Book Excerpt: ‘Steal These Ideas!’

The following is an excerpt from the book Steal These Ideas!

Fundamentally, the job of the marketing professional is to excite the potential buyers, to get them to pay attention to his product or service message and not the other guy's. Most marketing campaigns fail badly in the excitement category, and do even worse in the creation of a compelling call to action.

The whole point of any promotion is to be NOTICED and get a RESPONSE. The marketing industry spends $35 billion a month to grab consumer attention, just in the USA.

Will anyone really pay attention to one more burger ad, one more beautiful older-looking couple seeking financial security by walking hand in hand on a deserted beach, one more gleaming auto isolated on a rain-slicked winding road in Monument Valley?

How can you break out of the pack and hit an emotional bull's-eye that compels your target consumer to single out your brand and respond to your offer? How do you make this happen?

Take a look at the following stellar campaigns, all of which demonstrate the power of integrating marketing excitement, news value, and compelling calls to action.

The Ultimate Help-Wanted Ad. If pressed to pick my all-time favorite ad, it would be one placed by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous early-twentieth century polar explorer. In 1913, Shackleton placed a very brief announcement in several London newspapers for volunteers for his upcoming South Pole expedition. He hoped to attract fifty to seventy-five inquiries. Five thousand hearty souls responded to:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

–Sir Ernest Shackleton

All three elements for promotional success: excitement, news, and a compelling call to action were wrapped up in just twenty-six words. No need to add a single syllable.

The Early Days of Playboy Magazine. In the early '50s, when I was 5 or 6, it was impossible to figure out exactly what my dad did at work all day. He was pretty vague about it and as it turned out, with good reason. He was writing some of the very first promotional direct mail letters for Hugh Hefner's then new and struggling publication, Playboy magazine.

These letters would be sent to compiled lists of men who subscribed to other men's magazines — which of course made sense. What was a little different was how my dad wrote these letters . . . from the perspective of a Playboy Bunny. Each mailing included a picture of her in full Bunny regalia. The picture appeared on the letter, the reply device, and throughout the accompanying brochure which included shots of her other Bunny pals. She even signed her name.

Consequently, millions of American men received letters in the mail from “a real live Playboy Bunny,” describing the scintillating attributes of Playboy magazine: great fiction, social commentary, and of course more revealing pictures of her and her friends. This approach was way more successful than if Hugh himself or some other male editor had written the letter — because it was just much more EXCITING!

Rolling Stone Magazine. Back in the '70s, the notorious anti-establishment, self-proclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was managing editor of Rolling Stone. He authored a subscription renewal letter that was completely different from what any other magazine had ever contemplated.

The letter, short and to the point, declared that Rolling Stone was Thompson's only legitimate source of income. It went on to say that if you didn't respond, he would be thrown into utter despair and probably wind up in Needles, California, “sucking from a nitric oxide tank down to the bottom death blast of freon, listening to German tourists describe their coyote sightings.”

Basically, Thompson threatened the recipient, demanding a response, or else. To underline the warning, the outside envelope featured “I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE,” scrawled in large handwriting across the front. Not your everyday Time or Newsweek renewal letter, to be sure.

This direct mail subscription effort was a huge success, and Rolling Stone used it the entire time Thompson was on the payroll. It was so much fun to read. So different. So Hunter Thompson. So exciting.

Pan American WorldPass and How Last Became First. By the time the late '70s rolled around, the experience of flying had been downgraded from glamorous and elite to mundane, overcrowded, and as torturous as a never-ending bus trip. Yet flights were full of corporate executives and middle managers winging their way across the country and around the world on a regular basis. Working hard, making money, getting ahead, these were not happy travelers.

Although the airlines reveled in their popularity, they were also aware of the growing dissatisfaction of their large bloc of business travelers. In a classic marketing moment, several major airlines decided that their best customers deserved to be singled out and rewarded for frequent travel. And thus, the frequent flyer programs were born.

These programs were really exciting for participants. At last, the airlines made a distinction between the tourist and the trooper. Flying for free and upgrading to first class were the big come-ons and frequent flyers went to great lengths to make sure they stayed abreast of every new perk and bonus mile route. It is important to understand what a big deal the frequent flyer programs were at that time.

