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  • Angela Dobbie

Leading a Horse to Water: What Marketing Can (and Can't) Do

Leading horses along the creek edge.

Since we first opened for business nearly a year ago we've had the pleasure of working with many different clients in a wide-range of industries and business types, including B2B, B2C and E-Commerce. As honesty and integrity are among our core values, we were careful right from the start not to make false promises to our clients about the capabilities of marketing.

There's no end to the digital marketing companies and do-it-yourself platforms that promise "guaranteed results" and are supposed to work for everyone and everything. But despite the endless number of agencies and marketing solutions available, we have maintained from the outset that each business service and product offering is unique, so one size does not, in fact, fit all.

Our approach to marketing has been to adopt more of a "Goldilocks" philosophy - a unique combination of creative elements, platforms, messaging and overarching brand strategy that is customized to suit the individual business is the best approach to getting things "just right".

Trying to get your horse to drink from a bucket.

But even with this Goldilocks philosophy, we've observed there are still limits to what marketing can do for a business. And the analogy that keeps coming to mind - and one we find ourselves quoting to customers from time to time - is that even though you can lead a horse to water, sometimes you just can't make him drink.

With this analogy in mind, we thought we'd offer a small reality check to remind other small business owners what marketing can (and can't) do.

What Marketing Can Do

Consider you're a farmer, stable owner, or rancher who specializes in offering water troughs to local horses for their drinking pleasure. You're fairly new in the local community and want to get the word out about your troughs, so you consider putting together a marketing strategy. Here are some of the things that marketing can do to help:

  • Marketing can help you identify thirsty horses and those who are most likely to drink.

  • Marketing can help you find the thirsty horses.

  • Marketing can help you tell the thirsty horses that you have a water trough.

  • Marketing can help you make your water trough sound and look irresistible to a thirsty horse by transforming it into a bucket, a tub, or a "cool pool of thirst delight".

  • Marketing can help you give thirsty horses directions on where to find your water trough.

  • Marketing can help you fill the trough with "custom" water that offers the exact features that thirsty horses really value and seek out.

  • Marketing can help you set a reasonable price for allowing horses to drink at your trough.

  • Marketing can help you establish yourself as the foremost authority in the water trough industry.

  • Marketing can help you establish yourself as having the best water trough and water drinking opportunities in the region.

  • Marketing can help you determine whether the horses that drank at your trough had a satisfying drink and will be likely to return for another.

What Marketing Can't Do

But with all of these things that marketing can do, you have to realize that even thirsty horses may still elect not to drink. And that's something marketing can't do; marketing can't force a result from a free-thinking being, especially when spending money is a factor.

While your marketing plan may have done all the things on the list above, the ultimate decision on whether or not a thirsty horse will become a paying customer all boils down to the horse's free will.

Factors That Impact Marketing Results

Based on twenty years of professional experience riding and taking care of horses, I've made some educated observations as to why a thirsty horse may not take a drink from your trough:

Looking a gift horse in the mouth.
  • A horse won't drink if they feel it's a trap. Even a thirsty horse won't relax and drink unless he trusts the environment and the source.

  • A horse won't drink if the water's not quite right - the right colour, smell, temperature, etc. If it doesn't pass the sniff test, the horse won't drink.

  • A horse may not drink if it's the first time they've seen the trough.

  • A horse may not drink if it's not thirsty enough yet. But in all likelihood, the horse will remember there was a good water source close by and will return later when it is thirsty enough.

  • A horse may not drink from your trough it there's another one close by that looks or "feels" better.

  • A horse may not drink from your trough if the rest of the herd is drinking somewhere else.

  • A horse may not have a drink if all they're really after is a little "free" sip.

So even with all the things marketing can do to find thirsty horses and draw them to your irresistible trough, you should be prepared to have an honest and reasonable expectation that not all of them will drink. The good news is that marketing can help you address the reasons why horses may not be drinking at your trough and can help you convince them that they should.

If you need help creating your marketing strategy, send us a note - we'd be happy to lend a hand!

Pictured below: Trillium DMC's founder and Managing Director, Angela Dobbie, spent her formative teen years "bumming around local stables" learning to ride and take care of horses. This eventually led to her becoming a professional horse trainer, coach, and manager of her own 20-stall equestrian facility on the Saanich Peninsula.

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