The unbearably high price of “free”

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Using the word “free” in your marketing is a quick way to grab attention, but it’s also a double-edged sword that has stumbled many businesses.

June 13, 2021

5 minutes to read

Opinions expressed by Contractor the contributors are theirs.


One of the most powerful words in the English language is the term “free”. Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?

  • “Buy one get one free.”
  • “Get a free gift with purchase, valued at $ 499. “
  • “Get a free eye exam. “
  • “Try our membership for FREE.”
  • “Get FREE delivery”

It seems that almost all businesses use some sort of “free offer” in their marketing. So why is the term “free” used so liberally?

Because, frankly, it works – by appealing to our core human emotion of greed.

The word “free” has appeared in more advertisements than there are grains of sand on a beach. And it goes back to the genesis of advertising when giving away free samples was the best (and only) new way to get customers. So what makes “free” work so well? “

The free attracts attention. It makes people feel like they’re getting a lot. On a subconscious level, it also works the other way around – you feel like you’re missing out on something if you don’t get something for free.

But using the word “free” in your marketing can be a double-edged sword, especially if you don’t use it correctly.

Related Content: The 5 Triggers of Psychological Pricing

Is there a wrong way to use the term “free” in your marketing?

Absolutely. There are thousands of ways that using the term “free” in your marketing can trip you up, lower the value of your product or service, and cause irreparable damage to your brand.

Let me give you a real life example. One of our customers produced extremely high-end Italian-made leather shoes and bags for men. Their most famous pair of boots was selling for $ 3,500. Their most popular bag, a messenger-style laptop bag, sold for $ 950. The company’s former marketing agency told them the best way to double their boot sales would be to offer the messenger bag for free.

As far as the irresistible deals go, this is a pretty good deal, and it actually increased boot sales – in the short term. But it was a long-term strategic disaster because now they had conditioned their customers to expect the messenger bag to be free.

In other words, by offering it for free, they had completely devalued this product (remember it was the company’s best-selling bag.) Worse yet, by offering something of great perceived value for free, they had also damaged their own luxury brand. Why would people pay full price again?

The good news is that people have a short attention span, and with the right strategic backbone and the right message, you can erase the damage done by using “free”. But it takes time.

The same dangers apply when you start using discounts in your business. If you are offering discounts on your products, why would people pay full price? They’re just waiting for them to go on sale. When our Italian client came to see us, he had a no-fault brand and sales disaster on his part. Fortunately, we were able to get them out of their mess by repositioning their products and reinventing their brand, which resulted in them being bought out eighteen months later by a competitor.

Moral of the story: Using a free offer can be a slippery slope and should be used sparingly and with caution.

Related: The Price Is Right: How To Price Your Product For Long-Term Success

Before using “free” in your business, ask yourself:

  1. Does it have real value that we depend on for our income?
  2. By offering this item or service for free, will it negatively impact another related service or product (for example, if you are offering the first consultation for free and expect to be paid for all future consultations)?
  3. Why are we considering offering something for free? What else could we offer that would help us achieve the same result?

What if it wasn’t your business to use “free”, but your competition?

Now, if you’re on the other side of the fence and your competitor is offering something for free that you charge for, it’s time to take it up a notch.

Just because there is no money exchanged does not mean that it is not paid in some other way – for example, in wasted time, in great frustration, or in poor quality.

Think about the experience and quality of “free” health care compared to a private plan. Make these analogies in your marketing to establish your value in the minds of your customers.

“Free” is still a powerful word used to get attention in marketing. But handle it with extreme caution and don’t get sucked into using it to drive short-term sales at the expense of long-term growth.

Related: 3 Lessons On Setting Your Price Learned From A Vegas Hooker



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