The camel’s nose marketing strategy

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By Francis Moran

There’s an old Bedouin metaphor I love that says you should never let a camel get his nose inside your tent. The metaphor alludes to the reality that many small, seemingly harmless situations ought to be prevented whilst it is still easy to do so for fear they become very large and unwieldy situations. For wherever the camel’s nose goes, the camel is sure to follow and, once completely inside your tent, is an awful lot harder to dislodge.

For small technology companies whose product supplants larger and more established competitors, however, a camel’s nose strategy can be highly effective. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

I met with a great little Waterloo, Ontario, company week before last. The CEO told me that some recent publicity around his company had attracted the attention of a couple of very large enterprises, companies the size of which had not been part of his immediate game plan partly because they were already being served by large, well-established vendors and partly because his little company was not quite ready yet to scale to the size that such large customers would require. But nor did he want to pass up the opportunity to showcase his capabilities with such large and promising accounts.

The solution he was pursuing was to position his company as offering a high-value but quite small add-on that would allow these customers to better calculate the higher return on the investment they were already making with their large, established vendors. We hope to eventually displace the incumbents, the CEO told me, but we don’t want to go head to head with them just yet because they’d kill us.

“Brilliant,” I said. “You’re using a camel’s nose strategy.” He looked quizzical, so I explained. Your approach, I said, is to insinuate just a small and seemingly harmless bit of your full capability into the customer’s environment. Even if your competitor notices, they probably won’t see any harm in what you’re doing; indeed, they might even welcome the added impact your little offering adds to theirs. “You’ve stuck your nose into the tent occupied by your competitor,” I said. “Done properly, it’s only a matter of time before you’re wholly inside the tent and your competitor is out on the sand wondering what happened.”

It’s a strategy I’d encourage many new technology ventures to consider. Is there some subset of your whole product offering that constitutes a non-threatening, even complementary, add-on to what your customers’ established vendors already offer? If your prospect buys this initial product offering, what’s the path by which you’re going to gradually get more and more of your product set on board?

I’d love to hear some more examples. What was your camel’s nose strategy, and how well did it work?

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