The dream is simple: get your product in the hands of celebrities or “influencers,” and they create a ripple effect that skyrockets you to fame and fortune.
What if Kim Kardashian tweets about you?
What if Hugh Jackman wears your custom shirts on the red carpet?
What if a top blogger includes you in a top-10 list?
What if you got a mention on The Office or another primetime show?
Sadly, sampling to “stars” seldom works out.
People who move the needle get a TON of stuff sent to them. The pic below is just part of my mail, and I’m not even a real celeb! Blurb and blog promotion requests received in one day, with the exception of one book:
So…how do YOU break through the noise?
This guest post will teach you. It’s written by Marc Ecko, founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, a global fashion and lifestyle company. I wanted Marc to write this post because — in my opinion — he’s an expert at selling yourself without selling out. As CNBC put it, “Marc is living proof that you can be a marketing and business whiz and still be a true artist.”
Once a graffiti artist with no connections, Marc left the safety net of pharmacy school to start his own clothing company. Using hustle and creativity, he turned a $5,000 bag of cash into a global corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He created a lot of this success by repeatedly getting his products to impossible-to-reach icons (e.g. Spike Lee, Chuck D) and planning elaborate PR stunts (e.g. Air Force One graffiti hoax; buying Barry Bonds’ homerun record baseball and letting online votes determine its fate).
This post will explain his 10 rules — the do’s and don’ts — of his unique “swag bomb” approach to getting influencer attention. I agree with all of them.
Enjoy, replicate, and prosper…
ALSO: Marc will be answering questions in the comments, so leave your thoughts after the end of this post!
Enter Marc Ecko
Before Ecko was Ecko, it was just me, a suburban kid in New Jersey airbrushing stuff in my parents garage. In terms of hip hop, I was the quintessential outsider. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any connections. All I knew was that I was passionate about my art, and that I wanted to make a business out of it.
In other words, I was in the exact position that basically every entrepreneur, author, and creative person in the world starts in. I had to make a name for myself–I had to crack in. I could only think of one way: giving stuff away for free to people who would like it. Taking action.
Over the years I perfected this strategy, using it to launch and build countless brands from Ecko Unltd to G Unit to Cut & Sew, Complex and Zoo York. Ecko, alone, has done billions of dollars in revenue since those days in the garage twenty years ago. Our collaboration with George Lucas and the iconic Star Wars brand was a direct result of this strategy. I’ll go to my grave proud of the fact that George Lucas actually said–and this is a quote–“No one has made STAR WARS cooler than ECKO.”
A lot of people think that mailing samples is just that–throwing some crap in the mail and hope it works. Well, that couldn’t be more wrong. A Swag Bomb, properly executed, is a work of art. When done right can generate massive amounts of PR, connections and access.
When done improperly, it ends up here…in the pile of orphan books at the New York Times. Or worse, it ends up in the trash can or lays their unopened. You’ve worked too hard to let that happen, to throw that work away because you made some simple mistakes.
So let’s go back to that garage. I’ll show you how swag bombs were instrumental in building the Ecko brand and then the lessons I’ve learned–trust me, I made a lot of mistakes–along the way.
The first person I ever tried to send one to was Kool DJ Red Alert. Back then he was one of, if not the, most dominant DJs in hip-hop, and Rolling Stone magazine would name him as one of the fifty most influential people in music. Every weekend night, in an era before iTunes and Spotify, everyone listened to Red Alert on the New York radio station 98.7 Kiss-FM, the audio bible of hip-hop.
I couldn’t wait until his Friday-night show. Red was famous for doing shout- outs. I had no patience for waiting on hold and doing the dial-up thing, so I went to my strong suit of communication: my art. During his radio show, I camped out at the Kinko’s and straight-up spammed his fax machine with “Echo Airbrushing” promos. Black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations of MCs standing encircled in a rap cypher. Or images shot from the floor to the sky, showing MCs jumping across the stage. All the images were unapologetically self-promotion- al—self-referential—and clearly branded and signed “Echo.” (I actually have a photo of one of the hats still–check it out)
And then one Friday night I’m listening to 98.7 like always, drawing in my black book, and I hear something on the radio.
