“You need to put your name out there” is one of the first things small business leaders are told when starting out with their branding journey. It makes sense. The more attention your new business attracts, the more potential customers you bring in. But it’s not always the loudest brands that gain the most attention, which is where invisible marketing comes in handy.

 Three people are approaching a woman with shopping bags
An impressive illustration by Fe Melo

If you think about it, every day, a person is bombarded by thousands of ads from the moment they wake. From email inboxes to sponsored ads on social media, from coffee packaging to bus stop ads—we live each day overwhelmed by brands convincing people like us to notice and buy from them.

So the question—as a small-to-medium business—is, how can we advertise our products without overwhelming or jarring our audience as they go about their daily lives?

What is invisible marketing, and how does it work?

A woman wearing a green shirt and a man in a yellow shirt are hiding behind a wall

For example, picture this: you’ve been walking around the park on a sunny day. After some time, you feel the need to cool down. As you turn a corner, you see two ice cream shops. Both are selling the same products with similar quality, flavors, and prices, but with one slight difference: one shop offers outdoor seating while the other doesn’t. And somehow, that difference made you choose the former.

Why?

By offering outdoor seating, the shop made its customers more visible to any passersby like you. Those dining al fresco then became the shop’s “ambassadors”. It’s a subtle way of showing and saying, “Our customers love our ice cream. Why not come and try it, too?”

That’s an invisible influence. And while the concept of invisible marketing is pretty straightforward, there are some rules to keep in mind for it to work.

Three rules to follow for invisible marketing

1. A consumer-first approach wins the race

Before you can even begin to influence your consumers through invisible marketing, it’s vital to know them like the back of your hand. One way to do this is by tapping into your sales team. Since they’re the ones closely interacting with your customers, they can be a deep well of resource for first-hand feedback, allowing you to glean through what your market struggles with and wishes to have.

 A data map of how brands collect information from a customer
Customer data collection from different brand touchpoints by Bonita90

A well-kept customer database is another tool you can leverage to gain information and identify trends. Done periodically, you can have a fool-proof marketing strategy backed by data that can boost your chances of hitting your goals.

In other words, you know what makes your customers tick, which brings us to our next invisible marketing must-have.

2. Genuine connection with consumers is vital

Research conducted by Harvard University about how the subconscious mind can influence consumers found that emotions govern over 90 percent of consumers when making purchase decisions. So more than the critical attributes of a product—price, content, package design, etc. — people look for an emotional connection with the brand that, when achieved, they don’t even bother with other competitors.

So, how do you win the hearts of your customers?

Start by determining the emotions that your customers feel about your brand. For example, if you’re running a hair salon, you might notice customers feeling stressed and insecure before the haircut. However, after a haircut that gave them a positive experience, they may feel more confident about themselves and ready to take the day. By knowing how your customers behave towards your products or services, you’ll know what emotions to target or evoke in your invisible marketing campaign.

It also helps to inject storytelling into your content, relaying information in an easily understood format that speaks to the consumers.

A woman points a giant magnet towards two other people
Customer attraction illustration by Fe Melo

Thai Life Insurance garnered a staggering 100+ million views on YouTube after releasing its TVC (television commercial), ‘Unsung Heroes,’ in 2014. It tells the story of a man who selflessly helps others, day in and day out, despite his hardships. As the ad plays, a voice-over narrates, “He gets nothing. He won’t be richer, won’t appear on TV, still anonymous, and not a bit more famous.”

Until the last second, you couldn’t even tell that the video is an advertisement for a life insurance provider. But it has succeeded in resonating with its viewers by showing them the value of life and love, which is essentially what life insurance is all about. If you think about it, buying life insurance won’t benefit you directly. You get nothing out of it, but you do get to help your loved ones—a message personified by the man in the ad.

Ogilvy & MATHER Bangkok, the advertising agency behind Thai Life’s campaign, shares that the ad increased engagement by 18 million. This consequently boosted brand recall and sales growth.