Working with a small team at Epsilon Data Management, I helped United Airlines create Mileage Plus, one of the first of these reward scenarios. Several years later, I was fortunate enough to create the last entry of a major airline into this new game: Pan American Airways' WorldPass, the richest of all the frequent flyer programs.

According to airline industry analysts, WorldPass probably contributed to Pan Am's ability to remain in business for an additional decade. This is a story about creating excitement and news value even when you are THE ABSOLUTE LAST business in your sector to recognize your top clients.

By 1981, all the other major U.S. carriers had well-developed frequent flyer programs, and Pan Am was seeing the effect on their bottom line. So what to do? The company was lucky to have a marketing director at the time, Adam Aron, who had natural marketing instincts, flair, and an appreciation of the power of big ideas.

The typical frequent flyer marketing approach was not as generous as it appeared. At that time, the goal was to spend as little as possible to communicate with your business travelers, and to be as restrictive as possible in giving out award travel for miles earned.

Adam had a different idea. His charge to me was to create the most expensive-looking program with the richest award structure. He wanted to leapfrog the competition — all of which had well-established programs and, in most cases, a four- to five-year head start. Since Pan Am was the last to arrive at the dance, Adam was determined his airline would be in the dress that everyone noticed.

The core promise of Pan Am's program was to reward individuals who flew a specific number of miles on an annual basis with a “world pass.” This pass was an actual gold-colored plastic card that entitled you and a companion to fly anywhere on Pan Am's extensive worldwide system, first class, free for thirty days.

This strategy was a winner from day one. No other airline even remotely had such an award, nor could any of them match the worldwide route structure that Pan Am was famous for. The effect was immediate. WorldPass electrified passengers, Pan Am employees, and the trade press. Adam's focus on giving the customer something that was truly exciting and “richer” than the competition turned the whole industry inside out and left them scrambling to catch up.

So last-in became first in frequent flyers' minds. The initial direct mail enrollment package sent to 80,000 frequent flyers contained a free round-trip domestic ticket good at any time within the next six months — no blackout dates, no ifs, ands, or buts other than the requirement to enroll in WorldPass.

Response rates to this one letter were more than 50 percent. Probably an all-time high in direct mail history, with the exception of responses to letters from the IRS!

Other Quick Airline Stories about Creating Customer Excitement

· American Airlines — When you joined the Admirals Club in the early '70s, you received an oversized certificate done in calligraphy and beautifully framed, asserting your club membership. These were hung in offices with pride and were real status symbols.

· Continental Airlines — In the '60s and '70s, the legendary chairman, Robert Six, wrote a letter to the airline's best customers once or twice a year, a letter that often went on for pages. It was so personal, so beautifully written, so candid, that customers not only saved these letters as keepsakes, but they also continued to fly Continental just to stay on the VIP mailing list.

· Braniff International — In the late '60s and throughout the '70s, Braniff attracted attention with brightly colored planes, leather seats in all classes, fine dining on bone china, and flight attendants dressed in fashionable Halston outfits. People actually looked forward to boarding a Braniff plane — amazing.

One for the Gipper. In 1983, the Republican Senatorial Committee wanted to end the year with a big fund-raising push to their top 200,000 contributors. At the time, they regularly spent 50 cents a piece on highly personalized computer letters to their donor base. Given their desire to top previous fund-raising efforts, I convinced them to try something totally different for the year-end appeal: a single but very special letter that would cost roughly $7 in the mail. They agreed, and the end result was a one-letter appeal that raised more net dollars (over $2 million) than their archrival, the Democratic Senatorial Committee, raised in an entire year.

Here's what went into that $7 letter:

a) A mailing envelope made to look like a FedEx overnight package but actually sent express mail via the U.S. Postal Service

b) A two-page fund-raising letter with an embossed gold senatorial seal

c) An 8″x10″, four-color, signed photograph of President Ronald Reagan with a personalized message: “Stephen, thanks for all your continuing support. Ronald Reagan”

Yes, that's right — we had 200,000 signed photographs, with a handwritten note to each recipient. President Reagan was otherwise engaged, so the task fell to a group of women at a mail production company in Massachusetts who earned extra money for the job. They were each given a sample of the president's handwriting to copy and executed a very credible facsimile.

