Thursday 11 December, 2014

Viral Marketing – What You Can Learn from Standard Oil

Viral marketing is a big buzzword today. Everybody wants to create content and products that “go viral,” or create their own buzz and spread like wildfire across the market.

This actually isn’t a new idea at all. It’s just that it’s easier than ever with the internet. In fact, one of the earliest examples we have of viral marketing was carried out by Standard Oil over a century ago, although they didn’t call it that then. By looking at a successful viral marketing campaign they carried out over a hundred years ago and on the other side of the globe, we can get ideas to help your products spread.

Freebie Marketing, 19th Century Style

In the 1890s, Standard Oil had a monopoly in the United States and it wanted to start expanding overseas. So, it cast its eyes toward China, which at the time had a population that was 400 million strong. Chinese farmers used vegetable oil for their lighting and had done so for a long time. In order to take over the Chinese market, Standard Oil would have to convince Chinese farmers to make the switch to its product, kerosene, which was no easy feat.

Standard Oil did what we call today freebie marketing. Only instead of giving away an information product, they gave away kerosene lamps. The execs at Standard Oil decided that by giving them a tool to help them farm (which required its product), they’d be turned into overnight customers. The company prepared about eight million lamps which it either gave away or sold cheaply, and the idea worked.

A Bit of Branding Genius

Standard Oil had another idea that helped its product spread across the Far East. It sold its kerosene in tins that were sturdy and useful for a variety of uses. Once customers emptied the tins of kerosene, they would use them as roofing, stoves or containers. The tins weren’t anything too special, but they were tough and sturdy.

This was a stroke of branding genius. The reason is that each tin was emblazoned with Standard Oil’s logo. So, in effect, scores of Chinese farmers were not only using the company’s kerosene, but patching up their roofs and keeping their perishables in tin containers that also advertised Standard Oil. Every house in China helped them advertise.

What Works for Standard Oil

Both of these ideas were huge successes and China quickly became Standard Oil’s largest Asian market. Standard Oil achieved this success by offering products that weren’t just useful, but that further sold themselves. Both of these techniques have been used by big brands as well as small-time marketers ever since.


Clark, John. “Freebie Marketing Case Study – Standard Oil in China.” Evan Available at–Standard-Oil-In-China.html

The History of Oil Podcast, Episode 8, “The Mighty Clam.” Available at:

Standard Oil Wikipedia Page. Available at:

Bob Steele

Bob Steele is an entrepreneur, software developer, marketer, and author living in the Denver metropolitan area. He’s an avid outdoorsman who loves skiing, hiking, fishing, boating, and just plain having fun. His interests include games, space, technology, physics, cooking (well eating actually), economics, business, internationalism, and team sports. With over thirty years of professional consulting experience, Bob has been exposed to many diverse business models and has gained a sensible approach to life. Bob’s company, WaveCentric is focused on commerce, marketing, and entertainment related products.

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