21 November 2013

Don’t Believe a Word (of Mouth): Black Milk’s 100% Deceptive Case Study

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who’s Given Up Drinking Milk (And Kool-Aid)…

“How to Build a Multi-Million Dollar Ecommerce Business With $0 Marketing Budget”

No, that’s not the subject line of an email in your spam box. That’s the actual headline of a “case study” on Black Milk Clothing, as published on the Shopify blog.

A student sent me this case study after I advised him to never put word-of-mouth in a marketing plan. “Word of mouth” means “gossip,” so relying on gossip to provide your marketing is like relying on the lottery to provide your finance.

Yes, every now and then, a business will succeed based on gossip alone. And as I stated in my post about people who don’t advertise, they’re the exception, not the rule.

Black Milk is no exception. Here’s what their head of marketing, Cameron Parker, claims:

“My marketing budget is zero dollars. I didn’t spend a cent on advertising, don’t do AdWords, don’t do campaigns, don’t spend any money at all. The whole growth has been purely organic word-of-mouth, building, I guess, a tribe of followers that basically run around the world promoting the product.”

Black Milk Han Solo

Think you can rely on social media alone? Well, do you share pure geek bait like this hot blonde Asian model wearing a Han Solo swimsuit?

Then we hear what Parker and Black Milk actually do:

  • Parker tours the world every year and hosts “meet-ups” of the brand’s fans. Maybe he hitches rides on corporate jets and crashes other people’s parties?
  • The company has a professionally designed website — 100% donated and maintained by Shopify, I presume?
  • The company has professional models shot by professional photographers — all volunteers, I guess.
  • Someone in the company has to manage 80 Facebook groups. Unpaid interns, no doubt.
  • And I guess Parker works for free as head of marketing? What a charitable guy!
  • “Then, of course, there was the Star Wars deal with George Lucas.” (Parker’s words.) Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how he convinced Lucas into letting Black Milk use his trademarked material for free.

“Don’t spend any money at all”? “Purely organic word-of-mouth”? “$0 marketing budget”?

Everyone involved in this joke of a case study needs to go look up what “marketing” means. This is the kind of snake-oil case study that leads other entrepreneurs and marketers astray, resulting in otherwise great ideas and products crashing and burning.

But wait, there’s more. Parker claims that one reason for his brand’s success is “Authenticity.” I call that the “A-Word,” since it’s one of the most abused, misused, and overused marketing cliches today, especially when it appears in a case study that’s been anything but “authentic.”

Parting shot: One of the downsides of “word of mouth” is that it can be negative as well as positive. Black Milk and Spotify have scored some free publicity with my post here — I hope they share it at their next meet-up.

Update 5/6/14: Thanks to my readers Darla and Emma (see their comments below), I learned that Black Milk just keeps on giving… reasons to ridicule them. Here’s how they recently botched their much touted “purely organic word-of-mouth”: Black Milk Clothing Illustrates How Not To Use Social Media.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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