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Make your Message Sticky!

Malcolm Gladwell mastery Paul Revere success success stories The Tipping Point


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Lesson: Come up with ways to make your customers an active agent in your marketing campaign, rather than a passive one.

We can forgive them; after all, it was the 70s. Lester Wunderman had landed the Columbia Records Club account in the 1950s, when they had opened for business. But now, Columbia Records was looking for something new; they said they just wanted to explore their options in the new TV commercial world.

Lester was the king of Direct Mail Marketing. This is when a physical letter with a coupon is sent to someone, and the customer is encouraged to clip the coupon, attach a check for the product and send it back. This is how Columbia had been operating for two decades. Now, in the 70’s they wanted to create more “awareness” for their records, so they went to the darling of Madison Avenue, the creative and sophisticated firm of McCann.

Lester would have none of it. For years he had been trying to convince Columbia to allow him to test out a whole new direct marketing method, one that tied the mailers to a TV commercial, but everyone thought his idea was ridiculous and cheesy. He persisted. This new challenge with McCann provided just the opportunity he desired.

He proposed the following challenge to McCann. They would both take out ads in two of their longstanding advertising media: TV Guide and Parade Magazine. They would be focusing on a total of 26 markets. 13 would go to McCann and Lester would get the other 13. Both marketers would be allowed to run their commercial in conjunction with the ads. McCann of course would focus on their “awareness” ads, while Lester would focus on his new method. Whoever received the most mail-ins, gets the Columbia account.

Now, one of the issues in marketing is discovering ways to measure success. Conventional marketing, as in a TV ad, is ripe with preconceived notions about what works. Splashy ads, humor, celebrity endorsements are all still believed the best way to bring in new customers. Yet, there is no way to know if someone buys a watch merely because Tiger Woods did a commercial, or if that customer was going to purchase the watch anyway. With direct marketing they cannot hold such biases. If they send out 10,000 coupons and receive 10 in return, they have a clear, objective indication of their success ratio. Lester’s challenge ensured the test was objective.

Would McCann’s campaign to raise “awareness” of Columbia Records lead to real sales?

The results were staggering. It was a massacre. In one market set 80% had returned their mailers. In the other only 19.5%! Not since Custer’s Last Stand had such a prominent and unexpected victory gone to the less civilized, less equipped and less educated opponent. Lester’s 80% not only won him the loyalty of Columbia, it shocked the marketing world. So much for raising awareness.

McCann, moreover, had every advantage. The client was fully on board with their advertisements. They spent four times as much as Lester on their media time. They bought prime time spots, while Lester’s ads played in the pre-dawn mornings.

How could a coupon clipper destroy an enormous Madison Avenue firm? To understand this we must understand Lester Wunderman. As a direct marketer, he was adept at making things irresistible to viewers. It was his job to get a customer to physically reach for their scissors, get an envelope and stamp, and physically mail a letter back to him. A gargantuan task in relation to customer “awareness.” 

In this instance, Lester’s great new idea, the one Columbia thought was too cheesy, was to use a treasure box. It was a sort of Willy-Wonka search for “The Golden” box trick.

Lester had told his art director to put a little gold box on the right corner of his coupons. In the TV commercials, he simply informed the customers that in their TV Guides and Parade Magazines may be a Golden Box. If they clipped out the coupon wrote any record on the Columbia list, and sent it in, they’d receive the record for free. This is the same model McCann used. The difference was that Lester made his message irresistible, or in Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, “sticky.” The viewer was no longer passive. They were a part of the interaction. Kind of like playing a game.

The results were stunning. Prior to The Golden Box campaign none of Columbia’s magazine schedule had been profitable. After it every magazine on the schedule was profitable. 

A silly treasure hunt is not sexy like having a celebrity endorse your product. Putting your ads on a 4:00AM slot is not the same as putting ads on at 7:00 PM on a Thursday. Nonetheless, Lester Wunderman had done something special to get customer involvement. He had the same client, and the same message, as McCann. The only difference was that Lester made his message sticky.



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