Learning marketing from Underpants Gnomes

Learning Marketing From Underpants Gnomes


Phase 1: Collect underpants

In 1998, almost 25 years ago, the now classic Season 2 South Park episode ‘Gnomes’ aired. In this episode, the boys spend the night at the Tweek’s (the new kid’s) house. During the night, they encounter gnomes who steal Tweak’s underpants. Later in the episode, the boys visit the gnomes in their headquarters, where the gnomes give them an explanation for why they are stealing underpants. They start a presentation and demonstrate how it’s a crucial part of their 3-phase bulletproof plan:

  • Phase 1: Collect underpants
  • Phase 2: ?
  • Phase 3: Profit

The first time I saw this episode, I was quite young and I already thought it was hilarious – mostly because I found the concept of gnomes stealing underpants to be utterly ludicrous. Now that I’m a bit older and have more business experience, I find this episode even funnier. Finally, I can understand and appreciate all the episode’s nuances. And I’m definitely not the only one who’s quite fond of the episode. ‘Gnomes’ had a huge cultural impact. It has become a popular meme that can often be seen online.

This episode is often mentioned as an example of poorly thought-out business ideas, drawing comparisons to real-life company decisions.

Such a reception doesn’t surprise me, since the episode is very relatable. I’ve heard of similar business plans before. And as long as there’s humanity, there will be people who come up with big ideas but don’t develop the second phase of their business ideas, instead concentrating on the profit part. 

Phase 2: ?

Nowadays it seems as if we’re hearing more and more business plans with a ‘?’ second phase. The internet, the prevalence of social media networks, and mobility have made it simple for people worldwide to connect and share their ideas. However, with such steep competition, it has become really important to properly define what the second phase of your plan is. Ideas come a dime a dozen, while success, unfortunately, does not.

It’s hard to give a blanket definition of what ‘?’ should actually be. It should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s clear that to succeed in business it’s not enough to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Otherwise, the gnomes would be successful as well. After all, they do know what they are doing – they are collecting underpants, and they do know why they’re doing it – they want to accumulate profit. And they are still ridiculed. 

Therefore the second phase of any idea can be many different things – vision, monetization, development, learning, experimenting, etc. The more important part is that this step exists and is thought out. That step can, of course, be marketing.

Phase 3: Profit

Modern marketing should both precede and follow production. When done right, it gives businesses insight into what services to offer and what products to develop. It’s a powerful tool that can help define the second phase of an idea. Of course, you can always learn from your mistakes by devising several plans with ‘?’ steps, but if possible, it’s better to avoid such a learning curve. Try to save yourself a lot of time and money.

The goal of marketing isn’t to suddenly make every ridiculous idea profitable – even if that does happen sometimes (*cough* NFTs *cough*). In the context of a 3-phase plan, marketing’s role is to aid you in answering questions like:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • Where and how are you going to promote your product/service?
  • What is your unique selling proposition?
  • What do you do better than your competition?
  • How are you going to monetize your product/service?
  • How are you going to allocate your budget?
  • Etc.

In short, marketing defines what ‘?’ is and makes you achieve profit. Using proper marketing tools will give you an edge over gnomes that blindly fixate on the profit part of their plan.

That said, I’d still kill to get underpants gnomes as my client. I think we could do amazing things together. 

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