Show don't sell: the power of non-coercive marketing

This new, unconventional approach might seem counterintuitive, but it's proving to be an effective strategy for brands wanting to stand out.
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Read any number of marketing textbooks and you'll learn about the hard sell and pushing people's buttons to convince them to make a purchase. But is that always the best way to develop a long-term relationship with your customer? 

Rob Hardy of Ungated, a US marketing firm, thinks not. He coined the phrase ‘non-coercive marketing’, which he sees as a new philosophy for how to sell products – by not selling them at all. Non-coercive marketing doesn't try to persuade, pester or prod people into making purchases, but instead provides the soft sell. In non-coercive marketing, brands explain what they have to sell – but make it explicit to the customer that the choice is theirs. By being honest in your message, the idea is that people will come to your product for the benefit of both you and them.

‘We have a lot of love for non-coercive marketing because it's ultimately about connecting with people better,’ says Will Lion, joint chief strategy officer of global advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty London. ‘When you do that, you stand out. You get better outcomes for everyone. We believe it can be done across brands big and small, serious and less serious.’

Don't play the game

Not deploying pressure tactics, artificial scarcity or emotional appeals may seem like going against several decades of advice on how to market well. By giving up control, brands put themselves at the whims of often fickle consumers. And, for new businesses looking at their well-funded competitors who are focused on the hard sell, it can be tough to step out of the rat race. 

Still, some brands are choosing to do just that. Holly Tyers set up her subscription seed service, Can I Dig It, in February 2023. ‘I'm quite conscious of the hard sell and I hate it,’ she says. ‘I see it a lot and it puts me off wanting to work with someone.’ The subscription-box business helped Holly avoid falling into that same old approach because it's always accessible. ‘There's no fake scarcity or hurry to sign up,’ she says. 

That Holly sells vegetable seed boxes – which take time to grow – helps matters. ‘There's a big hustle around signing up to things, but it doesn't really fit with the source of the business,’ she says. Instead, she's upfront about the business and its goals, leaving interested parties to sign up if they want to.

Taking the hands-off approach was a risk at first, she admits. ‘In the beginning, it's tempting to go down the hard sales route, because you're desperate for people,’ she says. Holly can use the non-coercive strategy because she's operating Can I Dig It as a side gig alongside a full-time job – she recognizes that if it was her only source of income, she might think differently. 

A more honest approach

Still, it works for other businesses. Will says that non-coercive marketing ‘isn't just possible but effective, from multibillion-pound brands with shareholders through to playful startups on a mission.’

His agency helped sustainable deodorant company Wild reach a larger audience by presenting a brand message that told the story of a woman with a kink for environmental damage. Far from shilling the product, it entertained and left the audience to make their own minds up. ‘This more honest, fun approach stood in stark contrast to most finger-wagging, earnest eco marketing,’ says Will. ‘Non-coercive marketing principles of trusting the audience's intelligence and ability to deal with dark humor, telling scary truths and shunning the immediate sale by laying out the facts in an entertaining fashion for more empowered buying in the future were at play.’ 

Will, like Holly, believes that non-coercive marketing works best for brands with a built-in mission – both Wild and Can I Dig It have environmental impact at their core.

In these cases, the non-coercive method has proved to be successful. The campaign helped Wild save half a ton of plastic that would otherwise have gone into non-reusable deodorant sticks. Holly has 28 subscribers since launching in February, far outstripping her goal of 10 subscribers a month. ‘My goal for this year is to get to 100 subscribers, then ultimately to 1,000,’ she says. 

But non-coercive marketing can be difficult. You still need to hammer home your message, but in a way that doesn't lay on the sales pitch too thick. It can be tempting to go entirely the other way, but your marketing still needs to explain the importance of your product. It also takes bravery – and respecting your customers' ability to say ‘no’ as readily as they can say ‘yes’, too. 

How to do non-coercive market right

1. Be honest. Be open and upfront about what you're trying to do with your business.

2. Don't sell. Non-coercive marketing takes a different approach from the hard sell, so stay away from conventional tactics.

3. Go slow. The process involves letting people make up their minds independently, not being convinced to buy. Don't rush it.

4. Highlight the human. Whether it's your founding story or what you hope to achieve, make a personal connection with your audience.

5. Leave customers be. Take the attitude of ‘If you build it, they will come’ and be patient.

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