What to do when you have no budget

Achieving big things on a small budget is possible. Here are four things to consider.

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We are living through a golden age of evidence-based marketing. From the godfathers of effectiveness Peter Field and Les Binet, to the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and the training provided by Mark Ritson on his Mini MBA in Marketing, there is more for marketers to use and benefit from than ever before.

But there is one question I hear a lot at webinars and events I host: ‘What do you do when you have little or no budget?’

It’s a question I have had to find the answers to many times in my career having spent much of it with limited budgets. When working on a new or challenger brand you tend to have a fraction of the resource of the established brand leader so how do you compete with them?

Here’s what I have learned.

Always start with the problem you are trying solve

A few years ago I was working at Britvic as head of seed brands managing Lipton iced tea in the UK. The brand owner had spent a number of years trying to establish it but to no avail. As far as I was concerned I didn’t need any research to tell me that the British like their tea hot not cold.

At the handover meeting a large folder was pushed across the desk and right at the top was a copy of a brilliant poster that said, “Don’t knock it till you try it”, with black and white images of things people thought would never catch on like G-strings or scratching records but have since become very popular.

It was clearly genius so I asked the rather obvious question – how much sampling did you do? ‘Oh no, this was an awareness campaign came the reply. We didn’t have any money left for sampling.’ And there it was. The money had been spent on what marketers wanted to do and not on what would address the problem. It was clear from the research that people only changed their minds after trying it so no amount of advertising, however clever, was going to change that.

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Sometime you have to sacrifice to achieve the goal

Due to the money sunk in the above-the-line campaign, by the time we got our hands on the brand the budget had been cut substantially. Which, with the benefit of hindsight, was actually a brilliant thing.

We couldn’t attempt to act like a smaller version of a large brand. Instead we had to focus on what really mattered. In our case it was proving that contrary to perception, iced tea actually tastes great.

Something magical happens when you have significant constraints. You get creative.

Our first year consisted of a highly concentrated sampling programme in central London to see if we could convert people. The data was emphatic and proved it was possible. We expanded the ‘don’t knock it till you try it’ sampling programme in the second year to cover as much of London as we could and by the third year we had gone national.

In those three years we doubled the size of the brand.

Despite that people kept asking: “When will we do some proper marketing.” To which I always replied: “When everyone in the country has tried it.”

Treat everything as media

When you don’t have a media budget you need to treat everything as media. If I thought my iced tea marketing budget was challenging, the next brand I managed essentially had no media budget at all.

I was part of a management buy-out of a small, relatively unknown juice brand, that was largely confined to foodservice. The private equity company gave me 12 weeks to launch the brand in retail.

But something magical happens when you have significant constraints. You get creative.

The brand was called Juice Burst, so we took the rather obvious route with our design agency WMH and put exploding fruit on the pack. Except rather than exploding images we actually filmed the fruit being exploded so when you placed your phone over the pack using the Blippar augmented reality app it showed the fruit exploding.

This was 2013 and AR was only just emerging as a technology. No brand had ever integrated the technology into every pack like this.

That year I got to speak at the European Packaging conference and declare that ‘the QR code is dead’ (if only I had foreseen a global pandemic).

What this did was turn every piece of brand real estate into media to the extent that the packs were ‘blipped’ 300,000 times and every trade presentation opened with a demo of the technology.

It may seem trivial but since we had no media budget we had to create the appearance of a much bigger brand. It worked and Juice Burst went on to become the fastest growing brand in the category for the following two years.

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‘Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket very closely’

This is a famous quote by Andrew Carnegie, the 19th century American industrialist that took conventional wisdom and turned it on its head.
The advantage you have when you have limited budgets and have to sacrifice to achieve your goal is that you can focus much more on execution.

When we were sampling iced tea or exploding fruit on pack we didn’t have to worry about anything else. The job was simply to execute that idea so well that it would inevitably be successful. How could we take the idea and make it work on every single part of our brand for example?

When you work on much larger budgets the job becomes managing multiple product launches, campaigns, agencies, timelines. The job becomes one of conductor and you have limited time to really focus on what is working. Often you need marketing mix modelling to unpick which part of the campaign actually worked.

Essentially you have lots of eggs in lots of baskets and can’t watch them all.

Imagine what you could do if you knew exactly what the problem was, focused all your resources behind that and had the time to execute it like nothing else mattered.

If you’re still thinking you can’t achieve big things on a small budget then don’t knock it till you try it.

Jon Evans is chief customer officer at System1 Group.