Can companies succeed without marketing?

Can companies succeed without marketing?

By Liz Doig

I had a really interesting conversation with a new friend this week about organisations (specifically, start-ups) that claim to succeed without marketing.

“We just got Series B funding of squillions, without spending a single penny on marketing!”

“Don’t market your product – just make it and ship it!”

When you spend enough time in start-up circles, you begin to hear sentiments like this.

And they are, of course, rubbish.

“We did no marketing at all” usually means the founder saying it doesn’t totally get what marketing is – or wants to do it at very low cost – or both. So the claim of “no marketing” usually means they didn’t use “traditional” advertising or campaign activity. So no print or TV ads – and probably no shiny brochure or leaflets through the post either.

But this doesn’t mean there’s zero marketing. It just means that it’s mostly carried out on social media, using tools like Hubspot, at events – and in the composite press coverage/online community/influencer area that used to be easy to categorise as PR. 

Is the “we succeeded without marketing” claim a problem?

I think it can be. Because if you don’t think you’re doing marketing, or you don’t respect it as a discipline, then there’s a good chance you’re not investing in it properly – or getting the benefits of it. You may have an overstretched marketing person (never a team) – and you may be wasting energy tailoring individual sales approaches rather than developing a memorable brand and introducing brand-aligned, standardised communications that perform a strategic purpose.

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At top level, this is what marketing is…

Marketing is any activity that makes your target audiences aware of your offer – and interested enough in it to want to find out more.

This means that your blog, social media activity, the conversations you have with prospects, events you host or take part in, Hubspot emails and website are all marketing. At Wordtree, we take a holistic view of brand and marketing – so we’d say your customer service is part of your marketing too – as well as things like instruction manuals. Basically, any touchpoint with your brand should be seen as a marketing opportunity – because if your customers have a great end-to-end experience, you’ll be converting them into ambassadors for your product. Which is more marketing.

Good marketing is when all of this activity is aligned to achieve overarching strategic goals – and is measured to see if it’s achieving them. This means you will be able to track your ROI in marketing – and begin to understand the relationship between particular activities and the bump in sales and engagement you get as a result.

When you know that a £5000 investment in marketing resulted in 20 more calls and £80,000 of extra business – then you can begin to plan activity to bring new clients to you.

Marketing forces focus

Personally, I think one of the reasons that start-ups in particular sometimes resist marketing – particularly in their earlier stages – is because it forces focus.

The fundamental questions marketers pose are:

  • What are we selling?
  • And to whom?
  • Why, specifically, would our target audience want this?

Start-up founders, meantime, can sometimes be highly creative, future-focussed people who are more focussed on possibility and potential rather than the practical questions of how to position a (perhaps imperfect and incomplete) platform in the here and now.

Typically when you ask an early stage founder the what/who/why questions, the response is: “We could be for any market, and the possibilities are endless…”

Partly, this is because their focus is on investment – and the need to prove how scalable their offer is. Partly, it’s because it’s probably not possible to found a start-up if you’re not a forward-thinker. (I’m coming more frequently to the conclusion, in fact, that some founders shouldn’t appoint themselves CEO from the outset. Instead, in those very early stages, they should perhaps become their organisation’s Chief Strategy Officer – and should appoint a more pragmatic MD to bring focus. And that maybe the time to think about titles like CEO and COO is when the thing is off the ground and generating sustained revenue.)


Everything-is-possible thinking, coupled with creating investor-friendly narratives doesn’t give marketers the pinned-down information they need to strategise. You can’t market effectively to “everyone” and you can’t market a product that hasn’t been defined because it can be “so many things we can’t pin it down…”

Which means marketing efforts aren’t likely to show great results – and founders think: “’What’s the point in paying for marketing? Let’s just throw events and carry on tweeting!”

It can be a self-fulfilling cycle.

And, you know, perhaps the early stage start-up needs to be a little anarchic and find its feet. And maybe that means its marketing will be unfocussed too.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening at all. And it doesn’t mean organisations can’t benefit from including smart, strategic marketing in the mix.