Sex Sells!

.and 9 other immutable rules of marketing

The good news is, you have a great product to sell. The bad news is, no one will ever buy that product. How can I be so sure? Because customers don't buy products-they buy solutions to problems. And that's the whole secret behind marketing. Marketing is nothing more than understanding what a customer really, really wants-and then showing them how you'll provide it. Marketing is about learning what makes people tick. It's having the common sense to know that kids like ice cream on hot days and that holiday shopping is a hassle-and then using those shiny nuggets of data to fill a need. Marketing means creating brochures, a Web site and products that make people say "That's exactly what I want!" It's about finding customers' hot buttons-their real desires-and then pressing them to make the sale.

That kind of marketing is what makes a colored sugar-water called Coca-Cola one of the best-selling liquids on the planet. It's what makes us all eager to know Victoria's Secret. Because from corporate giants to two guys in a garage, effective marketing is what separates business success from entrepreneurial purgatory. Marketing isn't just about products-it's about the people who buy them.

But old mindsets stop most entrepreneurs from grabbing marketing success. It's time to forget fancy pie charts and Madison Avenue budgets. According to mega-selling marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson, marketing has gone guerrilla. It's a street fight to win customers-by finding clever, convenient, appealing ways to fill their needs.

In that spirit, we set out to find 10 key marketing strategies for your start-up. Our answers came from the unlikely combination of a pair of Internet gurus, a management consultant and a brainy Playboy centerfold-each one an expert at knowing exactly what customers want. Mind you, the techniques we discovered aren't exactly your father's marketing plan. But today's businesses aren't your father's, either.

Get to Know Your Customers

1. Discover Customer's Needs
Think backwards. Johnny said, "Here's a great product I can sell." But his business bombed. Janey said, "What a great customer-what can I sell her?" Now she's rich. If you want start-up gold, then shift your entrepreneurial thinking into reverse. Stop searching for "a business to start". Don't hunt for "a product to sell." Instead, start looking for customers. Understand what they need. Then build your business around them. Bingo! You're a market-driven entrepreneur.

Right now, in the margin, write down one kind of customer you can reach, such as "boat owners." Then list things that customer might need, like fishing gear and trailer hitches. You'll find a business with guaranteed customers-since that's where you started. Want to move forward? Then start thinking backwards.

2. Know Your Customers
Get personal. "Smart, young professional with a hectic career and lots of friends; hates moonlight strolls but loves whitewater rafting; seeks a simple life plus excitement . . . " An ad from the personals? Actually, that's the customer profile we'd use to start a new e-zine aimed at young, urban women. The moral? Know your customer. You can answer it all-from the product, to the price, to the color of the box-by knowing what your customer wants.

Kaila Colbin, 26, and Ken LaVan, 31, take that approach for their Fort Lauderdale, Florida, company thoughtSource Inc., which offers lively educational books and videos like "The Real People's Guide to the Internet." From its empathetic Web site to fun skits in its videos, thoughtSource just screams "I'm tailor-made to help nervous Net-newbies become hang-10 Web surfers."

How well do you know your customer? Does he read Field & Stream or Hot Rod? Is she into crossword puzzles or heavy metal? Where do they vacation? What's her day like? Quick exercise: Write "personal bios" for your typical customers. Then drop your business into their lives. Make it fit and make it sell.

Solving Problems & Pressing Buttons

3. Find Their Problems
A good product is like aspirin. Why? Because it helps the customer get rid of a headache. That's what marketing consultant Raj Khera of Khera Communications Inc. tells his clients. In other words, great marketing is about discovering your customers' problems and then solving them. "He hates installation manuals"-your on-screen prompts cure that. "She's not sure about that lipstick shade"-offer a money-back guarantee. "They need info fast"-let them reach you on the Web.

To discover and solve your customers' headaches, try offering free advice. Promote a "complimentary design service" at your remodeling business. Offer a "party-planning hotline" at your catering firm. Run a "reader's help desk" at your bookstore. Then sit back, and let your customers tell you what they'll buy . . . and buy and buy.

4. Press the Hot Buttons
How did interactive game entrepreneur Gillian Bonner, 34, get her Los Angeles start-up, Black Dragon Inc., noticed by top players in her mostly-male industry? She posed for Playboy. "I'll be your centerfold," she told Hefner, "if you'll market my firm." (Talk about getting exposure!) But that's nothing new. When this former model, hardware/software developer and Miss April 1996 meets with her design team to create cutting-edge CD-ROM/DVD fantasy adventures like the hot-selling "Riana Rouge," she asks one magic question: "How will this product make our customers feel more attractive, hip or good about themselves?"

