics to “create a stir”

Richard Hilton: “When we launched Gymbox we were on a very tight marketing budget and what we wanted to do was to create a stir. For our launch campaign we identified every gym in the nearby radius and, with indelible paint, stencilled on the pavement next to those gyms; ‘Better gym this way: Gymbox’ with arrows next to our door! You can’t do this now but we also had a flyposting campaign which was very simple; we had four boxes on the poster – one that said ‘Office affair?’ with an arrow that led to another box that said ‘Need a shower?’ with a line that linked to ‘Gymbox’ and then an arrow to ‘Home sweet home’. We put those posters up everywhere and nobody had seen anything like it in the gym industry at the time. One of our ways of speaking louder [in the market] was to create a stir and be controversial.”

Ben Bilboul: “We did a lot of stunts and activity that got picked up in the national press. We had a poster for the anti-war demonstration which said ‘Make Tea Not War’ with a picture of Tony Blair with a Kalashnikov. It’s not normally how you market an advertising agency but we knew that a lot of brand managers were going to be on that march and they got in touch [on the back of that]. Taking a risk and standing for something [helps with marketing]. It could be going into media channels that other people aren’t using like [Richard’s] pavements or anti-war demonstrations.”

Go for low hanging fruit to get your business going

Pip Brook: “Like any new business, you go to where the low hanging fruit is. Typically, in the food and beverage industry it’s very much in the South. We asked ourselves ‘Okay how do we make sure that we are in the space of healthy active influencers as much as possible with a whole annual marketing spend of £50,000?’ We knew where our consumers were and who those influencers were. In London, healthy active influencers typically hang out in Shoreditch and that’s where a lot of trends start so we really focused in on Shoreditch and East London. We weren’t everywhere but we were everywhere the influencers were.

Try to make your business appear big, regardless of how small it really is

Pip Brook: “Throughout the time [of starting the business], we were small and we were coming into a category that was full of big players. We had to try to make ourselves look big. My starting marketing budget for year one was £50,000 and we got the brand to just over £2m revenue in that time with it. Year two the marketing budget was doubled so I thought all my Christmases had come true. What we really saw was that, not only did we have to convince consumers that we were big and that we weren’t a fad, we had to convince retailers to stock us while showing them that we were doing big scale marketing with just £50,000. It was a little bit of smoke and mirrors and keeping very targeted, and we winged it through.”

Richard Hilton: “We were intent on punching above our weight. Even now, we’re only a nine gym chain but we get franchising requests from all over the UK and internationally. The secret of having any start-up business is to try and elevate yourself from the fact that you’re a start-up.”

Create a purpose-led brand that consumers can buy into

Ben Bilboul: “We came up with a motto that was all about ‘good works’ and doing the right thing and we just went out into the market and took a more ethical approach. We also wanted to ensure that we recruited nicer people [than in my old advertising career]. We put a big sign on the wall at the time that said ‘No w***ers’ and we’ve still got that sign that we’ve translated it into German. We were very lucky that the market came towards us with purpose-led marketing and it helped us become more of a thing. The services that people are buying into have good people behind them.”

Don’t get hung up on knowing your target demographic

Anna Bance: “One of the key challenges for Girl Meets Dress was definitely not knowing who our key demographic was. Even today it’s one of the biggest challenges because our demographic is so broad. We have 12-year-olds (proms are a key category for us) and we have 80-year-olds so even now we don’t have a demographic as we are trying to appeal to that entire age range. At certain times of the year we’ll focus in on a certain demographic. For example, we know that prom season is now and then Ascot is slightly later and then there’s Christmas that might be a different age bracket.”

Don’t set your marketing plan, or business plan for that matter, in stone

Ben Bilboul: “Anyone I know that has set up a business starts with a plan that doesn’t quite become a reality in the way you think it’s going to. In my case, that was absolutely true. I left an ad agency while the .com boom was still happening and turned my back on advertising as I wanted to get into internet marketing. Then the .com bubble burst and all the clients I was talking to disappeared overnight. I got together with some old colleagues and said: ‘If we can’t do the business we wanted to do outside of advertising, how can we do advertising so that people like us still want to work in it? How do we make it more progressive?’”

