Mahesh Murthy at Social Media Week Mumbai 2014

Winners Have a Product Strategy, Losers Have a Social Media Strategy – boom! With that title, Mahesh Murthy, co-founder SeedFund and keynote speaker on Day One of Social Media Week Mumbai, quietly but firmly proceeded to demolish some antiquated notions about the role that social media could play in a brand’s success story. What to do instead of chasing likes and views? Focus on your product. Slash that advertising budget and divert the money towards building a truly top quality product. Let the word of mouth bring in your views, likes, sales and all round good karma that translates into even more views, likes and sales. I’m paraphrasing, of course. He didn’t say anything about good karma.

Mr. Murthy presented the ‘Build It Good And They Will Come’ model as a more rewarding option for brands and entrepreneurs. He supported his theory by giving the examples of three brands who have ruled market share without advertising or social media presence or both. Example No. 1: Apple (no social media presence), No. 2: Zara (no advertising or social media presence really), No. 3: Red Bull (no advertising). There is no doubt about the absolute Behemoth Status of all three brands. It is indisputable, so let’s just put a pin in it and move on.

What got us thinking after we left the presentation was the idea that these brands do not rely on advertising or social media to engage with customers. How on earth was this possible? (Or in Red Bull’s case, on earth and in space – more on that later.)

So I did a little digging – not because I doubt Mr. Murthy’s experience and expertise but because I’m cynical – if you tell me my product and company will live and die based on the general public’s ability to recognize good quality, consume it and spread the word, you have frozen my blood cold with fear.

Here’s what I found.


Close to zero official social media presence? True. No advertising? Not true.

Sure, you won’t find billboards with shiny iMacs on them and you won’t find Apple’s zillion loyalists engaging with each other in a community on an official Apple Facebook or Twitter account.

What you will find is ads like these, dating back to 1984 and people discussing and sharing ads like these on their own Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Apple’s first Macintosh commercial

Apple Silhouette Campaign

Be a Mac

I mean come on, they literally gave the PC an uncool physical presence. The word of mouth on those was great for them, especially since they put the words in your mouth. That is not not advertising, that is high school all over again. “Oh you have a PC, you’re so uncool! All the cool kids have Macs.” Yech.

Red Bull

I have to disclose here that I am an alumnus of the incredible Red Bull Music Academy, a program where 60 musicians from around the world are selected each year through an intensive application process to attend a two-week workshop in a different city. It is a musician’s dream. All you do is play music, attend talks, watch concerts and absorb an incredibly kinetic vibe for two weeks straight – you’re buzzing all the time from the amazing energy and this is before you’ve had a drop of Red Bull. I am a Red Bull fan for life because of what that experience means to me.

Disclosure done, now moving on to their lack of advertising.

Red Bull has no ads to sell you what is inside those little blue and silver cans. Actually, wait, not entirely true:

But that’s just one cute animation (and part of a short series). That’s pocket change in advertising budgets.

The real conversation with its audience happens not off a billboard but in communities – the two biggest being adventure sports and music. A Red Bull event is exciting, impeccably organized and always pushing the boundaries. They don’t cut corners and they have some of the best ideas I’ve ever seen in terms of content.

Check out these amazing music documentaries:

RBMA presents Diggin’ In The Carts

What Difference Does It Make?

Oh, is Earth too old-fashioned for you? How about a space jump instead? Like in actual space.


It is 100% true that they have no traditional advertising. You won’t open a magazine and find a willowy model staring back at you in Zara’s latest collection. Mainly because by the time the magazine gets to you, that collection will be outdated in Zara terms – new designs are added to the store every week. Fast-fashion is their USP and an ad in a magazine or a billboard or on TV isn’t going to cut it.

What is perfect for them is social media and they use it in these ways:

Maybe you have to be a relatively carefree teenage girl/young woman to truly understand this but it is ridiculously satisfying and rewarding to just spend hours going through a well put together ‘lookbook’ – that time suck of a webpage where looks are put together from a collection in various combinations. “This jacket with those pants or that skirt? Or that crop top? Or both!” It’s like reaching inside a woman’s multiple-choice-loving fashion mind and having it come to life. It’s better than an ad; it’s like the fun of trying clothes on in a changing room with your best friend/sister without the hassle of long lines, grumpy attendants, or a limit on how many garments you can take inside.

The ‘People!’ Campaign
You know what people like more than looking at lookbooks? Looking at themselves on the Zara site in Zara clothes. This way you get to be as cool as the lookbook people. In 2011, Zara launched the People! Campaign where users could sign up and upload photos of themselves wearing two items from Zara’s collection. If the photo was published on the Zara site, the user won 300 euros. You didn’t have to be a Person looking at a Zara ad in a magazine, you could be a Person! featured on their site. Social media for the win!

You don’t sell 90 crores worth of product (this is the number that Mr. Murthy shared as being the business that the Zara store in Palladium does, annually) based on product alone.

Ah yes, the product. Fast-fashion (New designs! Changes every week!) creates urgency, creates desire to shop, creates sale? I think it’s more like, “Say what?! I can get this homage-to-Céline, Balmain-inspired jacket, or something that looks like haute couture for only 3000 rupees!? Yay!”

Is the product that good that it needs no advertising and relies on itself to keep customers coming back? Depends on what you consider to be ‘good’. Nice looking clothes? Sure, Zara and other fast-fashion stores like it absolutely fulfill that requirement. Clothes that last? I don’t know, you tell me. Or read what NPR has to say.

Does that matter though if you’re so wildly successful? No, it doesn’t. You’re giving the people what they want and they are coming back for more. That is the very definition of success in a business. But let’s not pretend that product and its inherent top-notch quality is all it has to do with.

What Apple, Zara and Red Bull have in common, more than that they don’t advertise, is the fact that they promote a lifestyle. They promote it in non-traditional ways, and that promotion requires a budget. Let’s not kid ourselves about that either.

The question is not whether to advertise or not, the question has become: What is advertising. Re-examine the very definition of advertising and understand the role social media plays in this.

If we’re going to start drawing hard lines between what is advertising and what is actually marketing so therefore not advertising, I’ll throw in the towel right now.

But if “why don’t they make a better shampoo instead of spending crores on pushing the same product/different bottle” is the argument you have, I think we can discuss this deeper.

I wasted a lot of time (goodbye to my entire 20s!) believing that the world really was a meritocracy, and good products/services would get their due. I still believe that if they’re good, they probably will succeed, but I know now that it takes more than a little help getting the word out to people. What role social media can play in that is revealing itself in new ways every day.

Oh, and also, Apple recently hired Musa Tariq, former social media chief at Nike and Burberry, as Digital Marketing Director. Make of that what you will.