3 min read

Potatoes and the lure of exclusivity

Potatoes and the lure of exclusivity
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM / Unsplash

Ah, the humble potato. Delicious. So satisfying. Plain, yet full of potential and opportunities - but if you never thought we could learn a marketing lesson from the humble spud, think again.

This is the story of how a potato pioneered one of the most popular tactics to get people to convert.

In the 18th century, King Frederick the Great ruled over the kingdom of Prussia - a rich, sprawling land which included parts of present-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

King Frederick - or Fritz, to his pals - was a just and friendly king, who only wanted the best for his people. Prussia had rich soil, but the population was growing - and traditional grains were tricky to get right. Bread was running out: Fritz had to find an alternative menu.

Enter the potato.

A couple of centuries before, Columbus had sailed to the Americas and brought back a host of interesting new plants, including these root vegetables. The potato craze was catching on in some parts of Europe, but many peasants didn’t want to eat them. Word had quickly spread that the green parts were poisonous, and - as they hadn’t tried frying them yet - the taste was pretty bland.

The grain fields yielded less and less harvest each year. Prussia was nearing crisis: so, the King tried simply ordering the peasants to plant potatoes. They refused.

Then, Fritz hatched a plan - and the technique is still in use across internet marketing today.

King Frederick planted his own little field of potatoes, and ordered the royal guard to protect it, day and night. He issued an edict that no peasant should even dare try and touch the royal potatoes - they were exclusively meant for noble dining tables.

Of course, the peasants ‘broke into’ the royal potato field - the guards were only pretending to guard it - and stole the exclusive royal food for themselves.

As soon as they saw the potatoes were special, they wanted them.

This tactic is known in some circles as ‘velvet rope marketing’ - putting up a barrier, pretend or not, to create an atmosphere of exclusivity.

People have loved to collect rare, shiny things since the dawn of time. Who doesn’t want to feel better, richer and more important than others? But when we can’t afford a millionaire lifestyle, it becomes all about the little things.

Want some ways to use exclusivity in your marketing? Here’s four ways you can incorporate exclusivity into your next offer:

  • Create a private group or membership. Setting up a Facebook group around your product or service will not only let customers get support, ask questions and feel connected - they’ll feel part of a special club as well.
  • Wait lists/pre-order lists. When it’s first come first serve, people go nuts. We all want the shiny thing before anyone else.
  • Time-sensitive offers. If you give people a deadline, they’ll want to grab it up while they still can. But don’t be one of those people who writes ‘hurry, time is running out!’ then keep taking orders after the deadline. That’s just a douche move.
  • Qualifying prospects. This is a powerful tactic. By simply stating who your product or service is not for, your readers will identify with corresponding positive traits. For example, you could say your course isn’t for people who aren’t willing to put in the effort. We all want to seem hardworking, right?

Remember, exclusivity is all about making your customers feel part of something special. Spotify used exclusivity to promote its launch - and gained a massive following as a result. In its early days, users needed an invitation from someone already ‘on the inside’ to access its free service, or pay a monthly subscription. This allowed Spotify to manage the influx of new users, and sell more paid memberships.

Mailbox, a free email management app which was shut down in February 2016, used exclusivity combined with social proof to add new users to a ‘waiting list’. When you signed up, you were shown your number in the virtual queue, and could see how many people were in front of you. Many users checked back just to see the counter move, and the tactic was incredibly successful, with over 650,000 people in the queue at one point.

Have you used any of these ideas in your marketing? How did it work out for you? Or do you just really like potatoes? Let me know in the comments below!


This post is one I wrote several years ago, so it may not be the same kind of content you experience on the rest of this site. I'm posting it here as an archive, and to refer back to if I need.