Although targeted toward a Thai audience, the ad went viral across 200+ countries. It also has won prestigious awards in the advertising industry, including Spikes Asia.

3. Keep your ethics in check

Invisible marketing can sometimes be a slippery slope to navigate. Sure, you need to be subtle, but this doesn’t mean you can resort to cheap tactics to attract consumers. Partnering with influencers on social media is becoming popular asmong brands wanting to expand audience reach and establish trust and authenticity. After all, it’s always better to hear from a person who consumers can relate to than from a faceless company.

A businessman tries to balance a bag of cash and a plant on a scale
A creative artwork depicting balancing ethics and profit when running a business via Storyset

A common marketing strategy companies use is asking influencers to create content showing how their product has played a vital role in the influencers’ lives. This way, the influencers do the talking for them. However, many influencers would deliberately leave out the #ad label in their posts that indicates it’s sponsored or paid content.

Why is this unethical? The brand and influencer broke the trust of their followers. Many of us follow people on social media because we admire their lifestyle, mindset, beliefs, etc. So when they share products or services, we tend to trust their feedback with the premise that they are genuine users.

That said, it is best to keep David Ogilvy’s advice—a renowned figure in the advertising realm—in mind. He said, “The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife.”

In other words, treat your consumers like real people, with respect, and avoid misleading them just to push for your agenda. This includes exploiting fear and panic, promoting misconceptions/misinformation, and exaggerating promises to create a demand for your brand.

Now let’s look at simple yet powerful ways you can integrate invisible marketing into your business, whether you’re a startup or a small to medium enterprise (SME).

Four ways to integrate invisible marketing into your brand strategy

1. Have fun with audio branding

Audio branding refers to the use of songs, jingles, and music to drive brand recognition. Think radio and tv ads or audio logos, like Netflix’s iconic ‘Tu-dum!’ at the start of a show or McDonald’s ‘I’m lovin’ it’ ad,  recognized across the globe. But audio branding is not limited to the mainstream. In fact, this could simply be done in-store or on your social media content.

A man wearing a blue suit is playing the piano while a ballerina dances beside him
An inspirational design about the power of music by Irina Gorbunova

Consider stepping into a retail shop selling beachwear. While you shop, upbeat songs that give off summer vibes or integrate the sound of waves play in the background. This is invisible marketing. The mood set by the music mimics the enthralling and relaxing vibe of the beach, which gets you more excited as you pick your swimsuit. Such a strong feeling is then successfully associated with the brand.

In terms of social media content, you can use the same songs as background music for videos you post, reinforcing brand recognition.

A playlist cover that says ‘The Playlist: Burberry SS22 Menswear/Burberry SS22
Screenshot of Burberry’s Menswear SS22 playlist via Spotify

Another growing trend in marketing is the use of branded playlists or a selection of songs and music curated by different brands. These playlists reflect a brand’s personality, like Burberry’s EDM (electronic dance music) playlist used in its 2022 Menswear show and Barilla Italia’s playlist that serves as a timer on how long it should take you to cook Barilla pasta.

A gallery of different playlists created by Barilla Italia
Screenshot of Barilla Italia’s playlists via Spotify

2. Explore scent marketing to extend your brand

Scent marketing involves the use of certain smells or fragrances, by brands, to engage with audiences. If you’re familiar with the handmade cosmetics brand Lush, I bet you can almost taste the strength of any fragrance wafting out of their shops. It’s a type of sensory marketing and one in particular that we emotionally connect to and establish memories or associations with.

Hand holding bar of shampoo by cosmetics brand Lush, with advertising slogan scrawled across.
I wager it’s not only the shampoo bar, but the memory of Lush’s smell that’ll outlive many relationships in life. Image via Lush.

This is because the area of our brain that deals with our sense of smell is called the olfactory nerve, which also happens to manage our emotions and memories. And the unwavering link between smell and mood is something that has been long documented by research bodies such as Mood Media. According to their studies, three-quarters of the emotions we experience each day are due to the smells we’re experiences.

