As marketers, every day we aspire to put our products and services in front of as many eyes as possible. We look for ROI on reach, engagement—any edge we can get in spreading the word.
Over the past few years, there’s been a trend of marketers trying to “eliminate friction” in an effort to attract consumers through convenience and accessibility. This has brought us new innovations like one-click checkouts, allowing consumers to bypass any sort of checkout process, making products easier to buy than ever before.
The ill-fated Push For Pizza app offered users a single-button solution for…pizza.
But if what if we go in the other direction? What if you hide your product from the world? If you make it hard to get? If you don’t make enough? What if you create friction? That’s what today’s article is about.
Scarcity marketing is the idea of limiting the supply of a product, whether it be through restricting availability to a certain time-frame or decreasing production—oftentimes both.
The principle is sound—we all want what we can’t have and love to flaunt when we have something others don’t. Scarcity marketing takes advantage of this desire, creating demand through mystique and enticement. It’s an excellent way to ensure that a product is swept off the shelves with the hype that every brand wants to create.
Now that we’re clear on what scarcity marketing is, let’s dive into some examples of businesses in a few different industries using this principle successfully.
Seasonal offerings are a common example of scarcity marketing. McDonald’s Shamrock Shake and Starbucks’ hugely popular Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL!) are some high-profile examples of seasonal products that attract even the casual customer with their limited-time offerings. Some companies take scarcity to another level, driving both demand—and consumers—up a wall. Here are three brands that have done just that.
I worked at a bar once where we drank this stuff like water. We didn’t know what we had!
Pappy Van Winkle is a whiskey connoisseur’s dream. Released exclusively in limited batches, this bourbon is one of the most highly sought-after liquors in the world.
Only 7000 cases are produced each year, and whiskey enthusiasts will pay hundreds of dollars a bottle just to get a taste if they’re lucky enough to find it. Because supplies are so limited, liquor stores who are lucky enough to get a few bottles often hold auctions. Some states—looking at you, Idaho—even hold an annual lottery to make the distribution of their limited Pappy Van Winkle supply fair.
You better have the password and exact change if you want this guy to feed you.
Goodnight Fatty and Back Alley Bacon of Salem, Massachusetts, utilize scarcity marketing in a way that harkens back to the days of the speakeasy. These two shops are open at very limited times, and whatever they are cooking up is what you get.
Back Alley Bacon serves their delicious, secret bites out of an unmarked shop by a man in a pig mask, known only as “Chef Jon Hamm” (of apparently no relation to the actor). Customers require a password and exact change, both of which are posted on the Back Alley Bacon Facebook page. But they aren’t told anything about the food itself, adding a layer of mystery to the experience. Don Donato, owner of North Shore food marketing agency Octocog, told us, “what really helped launch Back Alley Bacon wasn’t just scarcity of product, but scarcity of information.”
Advertising for Goodnight Fatty is limited to a blinking sign in an obscure back alley.
Goodnight Fatty offers cookies, or, as they refer to them, fatties. The menu is “top secret,” but each week they make three different types of cookies (pro tip: pay extra for bottomless milk). Their scarcity strategy has paid off: in the last few years, Goodnight Fatty has gone from occasional pop-ups at random Salem locations to a standing weekend location and, soon, a permanent storefront opening up this spring.
“I want that Mulan McNugget sauce, Morty!” — Rick Sanchez
In 1998, McDonald’s released the limited-edition Szechuan sauce to coincide with the release of Disney’s Mulan. After promotion of the film concluded, the sauce was taken off the menu and faded into obscurity for many years… that is, until popular sci-fi cartoon “Rick and Morty” featured it in one of their episodes. Discussion about the sauce exploded online, and McDonald’s seized the opportunity for exposure by bringing it back for one day only, in limited quantity. Fans and foodies alike stood in hours long lines for a chance to get the sauce—some savvy customers saw the opportunity to resell it online for hundreds of dollars.
The shoes that started it all.
Clothes and apparel market themselves every time someone puts them on. There is nothing better for a clothing brand than to have their products instantly recognizable—brands like Nike and Ralph Lauren are so ubiquitous that we know what they are just by looking at the logo. Everyone sees it, and everyone knows what it is.
