The Marketing Bureau

Specialist Marketing & Communications Resourecs



Shady Brand Tactics That Work

By Sean X
First Published on

When there are numerous people who want to "stand out" within a company (and show that they can help the brand perform) they tend to push for the ideas that generate more sales -- no matter what the cost. More revenue (and more anything, for that matter) often creates a culture where the shady tactic is not only permitted, but admired.

All you have to do is look at the financial industry -- it is a breeding ground of the most shallow and narcissistic of human traits. Combine individual arrogance and hubris with companies beholden to venture capitalists, investors, or their public owners -- rather than the ideals of their founders -- and the combined effect is that there are fewer and fewer people who are willing to fight for brand integrity. It seems that courtesy and respect for customers is an outmoded concept in a world where statistics and data analytics rule the day.

Unfortunately, what the statistics and data analysis often encourage are behaviors that seem uncivilized. Many companies have reduced their customers to a cell on a spreadsheet, and this is the result: From a numbers only standpoint, shady brand tactics (tactics devoid of feeling, emotion, and long-term brand health) work. An extra retained user here, and extra margin on profit there, ultimately means more money.

I see it, because I have been in the meetings. I have in the past even come up with some of these ideas. There are some brand folks who sit around and scheme and plot for ways to eke out that extra little sliver of a percentage from a sale. They concoct ideas to "fool" consumers into making purchases by manipulating them and subverting their free will. For many marketers, free will may as well be poison.

Unfortunately, this behavior is often rewarded in our culture. I wish it was not -- I wish I could stand on the top of my desk and hold a sign like Sally Field playing Norma Rae to protest this behavior and declare an all out strike on subversive strategic tactics that belittle the people they affect. I just do not admire many of these tactics, regardless as to whether they bolster the bottom line. Some things cannot be measured in a spreadsheet -- things like compassion, happiness, and how your customers feel about your brand. And it is those aspects that often translate to long-term brand health.

However, the sad truth is that there is a reason some brands use these tactics: They work. Here are some tactics that seem to go directly against what is in the best interest of the customer but in some way serve the brands that use them.

Making "opting out" of emails just a little more of a process

This tactic uses email as a constantly intrusive form of engagement. Companies that respect consumer choice allow you to hit a simple "unsubscribe" button at the bottom of emails. You click it, confirm the email that you want to unsubscribe from, and voila -- you are "unsubscribed." However, for a number of recent start-ups, this just isn't the case. You see, many of these start-ups do not yet have sustainable income and the one crucial thing that they do have are users. A substantial user pool allows start-ups to fuel their PR machine with talk about adoption of their app, website, or product -- which, in turn, gets these start-ups more investment and more users. So, in the case of the start-up, allowing users to opt-out easily isn't ideal.

What was once a link at the bottom of emails to "unsubscribe" or "remove" became "change email options." When I look at these links I say to myself:

"But I do not want to change my email options, I want to stop the email. All email. All the time. I do not care that Rich is listening to some band that I have never heard of. Why am I getting that via email? How is that relevant? Does merely receiving this email qualify me as an active user? Am I being counted like some numbered zombie clone? And damn it, why are all the defaults when you sign up to these sites set to spam overload?"

Spotify is one brand that uses this tactic well. Clicking the "change email options" lands you on the Spoitfy website where you are forced to log in to the site. (You can't not log in to stop the spam.) Once you log in, you end up in the "edit your profile" field which is not where you want to be.

Ironically, while there is no "opt-out" option on the first page, there are plenty of ways to get more email from Spotify with a couple checkboxes. Only after you scroll down below the fold do you come across the "opt-out" option.

Here is the second trick: There is no "opt-out of everything" button, and no "select all."

If you want to get off an email list you should be able to hit one button, confirm, and then be done. Consumer friendly is what people want, but that is definitely not what is in the interest of most online products. I am sure that someone somewhere within the company argued for the customer and against this process. Then someone else showed an A/B test of how many users the brand retains if it commits to doing it this other way. Many times marketers will try and justify this by saying, "It's just one more step, and we are really giving them all of these other options. It's in their best interest." No it isn't, and in the back of their minds they know that.