What could be more exciting to the Party faithful than to receive a personally signed photograph from the President? They loved the attention and the response rate to this package was over 40 percent, as opposed to a typical response rate of 5 to 10 percent.

Don't Leave Home Without It. Karl Malden served as the public face of American Express Travelers Cheques for twenty-five years — an amazing run for any spokesperson. His Travelers Cheques television ads were a perfect combination of excitement, news, and a compelling call to action. First you would see a thief stealing money from some poor unsuspecting tourist's wallet or beach bag or hotel room. Then Karl would arrive on the scene looking like the cop he played in the famous television series Streets of San Francisco. He would look you in the television eye and say, “This could happen to you!” And then the call to action: “Don't let a thief spoil your vacation. Get American Express Travelers Cheques.” Little wonder American Express became the leader in this category with 75 percent market share.

Mean Joe Greene. Sometimes simple visuals can create excitement on their own. Coca-Cola came up with an ad juxtaposing a sweet 10-year-old fan with the very large and, on the field purportedly very mean, Joe Greene, defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tired after a long game, and with an intimidating scowl on his face, Joe approaches the small boy who holds a large bottle of Coke in his little hand. Joe peers down at the boy who, ignoring the scowl, looks up admiringly. A true fan, he offers Joe his Coke. Joe hesitates for a second, then takes the bottle and guzzles it down in one complete, thirst-quenching act. He hands the bottle back and says with a slow smile, “Thanks, kid.” The essence of “Have a Coke and a Smile.”

Mr. Whipple. Toilet paper is just not exciting. Yet Charmin managed to create a quirky character plagued by supermarket customers who was instantly memorable.

Pity poor Mr. Whipple, guardian of the Charmin display, who worked so hard to keep the product at its peak. Your attention was grabbed and you watched intently as Mr. Whipple caught the next culprit who squeezed the Charmin.

Mr. Whipple made Charmin seem so soft and enticingly squeezable, you felt as if you had to try some yourself. In the privacy of your own home, without being stalked by Mr. Whipple. Great call to action. A top-rate example of making one product stand out in its category.

Peter Lynch, Lily Tomlin, and Don Rickles. As an industry, financial services relies on the same old stereotypical images year after year in its advertising. We all want financial information and financial security for our families, but we are bored with the lame attempts to gain our attention.

Financial services also suffers from being a low-interest category. If you can't eat it, wear it, drive it, apply it, or play with it, it is of low interest. You never actually see or touch most forms of money and that cash in your pocket really has no character or emotional bond.

If you want further proof of how tough it is to wow consumers with financial services advertising, consider that no financial services company has ever made it into the Advertising Age Top 50 Ad Campaigns of All Time list.

As Fidelity Investments head of retail marketing in the late '90s, I was determined to walk away from the usual nondescript industry ad approach and inject large doses of personality into a campaign that would really shake up the business.

Anyone with a dime in the stock market knows who Peter Lynch is. And Peter has always been a major advocate of consumers understanding how to invest wisely. So early in my days at Fidelity, I decided Peter would be the perfect spokesperson for a new campaign. He had never been in any form of advertising before. And Fidelity had never considered using a real person to promote their brand.

But I didn't want Peter to be just another talking head, although there are plenty of creative ways to make one person a powerful spokesman. I decided to go into uncharted territory. Take a serious subject, money management, and create a campaign that would be as entertaining as it would be informative on issues like retirement, portfolio management, and the value of long-term investing.

Enter two terrific actors, both world-class entertainers, Lily Tomlin and Don Rickles, whom I paired one-on-one with Peter in a series of TV spots in 1998 and 1999.

The net effect was immediate. Employees loved this breakthrough approach. They were thrilled that Peter had “gone public” to represent the company and that he had two fascinating personalities to interact with. And of course customers and potential customers loved these ads as well. They were just so different. They were even fun to watch and listen to. People responded in huge numbers on the phone and online every time one of these ads ran.

Published by Bloomberg; September 2005

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