Like a child desperate for the attention of adults, companies of all kinds struggle for visibility in an era of intense competitive pressure across all fronts. For an entrepreneur, putting your name "out there" can almost become an obsession. You can't browse the business section of Barnes & Noble, or pick up a magazine, without reading about the need to create your brand, build your brand, differentiate your brand.
Yet at the same time there's another business model worth considering, one that subverts the notion of pushing your company to a fever pitch of awareness. Call it "un-marketing" -- or the power of darkness -- it's the appeal that comes from a willful attempt to avoid the limelight, and, instead, thrive in the backlight. This is very much a function of our cool culture; if you're cool, you don't have to aggressively pursue anyone. Indeed, the cooler you are, the more you are sought out. Which is why, as an article in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times recently pointed out, the hippest clubs on the Lower East Side of Manhattan don't have any signs. Either you know where they are, or you'll sip your mojita at a more visible, and hence less in-demand place.
Supremely confident entities don't feel the need to be out there thrashing their own drums. Or at least beating them too obviously -- which is of course a marketing strategy in itself. (And one that your business might want to consider.) Instead of struggling to get in, play hard to get. Instead of selling hard, tell your prospects that you're very selective about your clients. Make your sign smaller, metaphorically speaking, and your business will grow larger. Manipulate the supply/demand dynamic to your advantage. Scarcity remains one of the most potent selling tools in existence, particularly in America today, when we are so overwhelmed with supply that we have come to believe we have the ultimate power of choice.
So if you're competing in a buyer's market -- or a perceived buyer's market -- a potent way to turn the tables is to reduce the power of the buyer by your willingness to take yourself out of the game. Be the hot architectural firm that has a two-year waiting list. Be the clothing line that always sells out and never has to mark down. We've all seen the sad results of the opposite approach: A small, busy restaurant with 20 tables always has 50 reservations more than they can handle. So they double their size, which makes mathematical sense, but once they expand, they can no longer fill the place. The absence of scarcity simply crushes the appeal.
What's also operating here is a sense of discovery, which is increasingly absent in our lives. It feels like "our" choices are really someone else's, served up to us as pre-fabricated decisions, with little opportunity to come upon something that is unexpected and unexplored. It's why some products develop a cult following, like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, a well-known case history of a brand that succeeded based on its invisibility from the marketing wars. Make your company feel like a discovery and you'll feel the results almost immediately.
Here's another way to look at it: Aggressive marketing taps into our self-esteem - I, the all-powerful customer, am wanted. Un-marketing taps into our insecurity - I, the useless prospect, have to beg and grovel to be accepted. Both can work, and do. But consider that you need to be squarely on one side or the other, either the pursuing or the pursued. Today's business culture is one of extremes, and flopping around the middle is the surest course to extinction, to be wanted by no one.
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