The Secret Formulas Behind Great Marketing

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under marketing scale-up

Great marketing lightbulb moment

As a startup founder, marketing can feel like a black box. This primer unlocks great marketing strategies that you can apply in your business right away.

When I started out as an entrepreneur, marketing was an after-thought. I hung on to the idea that ‘good products market themselves’. And I learned that ideas like that die hard.

Predictably, my denial that products need marketing turned to anger: ‘Why don’t more people know about this product?’

Anger then turned into bargaining: ‘Please, can you promote my product to your followers?’

Bargaining turned into depression: ‘It’s costing how much? I totally suck at marketing.’

And finally, depression became acceptance: ‘Okay, I need to become a great marketer.’

Once you accept that marketing is just another component of being a great entrepreneur, it’s actually pretty fun. Over the last decade, I’ve read every book on marketing I could, and I’ve uncovered many useful insights along the way.

If you’re striving to become a great marketer, here are the ideas I wish I’d learned sooner. I hope they help you crack open the black box of marketing and help grow the top of your funnel.

Learn new skills every week ->

1) Unlocking insights: Keep your research fresh

You don’t want to overuse the word ‘insight’ because it’s one of marketing’s most valuable concepts. An insight, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is ‘a clear, deep, and sometimes sudden understanding of a complicated problem’. Insights are more than demographic information about your customers — they’re deep truths that aren’t obvious until the moment you ‘get it’.

You can tell you’ve found an insight when a customer’s reaction to it is, ‘I never thought about it that way . . . but you’re right.’

But when an insight becomes commonplace, it can become a cliché — ‘it’s lonely at the top’, for example. And that’s why marketers are constantly searching for fresh insights about their customers. After all, there’s nothing quite like a new insight about yourself to make you stop and reflect.

Paying attention to your customer’s psychological state can often lead to insights — possibly reflecting the sad fact that most people aren’t very self-aware.

I try to capture insights in terms of direct quotes. Each time you summarise information, you lose a bit of detail, so the ability to go back to the original quote helps reconnect with the customer. And it avoids the problem of ‘Chinese whispers’.

How do you discover insights? I’ve found two approaches that have consistently delivered insights at my companies. The first is to run open-question surveys with prospects and customers. I created an entirely automated customer insight generation process that does just that, by emailing specific questions at various points along the customer lifecycle.

The second approach is to hold live customer interviews. Certain questions are more revealing than others, and I’ve written about that here. Interviews tend to be more powerful than surveys because you can dig deeper (remember, insights are deep). A simple question like, ‘Why does that matter?’ can lead the customer to think more carefully than they would otherwise.


  • What are possible sources of customer insights?
  • How can you build a steady pipeline of new customer insights?

Further reading: How Startups Can Automate Customer Feedback

2) Unlocking brand: Create a belief system around an important topic.

Branding has changed a lot over the years and in the digital age, it’s all about beliefs. In Sasha Strauss’s Google talk, ‘Branding in the New Normal’, he describes how trust in governments, religions, and corporations has decreased over time, while our need to believe in something is stronger than ever. Increasingly, consumers align their beliefs with the brands they love — and that’s an opportunity.

Strauss’s recipe for building a powerful, long-term, market-impacting brand is wonderfully simple:

A brand is a combination of a topic that your audience is curious about, and a belief system that intersects with it.’

Uncovering these topics may require you to think laterally, but here are a few examples to inspire you:

Once you’ve decided on a topic, you need to articulate your beliefs. I stumbled on a weird, yet powerful way to tease out your beliefs: reflect on the perfect solution.

To be clear, I don’t mean the current solution, or even a realistic solution. I mean, if money was no object, and absolutely anything was possible, what would be your perfect solution?

When you investigate this further, you’ll come up against deeply-held beliefs about what ‘perfect’ looks like. For example, Zappos believe that delivering a ‘wow’ is the right way to do customer service. If you believe this too, you probably want to buy your shoes from Zappos.

Once you articulate these beliefs, you can use them to guide decisions about your marketing.