And there are many brands using such information for their benefit. Lush use the floral fragrances of their products to create an atmosphere inside their shops, thus strengthening their establishment as a cosmetics brand. Other options to scent marketing include creating a signature scent, as Domino’s Pizza have done. This means that the bond between brand and scent has been strengthened so consistently, that it’d be near impossible to separate the two. Imagine how strange it would be to smell the Domino’s Pizza smell from another takeaway box?

3. Grow audience reach via unbranded content

Unbranded content is creating content that is not openly attached to a brand. For example, instead of sharing articles solely dedicated to discussing how great your products are, why not cast a wider net and explore broader content ideas? This includes helpful how-to guides and explainer videos that are industry-related and are more educational than promotional.

For instance, pharmaceutical companies are usually not allowed to directly advertise medicines as it violates government mandates in most countries. One of them is Merck, which wanted to promote its sleeping pills. They created the independent website, Why So Awake?, which streamlines information about sleep deprivation to work around the mandate.

It has FAQs and statistics about insomnia, and a ‘Take Action’ page that gives tips on dealing with sleep deprivation. Nowhere did it advertise its products, save for the company logo at the bottom of the page.

A screenshot of Why So Awake website’s Take Action page
Merck offers helpful tips to battle insomnia via Why So Awake?

Because Merck prioritized doling out much-needed information about a debilitating disorder that affects many people, it has earned the trust of its readers. In effect, the company reported that the site visitors of Why So Awake would often head to the main website of Merck and check out more information about its sleeping pills.

4. Build a team of employee influencers

Do you know who can create a huge impact on your consumers better than celebrities and social media influencers combined? It’s your workforce. They are the ones who breathe life into the products and services loved by your consumers. Customer-facing employees, i.e., sales and customer service, also have their pulse.Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company, researched how positive work experience impacts customers. Data reveals that companies that foster positive employee experience enjoyed a 10% increase in customer retention and a 20% increase in sales.

:Pink and yellow ice cream truck with the words that says ‘Book the truck. Tell your employees how great they are with an appreciation day!
A chalkboard artwork for employee appreciation by freshvision

You can achieve similar success by ensuring that your employees love working in your company. Spearhead initiatives that promote inclusivity, like facilitating synthesis meetings where department heads unravel the challenges that each member faces and be proactive in implementing solutions.

Moreover, you can instill an innovative mindset among your workforce by exploring new ideas, embracing changes, and encouraging creativity, from the top of the corporate chain down to the bottom. And provide customer relationship training to improve the quality of service you provide.

Finally, strive to retain your employees by offering rewards, social initiatives that solidify bonds among colleagues, and improved communication, to name a few. In return, they go above and beyond to deliver a positive brand experience to customers.

Some may even become employee influencers that you can tap to create engaging content from their perspective. According to research, employees get 8x more engagement when they share their own content about their work versus content on official brand channels!

 A lady dressed in blue plaid dress and floral apron is seen preparing skewered fruits
A sneak peek of Mikan’s day working in a Japanese cafe and dessert shop shared via her Youtube channel

YouTube vlogger Mikan started her job at a Japanese cafe and dessert shop. Because of how welcoming and encouraging her employer was, she then shared a day in the life video showcasing the shop on her channel. The content garnered 300,000+ views and thousands of commenters lauding the shop for providing a positive employee experience.

How quiet influence achieves excellent results

Invisible marketing is nothing new, but it is a tricky technique to pull off. However, done right, you can reap all the benefits it brings.

Because of its subtle nature, invisible marketing pushes you to ideate and implement out-of-the-box campaigns that spark curiosity and generate buzz. It is also a cost-effective strategy that doesn’t rely on premium paid ads and instead banks on word of mouth. Finally, your consumers are less likely to resist your brand message versus in-your-face marketing.

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