3 small business marketing strategy lessons from Bob’s Burgers

July 9, 2021

In "Easy Com-Mercial, Easy Go-Mercial," Bob Belcher's local Superbowl ad gone terribly wrong is a powerful cautionary tale for small business owners.

“Well, we already bought the air time. We gotta air something.” -Linda Belcher

“Easy Com-Mercial, Easy Go-Mercial” is not even in my top 20 favorite episodes of Bob’s Burgers. 

It rehashes a very repetitive storyline of the show -- Bob, who runs a burger joint, hates his across-the-street, richer, mean competitor, Jimmy Pesto. 

However, that may be why I think it doubles as an effective lesson for small teams with haphazard marketing strategies. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Bob’s insanity is imagining that chasing his competitor’s strategy AS a marketing strategy will work ...THIS TIME. 

I will spoil this for you: 

It does not.

I won’t bore you with a lengthy summary of the episode, which you can read here, but know that the main premise is that Bob dumps $3000 of his savings into a local Superbowl ad to compete against Jimmy’s foot traffic, sells out his family’s creative ideas to make a commercial with a celebrity, who Jimmy then just steals from Bob and copies anyway, making Bob’s investment essentially meaningless. It’s more tragedy than comedy.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, I do want to call attention to the economic context of the story. The Belchers are frequently on the cusp of financial ruin which is, on the surface, caused by Bob’s impulsive and poorly thought-through business decisions. His lack of judgment aside, make no mistake: Bob’s Burgers is a show about class, and how nigh-impossible it is for a working-class family to make ends meet within capitalism’s game, even when following the entrepreneurship pull-up-on-yer-bootstraps playbook. Or at least that’s my Marxist Lite read.

The show does a better job than any sitcom I’ve seen at painting the thin dotted line between being lower-middle-class and being poor, albeit with a precise cartoon brush. One memorable episode about Bob and his landlord’s other tenants being forced to play a bizarre game in order to win a month of free rent comes to mind. (That one makes the top 20 for sure.)

This is worth mentioning because his financial situation mirrors that of many small business owners’ today: COVID-19 put many businesses like Bob’s in a dangerous amount of red, and though government aid has been skimpy, there’s no lack of people looking to take advantage of these entrepreneurs in a bind to make a buck for themselves. 

What happens in this cartoon happens to a lot of people. I watch it as a cautionary tale, and encourage you to, too.

Lesson #1: Wanting to be on TV is not a marketing strategy

In an irony I deeply appreciate, Bob sees the idea of local Superbowl air time on a billboard. In a moment of vulnerability and vengeance (he’s at a stoplight on the way home from the store, talking to a zucchini about how he wants to kill Jimmy, which is kind of a normal day for Bob) he gets smacked with a convincing advertisement about advertising. He immediately gets swept away by the concept of being splashed all over Jimmy Pesto’s big flat-screen TVs.

This is a common emotional response to the lure of traditional advertising. I call this the star-eyes-emoji (🤩) reaction. Your inner child says, yes please I want to be on TV, before your brain has time to check in with said inner child and whether or not, you know, that inner child feels like paying rent this month. Or eating. Or going on vacation. You get it.

Not only is traditional advertising pleasant to the ego, but its tug, especially on many people without advanced marketing savvy, is compelling, because often times it’s the only tangible marketing example on the top of one’s mind. And who could blame ya! It’s easy to categorize search engine optimization as a website designer’s one-and-done job, and also easy to feel accomplished when pouring money into something like a radio ad. It feels finite, grandiose, and effective, simply because it reminds you of that thing you saw or heard that one time that looked cool. 

I don’t say this to be dismissive -- this is some real-ass buyer psychology being played on you, at a B2B scale. Why scam people door-to-door with faulty vacuums when you could prey on an independent retail brand with a wishy-washy pitch promising “impressions”?

Traditional advertising is like a Hail Mary, in that it only actually works in movies. In reality, you have just flushed a lot of money down a traditional media toilet for “views” that you’ll never be able to recapture again. You don’t even have their email addresses, you pauper! And you can’t even target them with the crumbs of a remarketing ad. It’s just done and gone. Bye bye money.

(Have I been clear enough so far about how I feel about small business owners being taken advantage of by traditional advertising????? Ok good)

Somewhere deep in your brain you love to see your logo splashed somewhere big and visually important-feeling. And though there’s certainly a place for marketing spend like that once in a blue moon, what I’d like to tell Bob is that his feelings, unfortunately, don’t matter.

I can’t help but wonder whether Bob has taken the time to reply individually to his Google My Business page reviews, or if he’s updated his open hours recently, or if he has an Instagram where he posts his Burger of the Day with a few relevant, local hashtags. Doubt it. But all of those marketing tactics are $ free .99 and would probably, I’m just saying probably, do more to bring in tangible business than a local Superbowl ad. I’m just saying, probably. Or at least he’d be 2 hours out, and not negative three Ks.

Lesson #2: Listen to good advice before taking a big marketing leap

Bob doesn’t usually ask for help, and that’s why he gets himself in so many bungles. When he does in this episode, he first gets inspiration from his family, then throws their ideas out and enlists maybe the worst two people he possibly could imagine: An expensive celebrity with wavering morals, and an all-around weird food truck operator-turned-documentarian who has a bitter, hateful rivalry with (checks notes) Bob’s elementary-school-aged daughter. 

WHY does he hire Randy to shoot the spot? Well...He’s cheap. And so it so often goes. The tragic pendulum swing between lavishly dumping his savings into the commercial distribution only to then skimp on the quality of the content itself is certainly not lost on this viewer.