“I gotta shout out my man Echo for blessing me with this fly gear! Yo, he got the fresh airbrushed gear, the craze snapback hats! My man Echo Airbrushing, yeah, yeah, Big Up Lakewood, New Jersey, and my man Echo, artwork is crazy.”
The shout-out tasted good. I wanted more. I didn’t get complacent and didn’t let it fizzle as a one-shot thing; I had an instinctive grasp of the power of inertia, so I doubled down and sent him more.
I knew that I was on the verge of something. I knew because it felt authentic. I could sense that the timing was right and that I needed to take it to the next level.
I hope these rules–many of which I learned the hard way–will help you do the same with your own efforts.
TEN RULES FOR BUILDING A SWAG BOMB
1. Never Send Directly to Someone’s Home
I’ve had that happen. It’s fucking creepy. Everyone has a business address, and in this day and age, they’re sufficiently accessible. No one likes to feel like you’ve violated their personal space–and if you do that, that negative feeling is associated with your product, thus defeating the purpose.
Even creepier? Sending actual bombs. Look, I know it is a “swag bomb”, but there is no swag in sending unsolicited items to a personal address, particularly when the items are disguised to look like explosives.
For example, if you’re sending out a book (as I did; more on this shortly), don’t send them to reporter’s homes. That would be creepy. I sent mine to their office address, through my publisher, like normal people would do.
The same goes for email addresses. Don’t find every single email address the person has ever listed and blast them all at once. Don’t scour for the “private” or “personal” email because you think they don’t check the main one listed on their contact form. It makes you seem desperate–and weird. Find their public email and make your pitch. If you do it well, it will work. If it doesn’t, the problem is your pitch…not where you’re pitching it.
2. Never Expect Your Intended Audience to Even See It
So make it good enough that even if it gets to only his or her lieutenant—which will often be the case—you still make a material impact. In other words, if you’re in the t-shirt business, don’t send one shirt. Send an enormous box fill. Make the delivery a big event.
My friend Ryan Holiday did the marketing for American Apparel and instead of sending some small package, he sent a crate. One of the bloggers uploaded a video on YouTube and it did 125,000 views. That’s crazy. Look at Pepperidge Farms, which overnighted a box of “Milano” cookies to a blogger who wrote about the cookie. The act was memorable enough that the resulting post on reddit scored Pepperidge Farms over 500,000 new views and fans. But even if that had never gone public, it was still a cool way to hook a fan up–and all they would have been out was a couple bucks.
Me, I seeded my brand with the bona fide artists and instigators of pop culture. The motivation wasn’t as simple as “I hope they wear this”; it came from a desire to educate them, to land on their aesthetic radar, and to build a literacy of who I was and what I was trying to accomplish. So even if the package doesn’t go all the way to the top, it’s still making waves where it matters.
3. Never Send Just the Stock Shit
Think deeply about what you will send them, and work hard at customizing the content so that the end user will recognize this as an amazing, highly personalized gift. And it’s just that—a gift—so…never have expectations beyond giving a gift.
Back in the day, I could quote Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues backward and forward, so I sent Spike Lee some gear too. I heard he had a new movie out—a biopic of Malcolm X—so I sent him a sweatshirt with a meticulously painted portrait of Malcolm X on it. Personalization is crucial. I must have spent two days on that one.
Spike Lee graciously sent me a thank-you note—an actual signed letter from Spike! Fucking! Lee!—and that felt good. “Ya-dig? Sho-nuff.”
Take HBO sending custom bags to promote premiere of “Liberace”. They featured items tying into the biopic of excess living and luxury to relevant journalists. Custom Moet & Chandon bottle, engraved necklaces, the works. They went crazy over the top because that’s Liberace. Something stock wouldn’t have made any sense.