  • What topic does your customer care deeply about?
  • What related belief system does your brand represent?
  • How can you incorporate these beliefs into your marketing?

Further reading: How to Build a Strong Brand for Your Startup

3) Unlocking descriptions: Know your inputs and outputs

What does your product do? It’s a simple question in search of a simple answer. But modern tech products are complex, with dozens (or hundreds) of features that offer lots of benefits — and this can make the question hard for novice marketers.

Potential customers don’t have the time or patience to learn everything about your product. If you can’t describe what it does in one simple sentence, you’ve probably already lost their attention. But spouting vague, jargon-filled sentences covering every angle won’t work either.

For example, imagine Uber describing their product as ‘a transportation marketplace that connects drivers and riders.’ I doubt many consumers would have taken any notice.

Here’s how Travis Kalanic, Uber’s previous CEO, described what Uber did: ‘You push a button and in five minutes a Mercedes picks you up and takes you where you want to go.’ Keep in mind that Uber has lots of features — maps, in-app payment, driver reviews, and more. But the simplicity and focus of this one-sentence description give it the ‘wow’ factor.

What’s the secret? Our brains tend to think about products in terms of inputs and outputs.

‘You do [input] and then [output] happens’

The input is the smallest step you need to take to get value from the product. And the output is the first, unique, and obviously valuable feature you encounter.

This input-output model is a shortcut to helping you find concise ways of describing your product. It engages the audience by helping them simulate using the product in their minds. And it differentiates your product by placing the focus on a unique feature.

You might uncover multiple ways to explain what your product does, any of which you can draw on, depending upon the circumstances. Remember, it’s more important to be compelling than comprehensive.


  • What unique features make your customers go ‘wow’?
  • What’s the minimum customer input required to experience these unique features?

Further reading: The Art of Writing One-Sentence Product Descriptions

4) Unlocking campaigns: Pair customer insights with product truths

You might think that describing your product clearly and concisely is enough to bring in new customers. Well, only if your customer is actively looking for a solution . . . which isn’t very likely. Most of your potential customers aren’t actively looking for you yet.

This is where marketing campaigns come in. A campaign is a strategy that aims to make your product relevant to your customer.

So, how do you cut through the noise?

Customer Insight + Product Truth + Competitor Blindspot

I use a recipe for designing compelling campaigns based on Mark Johnstone’s ‘How to Produce Better Content Ideas’. It involves three concepts:

  1. A customer insight — a deep and non-obvious truth about customers (as we discussed earlier)
  2. A product truth — a relevant fact about your product
  3. A competitor blindspot — something competitors aren’t focusing on

The best campaigns lie where these three concepts intersect. A great example is Snickers’ award-winning campaign, You’re not you when you’re hungry:

  1. The customer insight — when we’re hungry, we can become cranky, weak, or dopey, which stops us fitting in.
  2. The product truth — Snickers is a substantial, nut-filled bar that’s known for satisfying hunger.
  3. The competitor blindspot — KitKat talks about feeling tired, but not about being hungry.

As customer insights tend to lose their power over time, campaigns must be continually updated to stay relevant, fuelled by fresh insights and product truths.


  • How are your competitors communicating?
  • How can you creatively combine customer insights with product truths?
  • Which campaigns best align with your brand beliefs?

Learn new skills every week ->

5) Unlocking strategy: Do the opposite of your competitors.

We often think that to win we must ‘be the best’. However, if you consider the question, ‘What’s the best car?’ you quickly realise that ‘best’ is subjective. It depends on the customer, their needs, and the price point. And when two or more companies go after the same customer needs, it can be a bloodbath, with marketing costs increasing to the point that neither company can extract a profit. That’s bad business.

At its essence, competitive strategy is about making a set of long-term choices that differentiate you from your competitors. And this idea doesn’t just apply to your product strategy; it applies to your marketing strategy too.

Ask many companies about their marketing strategy, and they’ll list the same old channels: SEO, social media, PR, etc. However, since every startup is doing this, you’re not describing a strategy but a set of best practices — unless you have some competitive advantage that others don’t have.

