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10 brands that got big without advertising

10 brands that got big without advertising Kent Lewis

A vast majority of today's businesses started small and grew organically, up to a point. To get to the next level, however, they all had to invest in advertising to a degree. Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Nike, among others, have demonstrated the power of powerful advertising campaigns in building global brands. What is more compelling, however, is the growth of a well-known brand without any meaningful investment in advertising. I've outlined 10 brands that have successfully achieved household-name recognition with no advertising whatsoever in this article, as an inspiration to the rest of us.

The secret sauce

While each of the top 10 best brands has a unique story, they all share common DNA. There are a handful of factors that contributed to their success with word-of-mouth, public relations, and viral marketing instead of traditional advertising campaigns. In fact, some of the brands may never advertise, in order to minimize blowback from core customers that value their authenticity and grassroots marketing efforts. Below are a number of strategies each brand leveraged to maximize their growth. If your company is consistently delivering on one or more of these strategies, it may be time to re-evaluate your marketing mix and the role advertising plays.

Solve a problem: Believe it or not, far too many companies create a solution to a problem nobody has or understands. Products that do not meet a need, like Chia Pets and any product in the newly defunct SkyMall magazine, tend to require a good deal of advertising to create the need (or they fail). Companies that successfully meet an existing need are best suited for organic growth.

Create a memorable experience: Brands like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Zappos have seen great success in creating unique and engaging customer experiences. All three brands grew rapidly without any major advertising. To please stakeholders and continue growing, these brands have turned to some form of advertising. They do earn an honorable mention for their customer-service-as-marketing efforts, however.

Engaging socially: Each of the 10 brands outlined here have all successfully engaged customers and fans via social media. They all create unique, compelling content and nurture relationships online through conversation. A few brands that didn't make the final cut but deserve honorable mention on this front include: Blue Moon, Ferrari, and Warby Parker.

Foster word-of-mouth referrals: A meaningful number of brands rely on word-of-mouth to sustain if not grow their business. Some do it much more effectively than others. Many of these brands also proactively identify influencers and build relationships with them as brand ambassadors. All of these brands understand their customers intimately and relentlessly focus on delighting those sub-groups. Honorable mentions for brands that have effectively leveraged word-of-mouth and influencer marketing include: JIFFY's Muffin Mix, lululemon, NO-AD Sunscreen, and Rolls-Royce.

Leverage third parties for validation: Brands that leverage influential third parties like the media, celebrities, and athletes have found the "validation" more effective than advertising. A few industries that do this extremely well include apparel, fashion, and retail. These brands all deserve honorable mention for their success with strategic marketing partnerships, PR, and product placement as a core component for growth: Abercrombie & Fitch, ASOS, COS, Cotton On, Goyard, lululemon, Maison Martin Margiela, Manolo Blahnik, Marni, Monteith, Spanx, The Body Shop, and Uniqlo.

The top 10 advertising-free brands

Now that we've outlined the fundamental success factors, it's time to unveil the top 10 best ad-free brands. The following 10 brands have met all of the above criteria and sustained growth over time, without any investment in advertising.

(Disclaimer: Some of these brands may have a marketing budget that may include advertising budgets, but compared to companies of similar size, they spend virtually nothing. Most, however, technically spend $0 on advertising.)

Ben & Jerry's

Founded in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont, Ben & Jerry's has achieved iconic status as counter-culture purveyor of ice cream. Funded with $12,000 to open its first retail store, the fledgling company grew significantly year-over-year for decades. Much of its success can be attributed to the founder's focus on building a socially conscious company and maintaining a sense of humor (check out CyClone Dairy to get a feel for their approach to marketing and education). One way the company has built a large following is annual Free Cone Day, which originally celebrated its 10-year anniversary. The company was acquired by Unilever in 2000, but remains largely untouched by the global holding company. Ben & Jerry's continues to rely on world-of-mouth and cause-driven marketing to grow the brand, instead of advertising. According to Jerry, "Most companies hire advertising firms to try and come up with an image they think will sell their products. We decided in the beginning to be real and honest about who we are. We relate to the average customer because Ben and I are average people."

Coolest Cooler

As a Portland resident, I'm obligated to share one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history: The Coolest Cooler. The Coolest Cooler is the Swiss Army Knife of coolers, incorporating a blender, speaker, lamp, USB charger, kitchen utensils, and of course, a bottle and wine opener. Ten years in the making, the innovative and quirky product raised $13 million dollars from 62,000 backers. The success generated significant PR and further sales. Unfortunately, product quality and inventory issues plagued the company resulting in bad press and unhappy customers. Coolest Cooler customers and employees hope the troubles are in the past, but time will tell. I included Coolest Cooler on this list because it set a new bar for launching a product with no advertising whatsoever and generated record sales in just three months.


Costco, a membership-only warehouse club, has grown to become the second largest retailer in the world, and without spending a dime on advertising. Based in Washington State, Costco opened its first warehouse store in 1983 and reached $1 billion in annual sales in its third year of operation and crested $3 billion in less than six years. Beyond investing a good deal of time getting to know its customer, Costco relies on word-of-mouth, fueled mostly by low prices on high quality products, including its own Kirkland brand (named after the location of its former headquarters).

