The Best Upsell Ever: Elite Freestyle Karate

by Josh Mendelsohn in February 21st, 2020

This post originally appeared as a podcast, click to listen

Today we’re talking about the best upsell I have ever seen… at Elite Freestyle Karate.


Unless you’re a parent who lives just west of Boston like I am, you’ve probably never heard of Elite Freestyle Karate - or EFK as it’s more commonly referred to.

According to their website, “For the past 20+ years, Elite Freestyle Karate's Children's Martial Arts classes in Winchester, Bedford, Reading, North Reading, Acton and Arlington have helped thousands of children improve their confidence, focus, self-discipline, respect, and leadership in addition to invaluable life skills.

Perfect for any child, our classes are a great introduction into the Martial Arts for children. Led by world-class black belt instructors, our Children's Martial Arts classes are guaranteed to get your children excited about physical fitness! In fact, they’ll be having so much fun on the mat that they won’t even realize they’re learning important safety lessons that could someday save their lives!”

And honestly, having spent 2 + years in their program as a parent I can say that all of that is true. Our son loved EFK for a long time and we went 2-3 times per week as he moved his way from white belt up to Orange.

But what I really admire is their marketing approach.

We first came across EFK at Arlington Town Day, where we live. Town Day is an old school street celebration that shuts off part of the town center and offers music, street food, and booths to tons of local businesses. 

It’s a good time and a great way to drive up civic pride. Lots of booths are giving away candy or stickers or whatever, many even employing the sort of prize wheel that my kid is physically unable to resist.

Right by the best food vendors is the EFK booth, where their very friendly senseis are engaging with kids as they walk by and giving them a chance to break a board and win a prize.

In our case, we won a free month at EFK. I am guessing it’s a common prize and a great way to get kids in the door. Classic Free Trial model and as a marketer, I love it!

As parents, we were really just looking for a fun way for our son to get more exercise and even a little discipline in his life. 

Nate just liked the uniforms and the punching, but it felt like a win-win-win.

Before I dive into what I love about EFK’s upsell tactics, I have two quick asides.

First, most youth centric organizations are terrible at marketing and communicating with parents. It drives me a little insane how muddled their messaging can be, the lack of clarity on the details, and how often you feel left in the dark on key information. EFK is the opposite on all of that.

Second, to many parents I am sure EFK feels a little bit like extortion. Like a kids of version of the “f you pay me” sequence in Goodfellas.

Want a uniform? F you, pay me.

Graduated to the next belt? F you, pay me.

Want to learn more cool kicks? F you, pay me.

As a marketer, I just happen to see it a little differently and respect the crap out of it.

Here’s how it goes. 

Imagine a bunch of 5 and 6 year olds, all dressed up in their white giu’s wearing white and yellow belts.

The class starts with all of the students standing on a line respectfully. They bow to each other and the highly energetic sensei standing across from them. 

Quickly each student is sent to a spot in the dojo where they run through a series of exercises. Punches, kicks, etc. It’s pretty adorable. Like if Muppet Babies met the Cobra Kai dojo in Karate kid.

Later in the class, they play a fun game. Something like dodging a blow from the sensei or an obstacle course. The kids are mostly loving it and they are really getting a workout.

At the end of class they all return to the line where they do a call and response with the sensei. 

It begins by recounting the lesson the day. For example, “Can everyone say respect?” 

“Respect!” the kids shout back.

The sensei continues on to talk about how the kids should respect their parents and each other and thank them for bringing them to class today.  

It’s an awesome message.

“Can everyone say buddy week?” the sensei continues. 

“Buddy week!” the kids shout back.

The sensei explains that they can bring one friend to any class next week for free. Classic word of mouth program. Love it.

“Can everyone say bow staff seminar?” the sensei continues. 

“Bow staff seminar!” the kids shout back.

“That’s when you get to learn how to use these awesome weapons in a safe environment” he says as he twirls a bow staff. “We’re almost out of space, so sign up before you leave or your parents can do it online.”

Seems simple and relatively inoffensive, right? …. But every class ends with something like this. Sometimes it's a bow staff seminar, sometimes a glow stick night, sometimes advanced kicking, sometimes a tournament. Each of which costs more money and more time. 

Two things that are tough for parents to swallow. 

But the marketing magic is that they aren’t really talking to the parents. They are talking to the kids. And what kid who just had fun at karate doesn't want to learn a cool advanced skill?

Or join the even more expensive black belt club, which features more classes and an all black giu that is pretty badass?

Or get a chance to beat up their sensei’s in a glow stick lit dojo?

What they are really doing is helping kids sell to parents and making it really difficult to say no. Especially when you can just use the credit card on file.

It’s one thing to ignore an email or a flyer, but a happy and engaged kid asking to do more of something that gives them exercise and discipline? That’s a different story. 

Needless to say, we’ve been to almost all of them. And in most cases they were great. We would have ignored their emails if that’s all they sent. And we would have walked right by their flyers on the way to grab our jackets. No question about that. 

But a happy and enthusiastic, that’s the real marketing weapon.

So, what does that mean for marketers?

1) The right time to ask for an upsell is when you have a happy customer. When EFK introduces the next paid thing, it’s when kids are feeling good about themselves and karate and parents are happy that their kids spent an hour without a device in their face. Timing is everything!

2) Empower your direct users to sell on your behalf. If EFK staff walked around during class to talk to parents about upcoming seminars, it wouldn't be very effective. But giving the students the tools they need to make the ask is brilliant. 

3) Repetition is everything. By using a call and response method, the message gets digested. And by doing it at every class, there is no way that kids and their parents aren’t hearing about the upcoming buddy week or seminar.


That’s all for this episode of the Marketing is Everywhere podcast. Can you say “Five star reviews”?  I assume you’re yelling back 5 star reviews right now. 

If you like what you’re hearing tell a friend or rate and review the show. I would be eternally grateful. 

Special props this episode to my son Nate who no longer does karate, but did win 2 gold medals at his last karate tournament. Clearly the extra classes worked!  

Thanks for listening and please send me feedback or great marketing at joshmendelsohn13@gmail.com