Maximise free press and referrals

Anna Bance: “My background is PR. When I had the idea, I was working for a luxury French brand doing their PR so my marketing angle was always to [focus on] unpaid and not spending money because that’s what PR is. One of the key things that we were using that didn’t cost a lot of money was referrals and word of mouth. If someone hasn’t tried something before, the key thing you need to get them to do is to try it once and then they’ll tell their friend – there’s no-one you’ll trust more than a friend. That was also the reason why it was really important for us to get the press and magazines to write about us; because you trust what you read in magazines and want to give it a try.”

Build a ‘brand onion’

Richard Hilton: “When we entered the market there were lots of established brands. I see ourselves as the first to come with a brand-new approach. If we were another ‘me too” business we knew we wouldn’t survive in the competitive environment. We needed to have a certain tone of voice and we created something called a ‘brand onion’ and said ‘What do we want our brand to stand for?’ We ended up with [a guide that said] that’s what our tone should be, that’s what our brand should look like.”

Balance your marketing and retail activity

Pip Brook: “We made sure that all our marketing activity balanced with our retail visibility. I still see today that you’ll have brands that will come into a market and do a huge national [marketing] campaign and then you’ll walk into a retailer and you can’t buy it. We were constantly balancing so as soon as we got a new retailer on, we were balancing the target market of that retailer’s environment.”

Align your marketing with your brand values

Richard Hilton: “A lot of it [our marketing activity] came out of the DNA of our brand. The best marketing is a succession of what you stand for. If you advertise it one way and your brand has a different dynamic then people will see through it straight away.”

Ben Bilboul: “I’ll bring in Plusnet at this point. As a broadband provider, Plusnet is arguably a utility and certainly most utility brands are only sold on price. [Plusnet] recognised that it was also a service and when things do go wrong you wanted to be able to ring someone up and know that they were going to help you. Their call centre is based in Sheffield and Leeds, staffed by people from the local area. The idea of a broadband company from Yorkshire that was completely different from a personality point of view has given them not just cut-through in the market but they’ve got a very Yorkshire tone of voice. This has allowed them to do a whole bunch of different things that a typical utility brand wouldn’t offer. They’ve got the right personality and tone of voice to take up opportunities. You should always think about the human experience; what people want from you and your brand personality.”

Know that controversy and marketing often go hand in hand

Richard Hilton: “We had a girl that came in and said ‘I wish you guys could create a class that would give me bigger boobs’…we said ‘We’ll do that’! We got the creative team together and created this tongue-in-cheek class which was broken into three parts; one was to mentally imagine that you had bigger boobs, two was a workout and three was posture. We trialled it and phoned up our PR agency. We called it boob aerobics and they sent out a press release. The Daily Mail picked it up and said ‘Can we send down four people to trial and test it?’ and the Daily Mirror also said ‘Can we send down four people to trial and test it?’ It was a six-week course and we thought no matter what they write about it, all PR is good PR. Somehow, miraculously, on the Daily Mail [trial] three out of the four girls said their boob size had increased and it was the same with The Mirror; they’d seen a result. From there it went insane and went national. We were doing radio, programmes etc. and the PR had cost us next to nothing - £1,000 I think. That was probably the most effective [marketing] campaign for us and, most importantly, the members loved it! A lot of what we did was an extension of the brand, we were slightly controversial.”

Not everyone has to love your business

Ben Bilboul: “Your business doesn’t have to be for everyone. In fact, the more you try to make it for everyone, the more vanilla it’s going to be and the more diluted, it’s good if people hate you - I think it’s a sign you’ve got something special.”

And finally, remember that marketing mistakes do, and will, happen

Anna Bance: “Sometimes, the most fun ideas are not always the most thought-through. We came up with a new tag line and printed 1,000 leaflets that said ‘Have a one night stand’ meaning ‘Have a one night stand with fashion’. What we didn’t realise is that these had gone out to lots of wedding fairs and we got lots of complaints! We then had to reprint them with brackets saying (with fashion). But you have to keep in mind that all press is good press.”

Plusnet is on a mission to help small businesses and budding entrepreneurs grow and has teamed up with to create Plusnet Pioneers, an exciting programme of content, events and mentoring. Views were expressed at a Marketing Masterclass held as part of the Plusnet Pioneers programme. Article written by and first published on

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