Best practices are what you should do the same as your competitors, while strategy is what you’ll do differently.

Ask yourself how you can differentiate your marketing channels, content, and capabilities from your competitors.


  • What channels have your competitors missed?
  • What content can you easily produce that your competitors can’t?
  • What long-term marketing assets can you start investing in?

Further reading: A plan is not a strategy.

6) Unlocking niche: Focus on your most valuable customer.

Many new entrepreneurs worry about focusing on a small niche. I remember being afraid that putting a stake in the ground would ultimately limit my impact later. It felt safer to focus on the widest segment possible.

Of course, trying to target everyone from the outset just doesn’t work. Without a narrow focus, it’s harder to find relevant campaigns or insights that resonate. And it’s almost impossible to build a product that pleases everyone.

The mistake I made was in thinking that my niche was a permanent choice. If you look into the history of successful companies you’ll see they all started with a niche. Airbnb initially marketed to people attending sell-out conferences in towns with no hotel vacancies.

Choosing a niche simply means prioritising the group of customers that need your product right now. This group might already be obvious to you but if you’re in doubt and you have customer data, I recommend running a simple best customer analysis, to uncover your most valuable customer segments.

Once you identify who your customer is, honour them in your messaging. If you watch one video about brand marketing, let it be Steve Jobs presenting the ‘Think Different’ campaign.


  • What are the different ways you could segment your customers?
  • Which customer segments are most valuable to focus on?
  • Which customer segments are easiest to target?

7) Unlocking distribution: Uncover non-financial incentives.

Poor distribution is the number one cause of failure, according to Peter Thiel. In terms of distribution, most startups begin by identifying the channels that are available to them: social media, blogs, partnerships, and so on.

It wasn’t until I took a marketing lecture with Jim Latten at Stanford GSB that I discovered a more powerful way to think about distribution. Latten wrote a simple equation on the board:

Distribution = Ecosystem Participants + Incentives

Rather than starting with the channels available to you, Latten recommended starting by understanding who or what influences your customer. They will have dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of influences that you may not have thought of as a channel — the various media they consume, the people they follow, the other products and services they use, the events they attend, and many more.

If you can identify those ecosystem participants, you can design incentives that increase the chances of them talking about you. The most obvious incentive is money; you can simply pay Facebook or Google to show a prospect your ad.

However, non-financial incentives can be just as powerful and they’re often overlooked. For example, Dropbox rewarded users who shared the product by giving them extra storage space (a feature). YPlan put on a free event featuring Pharrell Williams when they launched in New York (an event plus a story). And Tinder appointed ‘ambassadors’ at universities to publicise their dating app (status).


  • Who influences your target customer?
  • What financial and non-financial incentives can you design for each influencer?

Further reading: The Secret Formula for Go-to-market
Unlock Your Inner Marketer

Why don’t great products market themselves? Because in the beginning, nobody cares about them. The art of marketing is to make people care.

These concepts have helped me keep my marketing relevant, engaging, and simple. Ultimately, they’ve helped me drive awareness and grow my businesses. Are you paying enough attention to marketing? The best time to think these concepts through was when you started the business. But the second-best time is now.

Continue reading about marketing strategies: 

Originally published Mar 6, 2020, last updated Apr 9, 2024


Learn a new skill every week

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter and learn new skills and mental frameworks that make startup life easier.

Unsubscribe any time.

Popular articles

How to Drive a Culture of Ownership

Do you wish your team took more ownership? Here’s how to trust them to get the job done without you...

How to Ask Your Team The Right Questions

To improve your ability to ask great questions, it helps to understand the types of questions you can ask...

A Guide to Running Exceptional One-on-Ones

How effective are your one-on-ones? Here's a practical guide for managers and their direct reports...

Join my newsletter

©2023 Founder Coaching Limited. All Rights Reserved.
FOUNDER COACH® is a registered trademark of Founder Coaching Limited.