Unfortunately, this is a brand tactic that not only works to retain users, it is a tactic that keeps the brand name top of mind and that, however shady, meets brand objectives.

The Obama campaign

This is a lesson on how to violate every rule of email frequency capping.

The Obama campaign has become that guy outside Starbucks who constantly asks you for change when you exit with your overpriced latté. The difference is that it's as if that guy is following you around all day in your office, outside the bathroom, and waking you up at night saying, "Change! Spare change?" You feel sad that the economic plight of our country forces people to beg, and you not only tolerate him because you feel guilty but occasionally toss some change in his cup. It is fine for someone down on their luck, but for the President of the United States? It's just icky.

The Obama campaign promised change, and I just got it in the form of them asking for it. Look, I'm a liberal whack job, but even Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the ACLU do not beg as much as Obama campaign does. And that, I am now realizing, is probably to all the detriment of all these aforementioned groups. And although I find the sheer voluminous nature of email a little annoying, I cannot deny its impact. While Romney is struggling for money that can be used directly by him, the Obama campaign is swimming in it.

Why does it work? Content. It may be shady to email someone every day, maybe twice a day, but every email has a single issue, single topic, and a single piece of pertinent information. Forget the newsletters and emails jam-packed with content -- if you want to win, simplicity works. You just have to violate what is commonly accepted and delve into the world of being criticized for breaking unwritten rules.

The campaign did eventually offer me a way to stem the tide to only important emails, which translated to an email every three days or so. Then it hit me. I have given less money because of it -- probably only once or twice. In allowing that option I'll bet the Obama campaign has actually lost some money. The daily (and sometimes twice daily) emails created this urgency for me. Like that guy outside Starbucks, it reminded me of the issue, and I would give a little more. If the purpose is to win, and your cause is one you believe in, then email away. The people you most want on your side -- the people who believe in your cause and will defend it -- are the people who will continually give their time and effort.

If Obama does win the election it will probably be because of the tireless email campaign reminding supporters of every issue. I may cringe at its tactics, it may seem a little shady to me, but I cannot deny its effectiveness. The digital strategists of the Obama campaign flaunted sacrosanct internet rules of conduct, and that is a lesson for us. Unwritten rules are made to be broken.

(Note that this does not work nearly as well for Republicans, as the Democratic party relies on individual supporters, and not corporate donors for the vast majority of financial support.)

So, for any cause-based program looking for money -- be it the ACLU, Greenpeace, or even Planned Parenthood -- swallow your pride, stop trying to be the nice conscientious online brand, and beg. Beg a lot, and develop an email program -- like the Obama campaign -- that grovels effectively with single issue email topics. Ignore the dissenters and the people who complain about too much email. Your most loyal followers will understand and support you in ways that will help your organization.

Buying online reviews

Why five stars on Yelp matters.

In 2009, The Wall Street Journal found that the average rating in a five-star system, (e.g., Amazon, Yelp,, etc.) internet-wide, was a 4.3, suggesting a world of uniformly awesome products, services, and experiences. News flash: You are not that great, your product is not that great, and your brand is not that great. Given that, how is it that there are so many completely highly rated products on the internet? It is either that people connected to the internet are universally undiscriminating, or that everything digitally connected is awesome. I for one am going with the former explanation; from what I have seen in the world of online dating we are definitely not choosy.

So why is this bad? Well, because so many of those reviews are fake and paid for by brands. Are we so addicted to the star rating system that nothing but five stars will do? Unfortunately, for the time-being that is an unequivocal yes. It can be seen in purchase patterns, book sales, and almost every other aspect that helps brands online -- from small restaurants, to authors, to consumer products. Unless there are positive reviews, you will not be able to sell online.

If you think about it, it makes sense. No one has the time to research every product and we tend to trust higher level peer reviews over product information.

