Protect your high ground

What makes advertising a defensive marketing strategy and an insurance policy, and how to make placement decisions that will last now and beyond.


Paid advertising is something I’m questioned about on a regular basis. It’s also a slice of many marketing strategies that is often wholly misunderstood. Advertising, and the effect it has on your target customer, has changed a lot during the past 20 to 30 years. It used to be that you could build a new brand from scratch with good paid advertising campaigns. You could influence consumer decision making, change minds and bring on new customers with your advertising dollars. You may have noticed that it often doesn’t work that way anymore. These days, in an immensely crowded and media-saturated marketplace, paid advertising has evolved into a way to defend your high ground after you’ve already captured it using other marketing tactics. Rather than thinking of paid advertising as an aggressive strategy, you need to think about it as a defensive one.

Take the hill

Employing successful marketing and advertising strategies in our industry does kind of feel like a battle these days. So, as any good army brat is prone to do, I’ll break this down for you in military terms: You have to take the hill first, before you can occupy it and use it to your strategic advantage. There used to be lots of unoccupied hills; you could take your pick and move right in with ease to grow your territory. In the theater of battle that is today’s marketplace, most of the hills are already occupied territory. Frontal assault on the hill (paid advertising) probably won’t do you any good; the other occupants have the high ground advantage over you. You’re going to have to be a bit stealthier about how you find cracks in their defense so you can move into a better position.

Good marketing tactics are how you break through and take the hill. They are like your special ops forces. They will get the necessary groundwork done for you so that you gain ground you actually want to defend.

Feet first

To keep my military analogy going, I like to classify advertising as your Fourth Point of Contact. While this phrase basically, and often crassly, is used to describe one’s rear-end, it technically refers to the order in which you need to land for a successful parachute drop. The first three landing points in order are feet, calves, and back of the thigh. Landing rump-first probably isn’t going to work out too well for you. Expecting great results from putting paid advertising before core marketing effort likely won’t either.


First, you need to clarify your identity and brand. If you don’t have a keen sense of exactly who you are as a business and what benefits you have to offer, you can’t expect customers to spend the time to figure it out on their own.

Good branding will include a “strategery:” needed and wanted products and services, clear messaging and promises about your company, products, services and benefits, and well-designed visuals like a great logo, a contemporary website, product packaging, uniforms, etc.

Then, deliver on your brand’s promise with the customers you already have. Simply put, you need to meet and exceed customers’ expectations so that word-of-mouth referrals become the central source of new customer acquisitions for you.

Develop and deepen your relationships with your customers via (again) a modern and useful website, email, loyal-to-your-customer programs, social media, events and more.


You’ll need to engage in PR efforts in your community; plus develop strategic vendor and professional relationships in your market area and identify cross-marketing opportunities.

And you need to establish yourself as the expert in your field of competition through tactics such as education opportunities, public speaking and content marketing.

Realize we now operate in a give-before-you-get marketplace. Paid advertising isn’t exactly what anyone would consider a gift.

Keep the hill

After you’ve deployed your special forces and captured the hill and high ground you want, you have to adequately defend it in order to keep it. This is where paid advertising comes into play. Once you’ve created an actual reputation that reflects the promise of your brand, then you get to advertise it in order to reinforce it and stay on people’s minds. Paid advertising can also help you maintain an expanding share of voice in your marketplace. Studies show that as long as your share of voice is larger than your current share of the market, you can continue to capture new ground. Out of sight, or earshot, out of mind is a real consequence of failing to defend your market position.

I already have a hill

So you say you already have the brand, reputation, customers and market share you want. Good on ya. Now, how do you plan to keep it? All of the marketing tactics I mentioned above will need to be a non-negotiable part of your ongoing sales strategy. If you stop marketing, you’re going to lose customers. Customer replenishment is a need every business has to acknowledge and work at all of the time. A few key and smartly placed ad campaigns could be just what you need to hold your existing ground and keep your existing customers sending you new ones.

What’s my ROI?

Sorry, can’t and won’t try to answer this one for you. That’s because trying to get a 1 for 1-plus dollar return on a paid advertising campaign today is almost futile, in my experience. If advertising is a defensive strategy, then it’s really more of an insurance policy than an investment, per se. You’re better off working to evaluate and monetize the direct results of your core marketing efforts than you are paid advertising campaigns.

The long-game

Too often, a client will agree to a paid advertising campaign in a good target media outlet, only to limit their run to an absurdly short cycle (say six weeks to three months), or pull out before their contract is up the second they feel like they haven’t “gotten enough calls from it.” That’s not how you should be using paid advertising or reacting to its perceived results, or lack thereof. If paid advertising is really an insurance policy, is six weeks of coverage really adequate to hold your ground indefinitely? Probably not, but it probably is a big waste of money.

Narrow your target

I typically advise steering away from choosing large media outlets that hit a broad audience. Big media outlets might work well for big brands, but not always for the little guys. Just because the city newspaper or popular local radio station has a huge audience, that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful paying for advertising with them. Remember, most of us in the green industry are running niche businesses. Diversifying across strategically chosen outlets may be a better strategy.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, digital content marketing, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies.

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