The Surprising Value of Stalker-Brands

June20

Being an old-school guy, I’m not at all sensitive to brand pressure. My clothes are basically the grown up versions of whatever I wore when I was 12: cotton everywhere, button down oxford shirts (long-sleeved only), khakis or light grey slacks, penny loafers and a blue blazer.

Once guys like me find something we like, we wear it, eat it, drink it, drive it or use it in the bathroom until we accidentally find something better.

A few years ago, I accidentally found Kirkland brand products at Costco and Equate brands at WalMart. We used to call them store-brands but Kirkland and Equate are something different. With a few exceptions (e.g. 8 O’Clock Coffee at A&P), store brands were just not as good as national brands. Kirkland and Equate are better than a lot of national brands, and a lot cheaper.

Most Equate products are for the bathroom: mouthwash, contact lens stuff, shave cream and so on. Kirkland brands are all over the place: coffee, bottled water, lox and God knows what else. Reasonable quality at a low price.

Both companies use their brands to stalk the big brands. For instance, Kirkland’s coffee is right beside Folger’s on the shelves and Equate’s mouthwash is beside Scope. The price contrast is immediate.

Where store brands were once created for the price-conscious shopper, Kirkland and Equate appeal to the quality-conscious as well, assuming they’re not sensitive to brand pressure.

We all have friends who care about the brands they use (or, at least, are seen using) because of brand image. They’ll spend more on their brands even if there’s no logical reason to fork over the extra $$.

House brands are stalking in a whole new area these days. They double as magnets. The only place I can buy Kirkland products is at Costco, so I go to Costco, I wouldn’t bother otherwise, and I buy a lot of other stuff when I’m there. Ditto Equate and WalMart.

Both companies, as you already knew, are run by very smart people.

P.S. I tried a Kirkland wine last week. Nobody’s perfect.

Tweeting with a leftie about guns.

June20

It started when a leftie I follow retweeted this: “Why is it that it’s always some crazy whiteboy with a military style weapon killing innocent women & children?

Not wishing to pick nits by mentioning, oh, the (black) Washington snipers, the (black)LIRR racist loonie or the (Korean) Virginia Tech shooter, I replied semi-coherently, I’m afraid: “Yes, in the mass murders. One or two it’s another bunch & there’s a lot more of ‘em. Ask that question.

My correspondent knew what I meant. Back came a non sequitur: “Bottom line, whoever pulls the trigger: it’s a gun they’re using! We Need Sensible Gun Controls!

I suggested: “We do and we need thug control, idiot control and lunatic control… and to define Sensible, clearly.

She added: “Personally, sensible gun control to me is No Guns. But that’s just me. I’ll settle 4 stringent background chks

I upped the ante: “No guns would be great. Never happen. Bad guys will always have them (by definition they don’t obey laws).

She had an interesting take on that: “Honestly, I’m not worried bout bad guys w/ guns. Just worried bout tons of weapons unaccounted for…Loose among us!

(… not worried about bad guys with guns?) I continued with: “Plus, they’ll always have knives, baseball bats, fertilizer bombs, poison, fists, and on and on and on.

She signed off with this:“You R sounding more & more like a troll with every tweet you make. Nit-picking at zip, resorting to RWNJ arguments. Bye!

I have no idea what a troll is in this context. RWNJ means Right Wing Nut Job Sooner or later, usually sooner, lefties descend to the lowest level of thought and drag up the ad hominem argument, often with a helping of straw man.

Does your slogan (tag line) work against you?

June12

Perhaps the best all time slogan is Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop”. Either that or Nike’s “Just do it.

My personal all time fave bad slogan came from a camera company, Minolta, I think. In order to make it perfectly clear where their innovative products came from, they tagged ads and commercials with “Out of our minds”. Eventually they realized what they’d done and scrapped it. 2nd place in the dunce category goes to 7Up’s “Make 7Up Yours.

Match.com is an up and comer, though. Right now, their commercials sign off with this beauty: “People who join Match are three times more likely to find a relationship than those who don’t.” I guess they hope that nobody will realize that “those who don’t” includes everybody not looking for a relationship.

