When the market gets tough, the tough get marketing

Did you see any gerbils fired out of cannons during Superbowl? What about rhythmically challenged hillbillies clapping to fiddle music, followed by - ha ha - 'We just wasted two million dollars.... What are you doing with your money'?

Did you see any gerbils fired out of cannons during Superbowl? What about rhythmically challenged hillbillies clapping to fiddle music, followed by – ha ha – ‘We just wasted two million dollars…. What are you doing with your money’?

Spots like these certainly generate awareness. But often it’s awareness of the commercial itself rather than awareness of the benefits of buying the product. And that does little to increase sales.

These days, in the wake of Recession-Bin-Anthrax, marketers are looking to generate sales, not just chatter over pints at the pub.

Here are some techniques for general advertisers and direct marketers to consider that put profits before prizes and can help stretch the marketing dollar.

Repeat your winners. Yes, it sounds simplistic, but if you have a campaign that’s working, keep it rolling until you can beat it with something new and tested. Ad people tire of creative long before the general public. For example, I once wrote an unaddressed mailer for a financial institution that generated more leads at a lower cost than the addressed mail. Then, inexplicably, the client stopped using it, not because response was down but because they were tired of seeing it. Conversely, Unilever used the same tea-sipping chimps to sell PG Tips for 45 years.

Find the right proposition before writing the creative brief. If you don’t have a clear, tested proposition, the creative team will develop one. And bless their spiky little heads, they will inevitably settle on the proposition that they can express most dramatically. Often by sheer instinct they hit the right one. But do you want to take the chance? Rather than testing creative, test the proposition, the underlying appeal – and test in the real market, not from behind two-way glass.

Test your proposition cheaply. In direct marketing the proposition or offer is the most important element to success or failure, after the list. John Caples said:

‘I have seen one ad actually sell not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19-and-a-half times as much as another. Both ads occupied the same space. Both were run in the same publication… the difference was that one ad used the right appeal and the other used the wrong appeal.’

Get your marketing group, your agency and your research professionals together and develop ads based on a range of proposition. For example, one ad could demonstrate how your product saves money. In another, how it makes money. In another, how it protects the reader’s family. Or makes them healthier. Or more popular. Base each proposition on a real human need or desire, rather than on clever word play or dramatic pictures. Then run low-cost small space ads, split run tests or low-volume mailings to find which proposition pulls best. Run with that, and then try to beat it with new creative or a new proposition.

Test in low season. Years ago, when I worked for Hume Publishing, our most profitable mailing months where July, September and January. In the off months we tested new creative. That way, we could establish our control package using cheaper, secondary lists. Then during high season, we rolled out the winner to the most responsive lists, maximizing both response and profitability.

Forget ‘awareness’ – set solid sales goals. Most creative briefs contain the objective, ‘create awareness.’ To me, this is a means to an end. Awareness is needed only in order to drive sales, not for its own sake. Consider instead the following objective: ‘Sell 500 units at a cost-per-order of $25 or less.’ Here is a clear, measurable goal.

Use propositions that appeal to a person’s need to preserve what he has, rather than the promise of gain. When times are tight, people are often happy just to hold on to what they have. That’s why value investing has come back in the stock market. Maybe these days it’s more believable to promise you can help your prospects maintain their lifestyle, rather than improve it.

Try the subtractive method. Instead of adding an element to your mailing to see if it lifts results, try eliminating an element and see if it affects response. For a national newspaper circulation mailing, we eliminated an expensive five-colour brochure and actually increased the response rate. Plus the client enjoyed a lower cost-per-order.

If you want a chance to win, you have to stay in the game. In the last quarter of 2001, there was a noticeable drop in new advertising and direct marketing spending. The cities fell silent. In agency boardrooms, plans were being hatched to poach clients, Harry Rosen went on sale, and creative people were seen riding the subway!

If we’re telling consumers that the quickest way out of recession is to keep spending, shouldn’t advertisers keep spending too? It’s unlikely that customers will stay loyal to a company that waits on the storm on the sidelines. The brands that are a part of a family’s life, that they trust and buy every week, need to appear strong and dependable. Otherwise the consumer will hear the helicopters landing on the roof.

Marketers that maintain market presence during tough times emerge stronger on the turnaround. Companies that abandon advertising – and ipso facto their customers – often fail to emerge at all. Slow times are in fact the best time to capture market share, when competitors have cut marketing budgets or left the field altogether.

There are always opportunities for growth and profitability for marketers who stick with their customers, share a bit of the pain and keep the lines of communication open. What’s needed is smarter advertising, not less advertising.

Tim Elmy is a freelance copywriter who’s amassed numerous awards for excellence in advertising and direct marketing creative over his 15 years in the biz. He is the author of the seminar, ‘Profitable Creativity in Direct Marketing.’ He can be reached at 416-691-3246 and at timelmy@rogers.com.