A couple weeks ago I was on a plane – shocking, I know – and got into a conversation with a woman returning from a public health conference.  The main concern of the attendees was how to combat the proliferation of high-sugar, high-calorie, low-nutrition foods in our schools, primarily (shout-out to my fellow Midwesterners coming) pop and other sugary drinks.  Given that the food and beverage industry spends $1 million every hour on marketing efforts, their understandable fear was that their non-profit budgets simply couldn’t compete against such a massive marketing juggernaut.

I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not sugary drinks belong in our schools, nor am I going to get into any other debate about whether or not any other type of product should be marketed to any given population.  The only important point for the purposes of this discussion is that marketing works.  You have never purchased any product from anywhere that has not been marketed to you in some way.  Every publisher of every book in every airport bookstore paid money to have their books displayed in a particular way – cover out, center aisle, by the register.  The same goes for every manufacturer of every product in every grocery store – endcap, checkout register, eye level, stand-alone display.  Obamacare has been marketed to you by Democrats, and its repeal has been marketed to you by Republicans.  Everything we purchase, and a lot of what we believe, involves a marketing effort.

Because of that, it is very easy to despair that those with the most money will always win.  We take it as axiomatic that the politician who raises the most money is going to win, that the products with the most commercials will become the most popular, that Google is destined to swallow all competitors and eventually own the world.  It’s very easy to feel that if you can’t compete dollar-for-dollar on a marketing issue, you can’t compete at all.

But that isn’t true.  Fundamentally, all marketing is designed to do exactly two things – convince you that you want something (a new car, so buy our new cars!), or convince you that you should avoid something (baldness, so buy our hair restoration treatment!).  Those are basically your only two options.  So if you want to counter someone’s marketing message but can’t match their budgets, don’t compete with them on their own terms.  Don’t use the opposite of their message, because you don’t have the budget to do so effectively.  Instead, compete with them by using messaging they haven’t even thought of.

Let’s assume, for example, you want to reduce the amount of sugary drinks that children consume at school.  Beverage companies are marketing those products as ‘cool,’ since ‘being cool’ is extremely important to young people.  The typical counter-marketing message would be to say that “No, in fact, sugary drinks aren’t cool” or maybe that “No, being healthy is cool.”  But you’re probably going to lose that marketing battle, because you’re focusing on the same issue – whether or not something is cool.  Since they’re spending $1 million an hour saying that sugary drinks are cool and you’re spending $12 to say the opposite, you’re probably going to lose.

So change the message.  Another thing extremely important to young people is ‘fitting in,’ so focus on that instead.  Photoshop all the teeth out of a teenager’s smiling face, have her holding a sugary drink in her hand, and say “This could be you soon!  Teeth are overrated.  The fewer teeth you have, the more you’ll be able to fit bigger bites of food into your mouth!”  All of a sudden, you’re countering the ‘sugary drinks are cool’ messaging with ‘sugary drinks will prevent you from fitting in’ messaging.  By changing the game, by attacking with messaging your opponents aren’t focusing on, you can completely alter the conversation and negate your financial disadvantage.

And just in case my argument sounds overly simplistic, here’s a real-world example.  After World War II, enrollment in the KKK began to climb significantly.  They marketed themselves as patriots and defenders of freedom, and that resonated with a lot of people.  Fortunately, some people were not persuaded.   So a young writer named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK by pretending to want to become a member, learned their secrets, and then shared those secrets with the writers of the The Adventures of Superman radio serial, which at the time was enormously popular.  In a 16-episode series called “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Superman squared off against the KKK.  The writers, who knew some of the Klan’s secrets and rituals thanks to Stetson Kennedy, used those in the serial to portray Klan members as oafish, brutish, stupid, and ridiculous.  So essentially you had two competing marketing messages.  On the one hand, Klan membership is patriotic; on the other, Klan members themselves are idiots.

And you know what happened?  Membership in the KKK plummeted.  The Ku Klux Klan was mortally wounded by a comic book.   There were no advertisements, no political contributions, no massive amounts of money spent.  Just a really intelligent marketing campaign that took the Klan’s marketing effort and turned it on its head.

Marketing matters.  But you don’t have to be rich to be able to do it well.  You just have to think in ways your opponents aren’t.

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