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The Unbearably High Price of 'Free' Using the word 'free' in your marketing is a quick way to get attention, but it's also a double-edged sword that has tripped up a lot of businesses.

By Julie Guest

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the most powerful words in the English language is the term "free." Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

  • "Buy one get one free."
  • "Get a free gift with purchase, valued at $499."
  • "Get a free eye examination."
  • "Try our membership for FREE."
  • "Get FREE delivery"

It seems like just about every company uses some kind of "free offer" in their marketing. So why is the term "free" used so liberally?

Because, frankly, it works — by appealing to our basic human emotion of greed.

The word "free" has appeared in more advertisements than there are grains of sand on a beach. And it goes way back to the genesis of advertising when giving free samples was the best (and only) new way to get customers. So what makes "free" work so well?"

Free gets attention. It makes people feel like they are getting a great deal. On a subconscious level, it works in reverse, too — you feel like you're missing out if you don't take advantage of something for free.

But using the word "free" in your marketing can be a double-edged sword, especially if you don't use it correctly.

Related content: The 5 Triggers of Psychological Pricing

Is there a wrong way to use the term "free" in your marketing?

Absolutely. There are thousands of ways that using the term "free" in your marketing can trip you up, reduce your product or service value, and do irreparable damage to your brand.

Let me give you a real example. One of our clients was in the business of producing extremely high-end Italian-made leather shoes and bags for men. Their most famous pair of boots retailed for $3,500. Their most popular bag, a messenger-style laptop bag, retailed for $950. The company's previous marketing agency advised them that the best way to double their boot sales would be to offer the messenger bag for free.

As far as irresistible offers go, that's a pretty good one, and it did in fact, increase sales of the boots — in the short term. But it was a strategic disaster in the long term because now they had conditioned their clients to expect the messenger bag for free.

In other words, by offering it for free, they had completely devalued that product (remember it was the company's top-selling bag.) Even worse, by offering something of high perceived value for free, they had also damaged their own luxury brand. Why would people ever pay full price again?

The good news is that people have a short attention span, and with the right strategic pivot and messaging, you can erase the damage of using "free." But it takes time.

The same dangers apply when you start using discounts in your business. If you discount your products, why would people ever pay full price? They just wait for them to go on sale. When our Italian client came to us, they had a branding and sales disaster on their hands through no fault of their own. Fortunately, we were able to get them out of their pickle by repositioning their products and reinventing their brand — a move that resulted in them being purchased eighteen months later by a competitor.

Moral of the story: Using a free offer can be a slippery slope and must be used sparingly and carefully.

Related: The Price Is Right: How to Price Your Product for Long-Term Success

Before using "free" in your business, ask yourself:

  1. Does this have a real value that we depend on for revenue?
  2. By offering this item or service for free, will this adversely impact another related service or product (for example, if you offer the first consult for free, and expect to be paid for all future consults)?
  3. Why are we considering offering something for free? What else could we offer that would help us achieve the same result?

What if it's not your business using "free", but your competitors?

Now, if you're on the other side of the fence and your competitor is offering something for free that you are charging for, it's time to put your marketing into high gear.

Just because there is no money exchanged doesn't mean that it's not paid for in other ways — for example, in lost time, huge frustration or poor quality.

Think of the experience and quality of "free" healthcare versus a private plan. Draw these analogies in your marketing to establish your value in the minds of your clients.

"Free" is still a mighty word used to grab attention in marketing. But handle with extreme caution, and don't be lured into using it to stimulate short-term sales at the expense of long-term growth.

Related: 3 Lessons About Setting Your Price Learned From a Vegas Prostitute

Julie Guest

Chief Strategist & Marketing Consultant

Julie Guest is the author of the new bestseller "The Client Stampede" and is an advisor to private clients running businesses from $2 million to $1 billion-plus. She is the CEO of Bolder&Louder, a full-service agency that specializes in branding, transformational marketing and strategic consulting.

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