It's about understanding "hot buttons"-the basic motivations that drive customers' buying decisions. And it's not just curvy playmates. Even if you're selling sump pumps, this information is crucial to the sale. What are your customers' hot buttons? Buying fine quality? Show that your handmade desks last a lifetime. Protecting their children? Highlight that about your security system. Use the hot buttons to get hot sales.

5. Listen to Them
Habla customer. thoughtSource's Colbin used to be a global sales rep, so she speaks more languages than the UN. But her best linguistic feat is speaking her customer's language, focusing on their needs and listening to their concerns.

Can you speak "customer"? Take this pop quiz:

My business goals come from:

a) my personal desires
b) market demand.

I sell products that

a) I like
b) my customers want.

Just "b" smart, and listen to your customer.

Using Your Noggin

6. Get Market Intelligence
Without it, your business is a collective idiot, trying to sell refrigerators at the South Pole. Pour through your competitors' catalogs to spot what you can do better. Become an "anthropologist" in the shopping mall, observing how, when and why people buy. Peek into the future at your industry's trade shows. Remember, the only person who can find a successful business entirely inside himself is a sword-swallower. For the rest of us, marketing is an outside game. So get out, and get smart.

7. Market for Free
Advertise your new business nationwide at no charge. Get paid to sell your services. Sound impossible? Watch this. LaVan turned thoughtSource's training videos into live seminars. Community groups pay the team to present their programs, and attendees buy the packages. And Colbin and LaVan get free focus groups to beta-test their wares. Can a class or demo boost your biz exposure? Or how about getting radio time, TV spots and full-page newspaper spreads-all at no charge? Simple. Turn your business into news. Make what you do interesting to the media. Find a trend and grab on. "Too many kids are overweight"-our health club offers a K-12 program. "Buildings can make you sick"-better call our cleaning service. "Latin music is hot"-so why not sample our authentic salsas? Want your business to get ahead? Then get a headline.

8. Sell the Benefits
Sell sizzle. It's not the snowboard; it's the fun we'll have in Aspen. It's not the dress; it's how great you'll look at the party. People don't buy products; they buy the positive anticipation of using them. It's not the steak-it's the sizzle.

Unfortunately, most start-ups try to sell features (such as durable construction or extra insulation) when they should be selling benefits (it won't break; it keeps you warmer).

Khera uses this simple exercise with his clients to carve through the steak and release the sizzle: Fold one sheet of paper. On the left, list every feature of your product (for instance, surgical steel blades). On the right, turn every feature into a benefit (gives you a smooth shave). Left side, "product." Right side, "marketing." Do the right thing. Sell the sizzle.

Fulfilling Needs

9. Get in Their Heads
"Psychographic experts" are people who get inside customers' heads to discover why they buy. Their take? Every purchase is really about filling basic human needs, such as:

  • Success (that leather briefcase)
  • Excitement (premium sports channel with the latest "hardcore" activities)
  • Security (auto insurance)
  • Belonging (that "members only" jacket)

What are your customers' secret desires? How do they want to see themselves? Clean-cut? High-tech? What makes them feel important? Beautiful things? The highest-quality products? Good marketing is about tapping into those feelings. Right there in the aisle, show that customer you'll make her kids smarter (your instructional software), keep his home warmer (your fatwood kindling) or deliver their summer fun (your wet and wild pool toys). Make it happen while they're reading the box. Take them where they want to go.

10. Sell Sex
When thoughtSource premiered a book concerning sex called Society and the Net, it attracted a media storm. Surprise! It was all praise, because Colbin and LaVan gave the topic a wholesome twist: how to keep kids away from porn, Web sites for good relationships, Net facts about Viagra. A positive story-and a PR goldmine.

On her Web-based forum, "Virtually Gillian," for Playboy's Digital Culture (, Bonner explores high-tech topics, from new operating systems to the Web revolution, and makes them accessible and sexy. For Bonner, sex sells because it's really just a way of talking about what's exciting and what makes people feel good about themselves. The moral? Every product has a sexy side-from that dental floss bikini that says "Look at me!" to the baby-sitting service that lets mom and dad finally spend some time together. Find the sexy side of your product, because sex always sells.

That's 10 use-anywhere marketing strategies for your start-up success. And here's an easy mnemonic to keep the whole game plan fresh in your mind. Just remember that marketing is the business equivalent of putting on your underwear: It's what you need to do, first thing, every day, in your new firm.

Nick D'Alto is director of IEG, a nonprofit firm that helps people create new, sexy businesses and start new careers. E-mail him at

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