Dollar Shave Club

In early 2011, Mark Levine and Michael Dubin met at a party and shared mutual frustration about the price of razors. Initially self-funded, Dollar Shave Club was founded in July of that year to provide affordable disposable razors at a low cost to subscribers. In March of 2012, the company posted a video on YouTube that went viral immediately and redefined how a brand can launch on little budget. The video features the deadpan humor of co-founder Michael Dubin, who apparently had an improvisational background. Rumors indicate the video was produced on a $14,000 bro-deal budget. Within 48 hours of posting the video, 12,000 orders poured in, and that included a period of time the site was down due to too much traffic. Sales (and further funding) poured in and the company grew staggeringly quickly (the video now has 23 million views). With venture capital investments totaling nearly $100 million, the company sold to Unilever for $1 billion in 2015, validating the power of viral video (and no advertising budget).


Founded by an adrenaline junkie, GoPro provides an affordable yet durable and weatherproof high-definition camera ideal for athletes and outdoor adventures. GoPro built its success on content marketing... specifically user-generated content. Its YouTube channel is robust and popular, with more than 4.2 million subscribers. A library of high quality action videos greets YouTube visitors, featuring extreme sports, exotic locations, and thrill-seekers, either sponsored by GoPro or located by a team of researchers scouring the web looking for worthwhile content. The company continues to evolve its product line to include 360-degree video (via two back-to-back cameras), 4K UHD quality picture, robust editing software (via acquisition), and a new drone, Karma. I expect to see further growth as the drone will open up a whole new world for fans and customers.


Founded in 1851 as a single pharmacy in Manhattan, Kiehl's has grown to 250 stores and 1,000 point-of-sale placements in department stores, airports, and retailers worldwide. Without the benefit of advertising, Kiehl's grew with a very simple word-of-mouth strategy. Plentiful sales representatives provide generous amounts of product samples and free consultations in a low-key environment. According to Lynn Upshaw, Kiehl's gave away more than 12 million samples a year, which represents 80 percent of their total marketing budget. Rather than fancy packaging synonymous with the cosmetic industry, Kiehl's packaging is simple and approachable. Additionally, the brand engages in each local community where stores are located and regularly provide product to charity events. In Kiehl's case, the product itself and informed sales representatives have demonstrated success where traditional advertising can fail.

Krispy Kreme

In 1937, Vernon Rudolph purchased a doughnut recipe and opened Krispy Kreme in Winston-Salem. The company experienced early success due to word-of-mouth, particularly from Southern transplants. The company has continued to grow with no advertising, cresting at over $1 billion in revenue worldwide. The company believes customers have an emotional connection with the brand, which may be fueled by Krispy Kreme's focus on community involvement, like fundraisers. With 5.3 million "likes" on Facebook, the brand has a large fan-base to leverage. The company struggled a bit after its IPO, but sold in July 2016 to JAB Beech for $1.35 billion. Despite the acquisition, the company has no plans to begin advertising and will continue to focus on the fundamental word-of-mouth strategy, backed by social media.


When Vietnamese-American David Tran created Huy Fong Foods Sriracha "rooster sauce" in 1980, he may not have envisioned becoming a household name. The hot sauce has become a cultural phenomenon, with a rabid foodie following, and without advertising. Instead, Tran attributes his success to a commitment to making a great product. As proof, look at the social media profiles and you'll notice a relatively small following for such an iconic brand. Those numbers do not reflect the level of customer engagement as much as the company's lack of focus on social media until very recently. It appears the company has focused more on updating its only presence (including a newer website) yet still does not do any formal advertising. The product itself continues to be the No. 1 marketing vehicle.

Tesla Motors

Tesla was the first premium electric vehicle manufacturer to hit the market in 2008. The Roadster was fast and sexy and set the bar high. After some in-fighting, Elon Musk took the helm and launched the Model S luxury sedan in 2012. Three years later, the S became the top selling electric vehicle, surpassing 100,000 units. The company has expanded the product line to include an affordable Model 3 and luxury SUV Model X. Its success cannot be attributed to advertising. Instead, the company relied on award-winning product quality to drive PR and word-of-mouth. The innovative branded store concept varied from a more traditional dealership model and further generated awareness and buzz. The company lacks an agency or chief marketing officer, but Elon Musk has expertly leveraged the media (and judicial system) to generate unprecedented levels of coverage and sales.


Clothing and accessories retailer Zara was founded in 1975 in Arteixo, Galicia, Spain. Known for providing low-priced lookalike products of higher-end fashion brands, the company revolutionized the industry by streamlining the design, production, and distribution process. Rather than spending money on traditional advertising, the brand invested in expensive and sizable storefronts adjacent to luxury retailers. By providing similar fashion at a lower-price, the company has grown to be one of the world's largest retailers and it now owns the "affordable luxury" market segment without spending a dime on advertising.

While each brand is unique in its own way, these 10 companies have done an exemplary job of building recognition and revenue without advertising. By following the success factors I've outlined above, perhaps your brand can stretch or eliminate your ad budget and not sacrifice growth as a result.

Additional resources

With a background in integrated marketing, Lewis left a public relations agency in 1996 to start his career in search engine marketing. Since then, he’s helped grow businesses by connecting his clients with their constituents via the...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Richa Gangwani

2016, November 03

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