Another fun bit of inspiration. Remember Woot.com’s “bag of crap” deal? The reason it was so fun? Every once in awhile somebody’s bag would be full of cash. You can bet the internet blew up every time that happened. You can create that reaction with your own products too. You can blow people’s minds with a surprise every now and then.
4. Never Have Expectations, as It’s Just a Gift
The joy and purpose has to come from the confidence that you did it; you took action. Not everyone will acknowledge receipt. That’s okay. The point is the send out a lot of these–eventually you’ll get one or two big connections that subsidize all the misses. After all, I didn’t just send to Red Alert, but also Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Q-Tip. KRS-ONE. Essentially, I sent packages to all the cultural pioneers who inspired me.
For my book Unlabel, I hand-packed 15 Ecko-branded white shopping bags with red paper inside. Inside each was a big white Ecko branded watch, an Ecko fragrance, the super sweet wireless speaker that looks like a black spray paint can, plus Ecko earbuds. The reporters I sent them to were likely expecting a t-shirt (or just a book in a plain envelope and instead got a Swag Bomb that said Ecko was much more than that. Even though we invested a couple hundred dollars in the package, I’m not going to be upset if they don’t write about it.
A swag bomb is not a contract, there are no guarantees. Even when it is a $50,000 swag bag at the Oscars. It’s all about the hope that if you send the right stuff and hit the right chord, magic will happen.
5. Never Handwrite Your Marketing Materials
It’s one thing to send a handwritten cover note (preferably a 6” x 4.5” stock postcard) that’s less than twenty words. Fine. But it’s something else to send an all-handwritten business proposal that looks like it came from Son of Sam. I don’t care how legible your writing is. Type.
Don’t think of this as sending “fan mail.” This is a professionally produced, hyper-customized presentation. When you send me (or anyone) a solicitation of your idea, or your product, or the marketing materials of who you are and what you’re trying to sell, work backward from the experience of cracking open the box from its taped seal.
6. Never Use Second-Hand Packaging Materials
A used Trapper Keeper folder— with maybe a sticker over the dents so that you pass it off as new—ain’t cutting it. Why should I take your idea seriously if you’re not even willing to make a quick trip to Staples? Presentation is everything.
For example, early on I helped my best friend Cale (an aspiring R&B singer) get a meeting with Michael Bivins (Biv) with one of my jackets. Biv, a member of New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe, was the Simon Cowell of early-1990s R&B; he had a knack for discovering young talent, taking chances, and making stars out of nobodies like three Philly kids who became Boyz II Men.
We went all out. I made the jacket in the Blue Room of my garage, using a canvas of Swarovski crystals I had copped from a rummage store. Black, pewter, red, and clear. I bedazzled the hell out of that thing, one crystal at a time. Then, I tucked the cassette of my best friend Cale, along with a note, in the left chest pocket. That’s what we really wanted him to see.
Same goes if you’re more established–don’t just have the warehouse or your manufacturer (or Amazon.com) send some package on your behalf. Be legit, handle it like it’s a work of art. Someone complained to Old Spice recently, so they unsolicitedly hooked the guy up. But look how professional it looks–it wasn’t a couple sticks of deodorant in a box. It looks legit–like they actually care.
7. Never Stalk
If you have a phone number or email of an executive assistant, fine, it’s okay to call once in advance and then again once in confirmation of receipt. (You can also send it with a certified receipt, so you know who signed for it, and when.) But don’t call repeatedly like some psycho. Not cool.
Look at all the gift bags they give out at SXSW each year. Can you imagine if taking one was an implicit contract with the companies to follow you on social media or beg you for favors? It’d be a nightmare. People would be afraid that taking a t-shirt was akin to signing your life away.
Treat handlers (assistant, publicist, manager, associate) with respect. Not only is this the right thing to do, but this could be the hand of the king—and they’ll later whisper into the king’s ear.
In fact, after you confirm the receipt, consider the ball to be in their court. Don’t do anything until they make the next move. Got it?