Completely shameless plug: If you’re Bob, imagine that you had a marketing strategist who you could text anytime with the question: “Do you think it’s wise for me to spend an entire decade’s marketing budget on one concept?” or: “Should I hire a man named Randy who just spent $1500 spray painting a howling wolf on the side of his van to make a commercial for me?” I would say no. Then you could sleep easy that night knowing you didn’t miss out on a compelling opportunity. And you’d wake up the next morning to a cute email from me with an idea for a more targeted campaign that would cost less than $500 and deliver results you can actually take to the bank. Because I’m a person who wants to make you happy, and not steal $3000 from you. Doesn’t that sound much better? 

(For those new to content marketing, you have just read what’s known as an inline call to action or CTA or midroll ad. I am also sponsored by Bombas Socks, Casper Mattresses, Squarespace, MeUndies and the devil. OK, let’s continue.)

Bob could use somebody in his corner to bring him back down to earth. Bob’s everyman charm, other than his many anxieties and ambiguously bisexual orientation, lies in his push-and-pull relationship between his great ambition and poor execution. And he often bullishly shuts out help offered to him when he gets into fantasy-Bob mode:

  • Bob wants to be a person who grows his own food, but struggles to gain acceptance in the community garden he desperately inserts himself into
  • He imagines himself to be a man of the wilderness, but ends up lost with food poisoning on a camping trip gone horribly awry
  • Plus, content marketer extraordinaire Devin B reminded me that this commercial is not Bob’s only chaotic dream-fueled marketing scheme, pointing to the Jaws spoof episode “The Deepening” as another example of the lengths Bob will go to to promote his business in the most bizarre and unsustainable ways possible
  • Also coming to mind, how Bob goes out of his way to offer a special for the magicians’ convention in town and ends up with a restaurant overrun by freeloading wizards, proving that flashy half-price discounts are ALSO not a marketing strategy

Alas. Marketer he is not, and the version of Bob in Bob’s head rarely exists in reality but for brief glimmers. #Relatable.

These Bobs aside, the most potent and recurring version of this imaginary Bob is the one who, in his head, triumphs over Jimmy Pesto. Jimmy’s daily (and admittedly obnoxious) antagonization of Bob’s body image, business, family and food itself does really do a number on Bob, and his hope in some sort of triumph and redemption over Jimmy is a significant driver of Bob’s career choices. 

The thing about this fantasy-ego-self vs. reality self (and then we’ll get out of these Jungian waters) is that the reality of who Bob is as a business owner could actually be ...quite nice. And regularly is.

Really, he gets so caught up in the fantasy of what he imagines to be success, that he misses out on actual opportunities to grow his business with willing customers. And it drains his account back to zero every time.

Lesson #3: Don’t throw your actual paying customers under the bus

Jimmy’s restaurant is loud, obnoxious and bro-y. It’s like if Fuddruckers were Italian, and less fun.  It has multiple shiny TVs and lukewarm jalapeno poppers. The food is bad. It attracts a type of patron that might not be in the market for a creative burger with a chard pun in a stripped-down family establishment. 

Nevertheless, Bob is constantly fixating on Jimmy Pesto’s bigger customer pool and how to poach them away. He sees Jimmy’s success as the direct cause of his failure. This is a logical fallacy! And also not how the economy or market positioning works. But who can blame Bob. He has to stand behind his counter, watching Jimmy’s income grow across the street in real time. Even if it wasn’t personal (and Jimmy makes it personal) it’d be hard not to take it that way.

In contrast to Jimmy’s jalapeno bros, look at Bob’s two best customers: Quiet, pleasant, weird middle aged men in modest professions -- Mort, the mortician (ha, ha) and Teddy the handyman -- sit at his counter every day. Bob is often quick to dismiss their input or ditch their needs in order to pursue whatever catering gig or kooky new scheme got into his head in a given day, when really, they’re his target customer, and literally the highest-value customers he has.

As much as Bob and every small business owner loves a new customer, does he actually want Jimmy Pesto’s clientele in his establishment? People who won’t appreciate his artistry, and would rather watch the game than talk to Bob’s hilarious kids? Time and again, when Bob chases who he thinks could be a customer, he ends up selling out on his actual brand. It’s a game you never truly win. Even if Bob doubled his customers, he doesn’t really have the staff or the space to sustain the demands that type of customer would bring. It’s not a product-market fit.

(If I worked with Bob, we’d talk about his target daily foot traffic, confirm that he could operationally sustain that, and work backwards from the dollar amount he’d be willing to spend per head getting them in the door. But what do I know.) (This is what’s known as a secondary CTA.)

Like it or not, Bob’s customers are Teddy and Mort. His target demographic is the type of person who enjoys slowing down at a lunch counter, savoring a good burger, doesn’t mind the tiny TV in the corner getting static-y, and talking to the anxious, ambiguously bi proprietor behind the counter. 

If Bob could make peace with that, and not leap into expensive marketing ideas to lure in a loose concept of a person he doesn’t even like that much, and set aside his ego in service of his actual customer, he could probably make a decent amount of money and stress a little less. Yes, Jimmy Pesto will always be out to get him. But he has help, and can ask for more. He’s not alone. And neither are you.

OK, that’s it, I have to go eat a burger now. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to never, ever buy local commercial time just because you feel like it. Toodles!

You can watch Bob’s Burgers on Hulu, and you can get on my waitlist here.

Screenshot lifted from A.V. Club’s review of the episode hope that’s cool dad