Contenders include Corona Light which shows us a sheep leaving its comrades to drink the beer. Tag line? “Ditch the herd.” Ummm, it’s a flock, not a herd. Florida Power & Light closes all its spots with the confusing “Changing the Current.” Is current an adjective here? If it is, the current what, billing practices? Is it a noun? FPL already changes from DC to AC, so are they going to change it back? Are they going to reduce the current? Should we worry? Who knows?

Sometimes a great slogan can be the near opposite of what you really want to say, Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” for instance.

Sometimes it’s okay to go with a lame tag line. Texas is poaching businesses in CA, IL, NY, NJ, and CT (high tax, high regulation leftie states) backed by a boring but bang on tag line “Texas is calling. Your future awaits.

Terrific tag lines usually just pop up out of nowhere. Nobody really understands how to sit down and write one but I know how not to. Start by keeping committees out of it. End by making sure you don’t step on your own foot.

Perhaps the strangest slogan I ever saw was in Toronto years ago. The kind of people who think it’s a good idea to get folks riding bicycles in heavy-commuter, long-winter cities came up with a campaign called “Bicycles Belong.

What’s wrong with it?

For starters, most sane people have the same immediate reaction when they find out that the “where” is out in the traffic on city streets. The reaction is “No they don’t!”

The whole campaign with its emphatic nanny state voice insisted on something that is demonstrably not true.

At roughly the same time, the Province of Ontario ran a campaign with the slogan “equal pay for work of equal value”. That may or may not be a bad idea but the creative execution was abominable. It showed a man running a 500 pound drill press and a woman running a 300 pound press and stated that they should be paid the same. “Fine,” millions thought, “if that’s true, switch their jobs.

Politics-driven ads are easy to dump on because they’re nearly always 100% baloney. But they make nice simple and obvious examples of what not to do.

Say something sensible, short, and memorable and don’t let committees or politics make you step on your foot. Just to make sure, show your new line to your mother before you publish it. If nothing works, relax. You need a huge budget and a lot of exposure to make a tag line work, anyway.

Does Direct Mail Work?

June4

The headline on the Guts post just before this one read: Does anyone know how direct mail works, anymore?

A colleague tweeted it with a link and back came this response: “It doesn’t work.

I laughed. All those financial companies with their credit card mailings, all those charities, causes, politicians, car companies, and catalogers must be completely insane because they keep mailing and mailing and mailing.

Once I thought about it, I assumed the “It doesn’t work” guy meant something else, like maybe it doesn’t work for certain audience segments (which is true), or for low cost one-off products and services (also true – for the most part). It’s possible that he really meant that Direct Mail shouldn’t work because it’s not cool, hip and happening.

If I had to hazard a guess, though, it’d be that he tried Direct Mail once or twice and it didn’t work for him. That’s actually very common. Direct mail doesn’t work for a lot of companies for the simple reason that they have no idea how to do it. If that’s the case, he was right. It doesn’t work. What else is going to say?

Does anyone know how direct mail works, anymore?

May28

Some people do, but they all seem to work for charities, causes or politicians and their stuff is great. Just about every other attempt at marketing that winds up in my mailbox is ‘way off base.

A huge chunk of it is not targeted at all so it’s a waste of time and money. On top of that, an astounding number of mailings don’t have a unique offer.

But the biggest problem I see is the complete absence of any sense of what works in the mail. Take postcards. I get lots of postcards. Postcards are cheap but they don’t work.

By “work” I mean generate a predictable and profitable response. You know what else doesn’t work? Scrinchy letters in tiny sans serif type with copy that reads nothing like an actual letter

So what does work?

First, testing works. You must always be testing and tracking results. You will acquire essential knowledge.

Second, nothing, no matter how brilliantly written and designed, works unless it is carefully targeted. Robin Hood didn’t shoot arrows all over the place until he hit something. He aimed for a specific target. It would take a few thousand words to explain how to do this in direct mail but just a few words to suggest that you hire a) a database whiz and b) a list whiz. They will save you a lot of money and, in the long run, make you a lot of money. Their job is to get your offer into the hands of the people most likely to respond positively. Be warned: The whizzes can be a pain with all their irritatingly relevant questions.

Third, unique offers work – in fact, they’re essential. Make several offers and test them all, one at a time. An offer is your basic proposition plus a lagniappe, a lovely New Orleans word for something extra, that nobody else can get. If your everyday proposition is 4 widgets for the price of 3, add a unique (to the mailer) 10% discount if “you reply by January 15”. This will encourage a quick response and, since your prospect must use the order form (or coupon or special code) to take advantage of the offer, you get a built-in tracking mechanism.