8. Never Forget to Include Your Name, Email, and Phone Number
Don’t presume that anyone is going to read a long letter. If the visual impact and the overall wraparound isn’t there, you’re dead. So make sure it looks good, feels good, and that it emotes your goals. And make it as clear as the sun who sent it. God-forbid you make a connection and then they don’t know what to do about it.
After we gave the jacket to Biv, we sat on pins and needles waiting. At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rang.
“Yo, is this Marc? This is Biv.” Biv’s signature gravelly voice.
“Hi, um, yeah, this is . . .” I tried to remember my name.
“I want to hook up with your man Cale. Tell him to be at the Sheraton in Red Bank in thirty minutes.”
Three thirty am. Cale didn’t chicken out. Cale jumped on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cale took action. Two weeks later, Biv signed Cale to his newly formed imprint on Motown Records called Biv 10 Records.
When you get, The Call, be ready to go. No matter the time of day.
9. Never Send a Picture of Yourself Fan-Boying Out
Again, creepy. Let the content and the high concept speak for you. Don’t send some weird headshot.
Don’t be the guys and girls in these photos. Don’t! Look how miserable (but patient) the celebs are. But that would immediately stop if the people followed up with “Now let me tell you about my awesome business idea.” That chance was blown.
If there ever was someone to fanboy over in my personal life, it was George Lucas. However, instead of sending strange photos of my star wars collection, I waited until I was near Lucas, and casually showed him my geeked-out Yoda BlackBerry case I had personally made, and we instantly had a good vibe. There is a time and place for fanboy-dom, and pre-pitch isn’t it. (Here I am with George–see how calm I am being? It was hard but I made it.)
10. Never Gush
Notable figures don’t like being fawned over. Be careful to whom you say—and how often you say— “I love you.” (Good rule for life in general.) Don’t tell them, “You are my idol.” Speak matter-of-factly, and acknowledge the traits or practices that you respect and admire.
When Barry Sanders scored a touchdown, he would casually toss the football back to the ref, shrugging, and living by the credo “Act like you’ve been there before.” That should be you.
Leave the gushing to them. After all, if you do it right, they’ll be so grateful or impressed by the gift that they’ll give you the treatment.
There is one reality every entrepreneur has to face. You’re always pitching. You never stop auditioning. Even for Spike, even Mark Zuckerberg, even for the president.
The Swag Bomb is part of that. Get your stuff–because it’s great–in the hands of as many important people as you can. Sweat and bleed and innovate to make that happen.
An authentic personal brand is more than just an idea. It’s not static. It’s not enough to say I have a brilliant idea and then lock it in your laptop. And it’s not enough to just talk about it, tweet about it, blog about it. Talk is cheap. An authentic, unique voice is a doer.
You will always keep pitching, and you will always have to deal with rejections. This doesn’t mean you should give up; it means you’re human and you have a pulse.
It’s tough to find famous examples of companies, artists, or individuals who didn’t get there in some way with excellent presentation and artistry in bringing in important early influencers and adopts.
The more telling example is the thousands of companies and millions of people you haven’t heard of: the artists, entrepreneurs, creators, and would-be instigators who talked a good game but never put themselves or there or did the work to get noticed.
Afterword by Tim
The “Swag Bomb” approach has many applications. Instead of customization, you can choose a unique venue, as I did when I gave away 500+ copies of The 4-Hour Chef at a TechCrunch Disrupt event, knowing that bloggers and other media would be there. It was unexpected, and the copies disappeared within hours, leading to tons of social media chatter when it mattered (during launch).
Last but not least, it often pays to NOT go for the most popular celebs, Twitter accounts, or otherwise. Remember the bar scene in A Beautiful Mind? On a 1-10 scale, 10 being the most trafficked, three or four 7 bloggers featuring you is far better — and easier/faster to achieve — than you obsessing over landing one 10 blogger.
For more tips and tricks for how to jump from niche to mega-mainstream, I highly recommend you check out Marc’s first book, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out.
Marc will also be answering questions in the comments, so please share your questions below! If you have any sample-sending success stories of your own, I’d love to hear them.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.