Imminent Death? Or Ultimate Growth Hack?

When people want examples of amazing growth hacks, they usually reference tech companies. Some of the canonical growth hacking stories come from Airbnb, Dropbox, and the classic example of Hotmail adding “Get your free email at Hotmail” tagline to the end of every email.

Sure, those are all good examples of growth hacking, but I’ve begun wondering why growth hacking only gets associated with tech companies. I’d argue some of the best growth hacks come from non-tech companies.

In today’s post, I want to offer an example based on an experience I recently had with Lexus.

I’ve owned a Lexus for eight years.

Every month for the majority of those eight years, I’ve received a glossy postcard with a picture of a shiny new Lexus and incentives meant to entice me into my local dealership for a test drive of their latest models.

Every month, for the past eight years, I’ve tossed those postcards into the trash recycle bin without a second glance.

However, about six months ago, I began receiving thick envelopes from Lexus with “URGENT SAFETY NOTICE” stamped on their fronts and postcards with giant red exclamation points.

The messages were related to a massive Takata airbag recall that’s been ongoing for the better part of a decade.

What struck me as odd about these recall notices was how persistent they were. Usually companies don’t want to encourage consumers to take action on recalls because the repairs cost them lots of money. But not this time. The more I ignored the letters, the more I felt like Vernon Dursley trying to stop Harry Potter from getting his Hogwarts invitation.

That’s right… I made a Harry Potter reference… I’m not ashamed.

Anyway, I eventually decided: “Clearly I’m going to die if I don’t get this fixed,” so I called my local Lexus dealership and scheduled an appointment.

Within a week, my “Lexus service concierge” was showing me how to work the nav console of a brand new, “complimentary” loaner car while explaining that my spouse is “allowed” to drive the car so long as we’re on the same insurance. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure why my spouse would need to drive this car in the next five hours while you fix mine, but whatever.”

A few hours later, I’m grading papers and waiting for the dealership to call when my wife comes home. She sees the shiny new Lexus in our garage and immediately asks: “Can I take it for a drive?”

In that moment, everything became clear. I was being growth hacked.

Lexus was using the recall — threatening me with the potential for serious injury or even death — in order to get me into the dealership for a test drive.

It worked. Plus, not only did they get me, they even got my wife whose lease is ending in the next few months.

No, I wasn’t mad. I was wildly impressed.

As someone who’s spent the past 15 years in the sales and marketing industries, I’m usually pretty good at sniffing out sneaky sales tactics, but I completely whiffed on this one.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t expecting Lexus to use the potential for death to get me in for a test drive, and, as a result, it worked perfectly.

In retrospect, the tactic makes a ton of sense. While someone can easily ignore a bunch of postcards with pictures of new cars, they’re going to have trouble ignoring the constant threat of death.

By sending dozens of letters convincing me I needed to get my car fixed as soon as possible, Lexus also guarantee I’d test drive a brand new car. The tiny cost of the repair was easily outweighed by my potential value since I’m someone who’s already bought one of their cars and they know my car is getting old.

If you don’t believe their tactics were intentional, how’s this for proof…

When I picked up my car later that afternoon, on the passenger seat I found a letter from the dealership with a faux-check representing the value they were willing to give me on a trade-in for a new Lexus. #GrowthHacked

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I teach in Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program and founded RocketBolt. I write about startups, pedagogy, entrepreneurship, engineering, and poetry. They’re all related, I promise.

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