Unlike crowd sourcing -- where the crowd can edit reviews that are inaccurate -- the issue with star reviews is that they become permanent. Unless there is a protest, or the brand is found out to have paid for them, they do not get removed. Even reviews that are patently false have a hard time getting removed from a site. Just ask anyone who has gotten a bad review on Yelp how easy it is to get something removed, even if the person has never tried your product.

And that is why brands routinely pay for reviews. They pay for them on Yelp, on Amazon, and on the iPhone App store.

And don't think that you'll be able to tell a fake review form a real one. That assertion was actually tested, and it turns out not only are those people wrong but they chose the fake reviews as real more than 56 percent of the time. Yes, that is right, the fake reviews were viewed as more real than the real ones. Maybe that is because the people who get paid to write them have made a business out of it, so they include things like the occasional purposeful spelling mistake to give the appearance of reality.

Sadly, all stats indicate that fake reviews work.

Personally I do not trust any reviews I read online unless they are from experts or are designed to be anonymous. Rotten Tomatoes and Zagat are the two most trusted sources in these categories.

Peer reviews are useless, and I'd advise not to trust them. Unfortunately people often do, so buying reviews really is a shady tactic that works.

Link buying and cloaking SEO

I am not advising, condoning, or otherwise sanctioning any black hat SEO tactic, but as Google has become the veritable zero-moment of truth for every brand that exists, brands are going to seek to turn that to their advantage. There are two techniques that definitely fall into the land of shady, so shady in fact that they can get you banned from Google. Unfortunately, these tactics work very well.

Link buying
Link buying can be defined as the purchasing of links to increase the relevancy of your site on Google. J.C. Penney was banned from Google's organic search results for 90 days, but there is absolutely no doubt that this technique works for brands, and there are plenty of brands that do it. I wonder how much J.C. Penney lost from that ban, and how much they made?

Cloaking is the act of serving a slightly different page when a search engine is crawling a page. Although brands can use this to clarify content and what their intent of the content of the page is, it is also used to bait and switch users.

To a lot of brands the penalties are worth the risk. But make no mistake, these are techniques that can get your site banned from Google.

Often, the "brand" is not aware that this tactic is being utilized. It is usually some small group of people with the digital department (or their agency) who know they are doing wrong and are just hoping not to get caught. And as long as the performance is strong, everyone within the brand tends to turn a blind eye to it. Because the rewards are increased (performance recognition, bonuses, etc.) these techniques often proliferate with no one the wiser. A senior executive dictates that the group has to increase performance, and it does.

Truly, that is the issue with any digital technique that gets results. Often senior brand leadership is so clueless as to how a majority of the income is coming in digitally that they do not even know the right questions to ask.

Of all the brand techniques that work, please do not do this. I am elucidating it here so you can all ask internally whether this is happening and make sure to stop it so you do not get digitally isolated to Elba for your ignorance.


There are a lot of shady techniques that give the appearance of helping. However, I am an idealist. I believe in the future and the ability to make our most optimistic ideas of the future a reality. Although I often inhabit what is best described as the lunatic fringe of marketing, and lament the demise of the hard version of the Giant SweeTart, I fundamentally believe that when we treat people with respect -- and hold true to corporate values -- that we produce a better future for us all.

There are those techniques that break unwritten rules, and those should be explored. Avoid the techniques that can get you banned, and try to cultivate in your brand a promise to stand for something. Stand up for your product or your brand. When you can cut a corner here to shave off a few pennies, always ask yourself, "Is our brand or product somehow diminished by this?" Often that answer will be no -- but remember, your brand can suffer the death of a thousand cuts.

We all remember brands and products from our youth, and then we go back and try them again later only to find that they are different. This is not just wistful nostalgia playing tricks on us. Over the years many companies have slowly eroded their products and brands with 100 little changes that when added together produce a product that pales in comparison to the original.

So when a person stands up in a meeting and demands that the brand not follow through with a shady tactic -- listen to them. Otherwise, you may end up working at a brand you no longer respect. That is often what happens when companies are sold. There is no longer the person who will jump on that table, hold up that sign, and say "no!" Be that person.



Sean X is founder of SXC Marketing.



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