21 November 2013

Don’t Believe a Word (of Mouth): Black Milk’s 100% Deceptive Case Study

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who’s Given Up Drinking Milk (And Kool-Aid)…

“How to Build a Multi-Million Dollar Ecommerce Business With $0 Marketing Budget”

No, that’s not the subject line of an email in your spam box. That’s the actual headline of a “case study” on Black Milk Clothing, as published on the Shopify blog.

A student sent me this case study after I advised him to never put word-of-mouth in a marketing plan. “Word of mouth” means “gossip,” so relying on gossip to provide your marketing is like relying on the lottery to provide your finance.

Yes, every now and then, a business will succeed based on gossip alone. And as I stated in my post about people who don’t advertise, they’re the exception, not the rule.

Black Milk is no exception. Here’s what their head of marketing, Cameron Parker, claims:

“My marketing budget is zero dollars. I didn’t spend a cent on advertising, don’t do AdWords, don’t do campaigns, don’t spend any money at all. The whole growth has been purely organic word-of-mouth, building, I guess, a tribe of followers that basically run around the world promoting the product.”

Black Milk Han Solo

Think you can rely on social media alone? Well, do you share pure geek bait like this hot blonde Asian model wearing a Han Solo swimsuit?

Then we hear what Parker and Black Milk actually do:

  • Parker tours the world every year and hosts “meet-ups” of the brand’s fans. Maybe he hitches rides on corporate jets and crashes other people’s parties?
  • The company has a professionally designed website — 100% donated and maintained by Shopify, I presume?
  • The company has professional models shot by professional photographers — all volunteers, I guess.
  • Someone in the company has to manage 80 Facebook groups. Unpaid interns, no doubt.
  • And I guess Parker works for free as head of marketing? What a charitable guy!
  • “Then, of course, there was the Star Wars deal with George Lucas.” (Parker’s words.) Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how he convinced Lucas into letting Black Milk use his trademarked material for free.

“Don’t spend any money at all”? “Purely organic word-of-mouth”? “$0 marketing budget”?

Everyone involved in this joke of a case study needs to go look up what “marketing” means. This is the kind of snake-oil case study that leads other entrepreneurs and marketers astray, resulting in otherwise great ideas and products crashing and burning.

But wait, there’s more. Parker claims that one reason for his brand’s success is “Authenticity.” I call that the “A-Word,” since it’s one of the most abused, misused, and overused marketing cliches today, especially when it appears in a case study that’s been anything but “authentic.”

Parting shot: One of the downsides of “word of mouth” is that it can be negative as well as positive. Black Milk and Spotify have scored some free publicity with my post here — I hope they share it at their next meet-up.

Update 5/6/14: Thanks to my readers Darla and Emma (see their comments below), I learned that Black Milk just keeps on giving… reasons to ridicule them. Here’s how they recently botched their much touted “purely organic word-of-mouth”: Black Milk Clothing Illustrates How Not To Use Social Media.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

13 Responses

  1. I always have liked their products and appreciated their marketing… but I’ve definitely lost some respect when he claims he has zero marketing budget. That is ridiculous, and leads other companies to believe they can take over the world just by starting a Facebook page… Build it and they will come!

  2. Never heard of them. They should probably advertise.

    Oh wait…no budget.

  3. If Black Milk’s marketing budget is zero dollars, what the hell does it need a marketing director for? If I were the CEO, I’d fire that Parker dude, immediately.

  4. It’s a confusion of terms/language. They don’t spend on ‘paid-for’ advertising or promotion. When most people talk about marketing, what they usually mean is just the element of promotion within marketing. A broad audience can understand this term without having to have a background and marketing or comms so it makes a great story.

    What they have done is put a lot of work into customer engagement, customer service and build a huge advocacy base without spending on any paid advertising channels.

    (ps – i don’t wear tights)

    • Thanks for the response. In many cases, what you say is totally true — it’s just a matter of nomenclature. In this case, Black Milk is being massively deceptive. The immaculate marketing-free success is a requisite magical part of their founders tale; otherwise, all they have is gaudy swim wear. Black Milk is spending millions of dollars on marketing-related expenses, from licensing to foreign travel, then publicly boasting that their success is “purely organic word of mouth.” There’s nothing pure about it, and the organic part stinks to high heaven. When I challenged Parker on his claims, he resorted to even more doublespeak, revealing his true character. Just like professional skeptics work to reveal the cons behind supernatural phenomena and “miracles,” I take it upon myself to point out such B.S. in business, to show other entrepreneurs and professionals how much marketing is actually involved.

  5. You should see how badly their ‘social media strategy’ has gone for them today. They banned people left and right!

    • Do tell. Why are people being banned?

      • https://www.buzzfeed.com/alyssajayne/how-not-to-use-social-media-101-pgg2
        Is a good summary. Another media personality got banned simply for posting a link to a YouTube video where cam talks about how best to use social media!

      • BMC posted a joke in poor taste – an “expectation” vs. “Reality” meme featuring their product on a thin model as opposed to The Big Bang Theory’s Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), implying that the hope is to be the model, but the reality is Mayim’s character.

        Many people were offended by the meme, and rather than address their customers concerns, they told them they were wrong, couldn’t take a joke, and if they didn’t like, they were free to leave. Then, they proceeded to delete and ban anyone who stated anything opposed to them, whether it was rational and well said, or not.

        Classic case of how not to use social media. The post has since been deleted, but not before BMC made sure to tell everyone that they’re still right, and any naysayers are wrong.

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