Fourth, creative works best when experts handle it. Creative is a lousy word. Salesmanship is better. It’s the words and design in your mailer. You’ll need to bear up under the creative team’s incessant questions, too. Tell them you want a classic direct mail package with a number of tests: lists, offers, timing, seasonality, geography, creative, etc. It’s best to not do all the tests at once.

A classic direct mail package has five main components: an outer envelope (OE), a letter, an order form (can be attached to the bottom of the letter – or it can even be the whole letter), a brochure and a business reply envelope (BRE).

The OE should have words on its face. This is called teaser copy. Its job is to get the envelope opened by someone in the mood for what’s inside. The envelope can be any size or shape, color or black and white, window or closed face, with first class or standard class postage. Best to start with a #10 window envelope with two colors (one of which is black) mailed standard class. (BTW, a good rule of thumb is that a teaserless (blank face) envelope reduces response by about 30%.)

The letter must be simple, personal (as opposed to merely personalized) and straightforward. It has to be easy to read and it must flow engagingly from top to bottom. It must immediately establish some kind of relationship between writer and reader, perhaps with words along the lines of “I don’t know how you feel about the widget crisis, but I …”. The letter absolutely must be on white or lightly toned letterhead paper and in black type in a serif face in a large, readable font with leading (pronounced ledding; it means space) between the lines. It must present your entire argument, preferably in the FAB (Features, Advantages, Benefits) format.

Your letter should almost sound as if you were sitting in a coffee shop speaking face-to-face with your prospect.

Use attention getting devices, but use them sparingly: bold, italic, underline, bullets, copy point circled with a pen, marginal note. One person signs the letter, in blue. President is best. People with Marketing in their titles are the worst.

The letter must be laid out so the reader can make an instant, at-a-glance decision that it will be an effortless, even pleasant read. Short paragraphs, short sentences but not staccato. Pace it with sentences and paragraphs of varying lengths. Double space between paragraphs.

Put a couple of testimonials in the margins in small type.

Urge response – now – several times and in different ways in the letter (and in the brochure, order form and face of the BRE). Charm and a light touch will help a lot.

In the letter, try to avoid anything that requires an asterisk. (They make people suspicious.)

Always add a P.S. to buttress a main point.

How long should a letter be? As long it has to be and not one word longer. I’ve seen half-page letters work extremely well and 68-page letters work wonders. It depends. Test.

The Order Form should be extremely simple with the proposition laid out clearly. It should not be on glossy paper (ink smears when people write on glossy stock). Mention other options for response: email, website, phone, fax, drop in to the shop. Make sure there’s an upsell to the basic proposition. The Order Form is a good place for a guarantee. Avoid the negative in your guarantee (as in “If you’re not satisfied …”). It works better if you say something like “You must be satisfied …

You can do anything you want with the brochure. Let your creative juices flow. (The brochure usually doesn’t matter much.) If your product or service has a strong visual element, show lots of photos. The brochure is a good place for any charts and graphs you think you absolutely must use. Make sure to test the mailing without a brochure but with everything else exactly the same. You might be surprised.

The BRE should be prepaid postage. (Actually, that’s what a BRE is.) You don’t want to lose an order because your prospect can’t find a stamp.

Other components you can put in a direct mail package include: lift (or publisher’s) letter, stickers, freemiums, friend’s order form and a surprising number of other things. Don’t bother with any of this stuff yet. Wait until you get a base response that’s profitable then try to beat it.

Let me know how it works out. Any questions, let ‘em rip right here in the comments section.

P.S. Test with your best then keep testing to try to lower costs without lowering response. Best test of all may be just a letter in an OE with a BRE.

Business 101: The mechanics of change

May15

I can’t get Ron Johnson out of my mind. Until recently, he was CEO of J.C. Penny.

He came from Apple where he’d run the retail stores, successfully. Elmer Fudd could have run Apple’s retail operation.

Johnson was a disaster at JCP. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. He hired a bunch of whizzes – the kind of people who jetted home from JCP’s Texas HQ to the coasts on weekends – and began to change the way the chain does business, completely.

