Stealth mode: should you make yourself scarce?

Published19th April 2018 byCaroline Brown

The first rule of business is to make it as easy as possible to become a customer. Correct?

Often, but not always. Sometimes, as counter-intuitive as it seems, it pays to make it harder. 

This seems to fly in the face of logic but, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe in their seminal work Nudge, humans are not rational, unbiased ‘econs’. Instead, our decision-making is influenced by a whole host of mental biases and shortcuts.

Without realising, we’ll judge the quality of a more expensive bottle of wine to be superior to a cheaper version. Even if the contents are identical. In the same way, we tend to think the things that are in short supply - or completely unavailable to us - are more valuable, particularly when they’re in demand. This is the principle of ‘scarcity’.

In a recent meeting, a client wondered whether prospective customers would be put off applying if they knew the service was massively oversubscribed. Surely it’s common sense - if people think that ‘getting in’ will be too difficult, they’ll choose to go elsewhere?

Except they don’t. If anything, they redouble their efforts to get what everyone wants, but only the exclusive few can have. Whether that’s the latest Tesla, a place on a top graduate scheme or an upgrade to business class.

Once upon a time, television ‘infomercials’ would routinely end with ‘call now, operators are standing by’. Yet when copywriter Colleen Szot changed the line of one such infomercial to ‘If operators are busy, please call again’ sales went through the roof. Viewers, suddenly fearful the product would run out, apparently had to have something that hadn’t seemed nearly as desirable moments before. 

For tech start-ups, operating in stealth mode can be an effective scarcity-based marketing strategy. In choosing what to reveal and to whom, and most importantly what to conceal, businesses can create speculation, fear of missing out and motivation to get involved. If it’s worth hiding, it’s immediately more interesting.

For example, restricting demos to a small number of carefully selected people builds desire to be counted among that number. It’s the business equivalent of the VIP room or the hot new restaurant, as Tom Wentworth writes in his article on Domo’s use of scarcity as a tech marketing strategy. Apathy becomes appetite.

It follows that something can lose its value when it’s too freely available. In the early 2000s, despite a thriving luxury sector, Burberry’s annual growth was a mere 2%.

A licensing free-for-all had led to the brand’s iconic check becoming ubiquitous – easy and cheap to buy on everything from dog leads to nappy bags. With the result that it became less and less desirable amongst its core market – even among those who should have been its biggest advocates, as incoming CEO Angela Ahrendts tells.

“As I watched my top managers arrive for our first strategic planning meeting, something struck me right away. They had flown in from around the world to classic British weather, gray and damp, but not one of these more than 60 people was wearing a Burberry trench coat.”  

One of the first actions she took was to buy back the licenses. All 23 of them. Burberry’s remarkable turnaround was achieved by regaining exclusivity, in part by becoming less available. Read the full story of how it had become the fastest growing luxury brand by 2016.

There are many ways to make scarcity part of a marketing strategy, from pricing decisions to limited editions and waiting lists. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to put the principle to work for you is in language. Does the way you talk about your offer suggest anyone can be a customer, at any time they like? Make a tweak to the way you speak. See what happens when your ‘operators’ – whoever they might be – are no longer ‘standing by’ for your customers.

One final note: postponing marketing because you're too busy to think about it or haven't yet worked out what to say is not stealth mode. Stealth mode is an active state of marketing, one that restricts your engagement to a very targeted group and suggests the excitement to come more widely. It may be a whisper, not a shout - but it's not silence either.