If you market apparel, then you know the value that consumers place on their wardrobe and use this to their advantage. The popular shoes Jordans have become famous for their “limited drops,” where shoes are created in limited supply and become highly coveted by shoe lovers the world over.
Humans are wired to collect resources; during ancient times, our survival depended on it. Whoever had the most food or the best tools would have a greater chance of survival. Today, marketers take advantage of our innate desire to collect and stockpile—Brady Sadler, author of Collaboration is King, says, “Using the word ‘collect’ is another spin on scarcity. When brands deploy this word it implies demand, value, repetition and it bakes an element of creativity into the purchase. It gives the consumer permission to covet something and attempts to shape it as a productive outlet.” Here are three brands that have made their products into collectable commodities through scarcity marketing.
Collecting Mondo movie posters is a very expensive habit.
Mondo commissions artists to create alternative designs for T shirts and movie posters, largely focusing on classic or cult films like “Jaws” and “The Shining.” Their posters are so immensely popular that they are virtually impossible to buy online; the second it hits the store, it’s already sold out. As an added bonus, Mondo announces their limited edition posters on their Twitter account, which drives considerable traffic to their website.
Limited availability = mass appeal.
You’ve probably seen the red and white Supreme logo on the back of a sweatshirt somewhere (or the back of JR Smith’s leg). It’s grown immensely popular in the last few years due to their fervent fans and cult-like following. Supreme has just 11 locations worldwide, releases their clothes in “limited drops,” and is popular amongst celebrities—the perfect scarcity recipe.
It’s a resellers’ market, for sure.
Bape or A Bathing Ape is a Japanese streetwear brand that utilizes collaborations and limited drops to keep their style exclusive. Much like Supreme, fans go bananas to collect Bape apparel, and they resell it online for a pretty penny.
Exclusivity is just another word for scarcity. Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer psychologist at University College London states, “we collect articles or resources to survive, but survival doesn’t only rest upon what we need physically. We need, psychologically, to distinguish ourselves.” When a company offers something exclusive, it triggers this innate desire to stand out from others. Whether it’s a collector’s edition of a Beatles’ album or a solid gold iPhone, the entertainment and tech industries have found myriad ways to lure consumers. Here are just three examples of scarcity marketing in action.
Remember when U2 put that album on everyone’s iPhone? This is the opposite.
Although their legendary place in the pantheon of rap is unassailable, Wu Tang Clan had fallen out of cultural relevance at the hands of younger, trendier rappers. But in one of the greatest PR stunts in rap history, Wu Tang recorded an album titled Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and released just one copy, causing an auction house bidding war. According to Brady Sadler (Collaboration is King), it was about more than just revenue. “Yes, it became the most expensive album ever sold, at a reported $2 million,” he says. “But the public relations and earned media far exceeded anything the group had done for many years.”
As an added bonus, the Wu has ensured its place in history, as the album will finally see a wider release in 2103.
“The best smartphone you’ve never heard of.” — Business Insider
One Plus is now a popular smartphone brand, owing their rise to a clever, invite-only marketing campaign. This not only helped OnePlus manage demand in their favor, but it also added a layer of hype and mystique. Once OnePlus had established itself as a top-tier brand, they discontinued the invite only system and expanded their offerings to all.
Once a techy status symbol for those in the know, an @gmail.com email address is now ubiquitous.
Finally, we have a service that many of you probably use every day. Although now omnipresent, Gmail was originally a much sought-after, invite-only program. The exclusivity of the service helped create considerable buzz, while also serving as a test run for the email platform.
These are examples of businesses that have used scarcity marketing with overwhelming success. But scarcity marketing doesn’t have to be used on such a large scale to elicit this response. As you can see from the examples, the strategy can work for businesses in a variety of industries. Remember, we all want what we can’t have, whether that’s a mystery meal served in an alley or a bottle of whiskey, a pair of shoes or an exclusive email address. So consider leveraging this desire in your next marketing campaign—you never know what might happen.
Chris O’Keeffe is a Content Strategist and copywriter for brands and agencies across a variety of verticals. In 2016, Chris and his team at GYK Antler won the Content Marketing Award for “Best Use of Visual Social Media” for their work on Sweet Baby Ray’s, and were finalists for “Best Use of Facebook Content Marketing” for their work on Moxie. He is also Co-Founder & Head of Narrative at Podcation.
See other posts by Chris O'Keeffe
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