First, he got rid of discounts and couponing, then he decided to turn the stores into mini-malls, each a collection of boutiques.

Along the way, he changed the company’s TV commercials to look and sound exactly like Target commercials. Perhaps good for Target, undoubtedly a waste for JCP.

The entire fiasco will make a great book some day but for now it’s enough to know that as Johnson’s changes took effect JCP’s stock tumbled, sales fell off a cliff and the already struggling retailer lost a quick billion dollars.

What’s truly remarkable is that Johnson made the sweeping changes without testing them first! He could have. Testing is easy in these here United States. You can screw up, say, Pennsylvania and still have 49 more states plus DC to work with.

Johnson had at least heard of testing. When a minion asked if they’d be testing the new ideas before launching them nationwide, he snapped, “We didn’t test at Apple”. Anyone who thinks that what happens at Apple bears any relevance to what happens at a lower middle department store is not paying attention.

Bill Ackman, a hedge fund honcho and member of the JCP Board, had championed Johnson. So had Johnson’s immediate predecessor, retail legend Allen Questrom. They changed their minds after 18 months of destruction.

In early April, Ackman said “One of the big mistakes was perhaps too much change too quickly without adequate testing on what the impact would be.

Around the same time, Questrom said, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News about Johnson’s in-store boutiques idea: “I think they should find out if it works first without putting the whole company at risk.

Scientists, direct marketers and little kids who stick their toes into swimming pools know the value of testing. Johnson didn’t, or he forgot, or hubris caused him to ignore the whole idea. So he damn near crashed the company.

Now comes something astonishing. We’re hearing about marketers defending Johnson against the philistines who oppose change. We’re afraid of change. We’re dinosaurs.

Baloney.

We love change and we embrace it eagerly when it has a good chance to make things better. And we test to find out. Then we proceed cautiously, rolling out slowly as we test and fine-tune the program every day. We don’t bet the whole company on someone’s guess!

The mechanics of change: First ask all kinds of questions that lead to the essential question: “Does this new idea work, Yes or No?” Then test to find out for sure. When the answer is yes, you’re off to the races. When it’s no, you head back to the drawing board.

Change for change’s sake is exciting, adventurous, cutting edge and it’s for amateurs.

posted under Observations | 1 Comment »

I’m thinking we need a crash course in direct mail

March25

A lot of people in charge of marketing don’t know what direct mail is. They think they do, but they don’t.

Most of them don’t like it anyway, and a lot either fear it or their wanna-be creative souls are outraged by its straightforward look and tone, and I’m sure they hate the idea that their opinions about what goes into direct mail are more or less irrelevant and nearly always turn out to be wrong.

Run of the mill bean counters are leery of direct mail because it seems expensive. Smart bean counters understand that ROI and the long term matter more than upfront cost. Really bright bean counters understand that knowledge gained from direct mail tests – and mailers must test constantly – is worth a lot of money.

Grasping the most important fact about direct mail is difficult: direct mail is not advertising. It looks like advertising and it feels like advertising, but it’s something else. Generally, advertising aims for impressions and awareness. Direct mail aims for specific responses stat! Advertising drops a message on you now in the hope that you will do something in the future.

Advertising and direct mail are alike in the sense that baseball and football are alike. You shouldn’t even think of letting advertising people run a direct mail program for the same reason you wouldn’t let Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians manage the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

I find it interesting that charities use direct mail a lot. Charities ask you to send them money in return for nothing except good feelings. And they succeed.

We see some marketers occasionally test direct mail with large postcards or envelope mailings with color brochures, but no letters that look like letters, and then say with firm conviction “We tried direct mail and it didn’t work.” Ha. You didn’t try direct mail, you used mail as a medium for advertising.

When it’s done properly, direct mail cannot fail on any scale larger than a tiny blip on an Excel chart. When it succeeds, which it eventually does, it makes scads of money, scandalous scads of money. So why has direct mail become the near-exclusive playing field of charities, political causes and catalogers?

I suspect that the key lies in the sentence way up there in the second paragraph: “Most of them don’t like it and a lot of those people either fear it or their wanna-be creative souls are outraged by its straightforward simplicity.
Perhaps a big part of the problem is that direct mail isn’t hip, happening, cool. There are no directors’ chairs for clients to sit in. No talent to schmooze with. No commercial, website, billboard, event for clients to show to friends and families. And it’s old-fashioned. It’s snail mail. Yuck. Maybe our crash course should rename it La poste de l’escargot to give it that certain je ne sais quoi the hipsters seem to like.

Another part of the problem is that you know pretty soon how well direct mail works and which elements of a direct mail campaign are most important. A good test could bomb overall but be invaluable because it contains nuggets of information that will lead to success next time out. This scares some people because eventually there’s a detailed report card. Life’s easier when you can just issue orders and ignore their outcomes, like Ron Johnson (disastrous new CEO) at JC Penney. He blithely waved away the notion of testing his radical concepts before rolling them out nationwide. “We didn’t test at Apple” he apparently said. (Like hell they didn’t.)

And that leaves the speed and economy and reach of electronic marketing. Why would anyone use snail mail when you can go mobile and social? Good question. There’s a very good answer but it requires a crash course in direct mail to understand it.

At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise I hear is David Ogilvy’s voice.

March12

I’ve been thinking about David Ogilvy a lot lately. Occupational hazard, I guess.

Ogilvy was a more or less self-taught genius who didn’t even start his career in advertising until he was 38. He and his hand-picked associates created some of the most effective and memorable campaigns of all time for Shell oil, Rolls Royce, Dove soap, Schweppes, Arrow shirts, and Puerto Rico among a whole lot of others.

He was especially brilliant in print and he won my undying admiration for praising Direct Mail as his secret weapon.

In his spare time, he wrote several eminently readable books. “Ogilvy on Advertising” is probably his best known but I like “Confessions of an Advertising Man” a lot more.

The day I started working at his agency (Ogilvy & Mather) in Montreal, the creative director handed me a copy of the Claude Hopkins 1923 masterpiece, “Scientific Advertising”, and told me writers in the shop don’t get asked to write a word until they’d read and understood it. That was Ogilvy’s idea.

Basically, both Hopkins and Ogilvy thought research, copy, facts and testing mattered most.

Maybe the reason David Ogilvy is on my mind these days is that one of his lines pops into my head whenever I read a newspaper or magazine or watch TV, listen to radio or do anything that allows advertisers to vie for my attention. The line is: Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn’t sell much of anything.

I think a couple of other Ogilvyisms explain why: What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it; and Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.
Too many companies focus on the frills of how, and committees hammer any big idea to death. Ogilvy hated committees.

His thinking still works in selling things to grownups. He wasn’t so hot at “buzz” ads for teenagers and adults who never quite manage to grow up.

Ogilvy preached testing over and over. “Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving,” he wrote. Add “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative” and “Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.” to the testing idea and you’ve got an outstanding primer on how to write a successful ad, commercial, billboard, direct mail package or pretty well anything.

• Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn’t sell much of anything
• What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it
• Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night
• Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving
• If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative
• Five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy
• Research, big idea, test, great copy.

Shame there aren’t all that many grownups around anymore.

Writing an ad

February20

Some DM copywriters don’t want to write about the companies that pay them. They’d rather write about whoever’s in the target audience, and when they get away with it the results can be great.

The two kinds of copy – about the company and about the prospect – couldn’t be more different. One is writing to yourself and the other is writing to people who might eventually send you money.

In McGraw Hill’s classic “Man in the chair” B2B ad that first appeared in 1958, a grumpy old dude stares at the reader and “says”:

I don’t know who you are.
• I don’t know your company.
• I don’t know your company’s products.
• I don’t know your company’s customers.
• I don’t know your company’s record.
• I don’t know your company’s reputation.
• I don’t know what your company stands for.
• Now…What was it that you wanted to sell me?

You can see the ad here.
There’s almost nothing in it about McGraw-Hill, the company that paid for the ad.

Here’s a consumer “mail order” ad from 1925. The whole thing is about the prospect and the client’s not even mentioned until the 524th word of the body copy! This ad ran for almost 50 years.

When writers have to toe the line, their copy is about the company or its product. The problem is that prospects don’t care about the company or the product. They care about one thing: “what’s in it for me?

We’ve got maybe a heartbeat to give them the answer.

And the answer is never about how great the company is. It is always about prospects and what the company can do for them. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in.

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