gert-280-75Would you trade your wed­ding ring for an exact replica?

It’s a ques­tion I some­times ask audi­ences.  Not sur­pris­ingly, hardly any­one admits to indif­fer­ence in the matter.

More com­monly, the emo­tional attach­ment mea­sures in the thou­sands of dol­lars, which is what most peo­ple say they’d need to be paid before swap­ping the ring they were mar­ried in for a per­fect replica.

Dis­miss this as mere sen­ti­men­tal­ity at your own peril.

The man (or woman) who admits to NOT valu­ing his orig­i­nal wed­ding ring over a replica gets shunned. The same thing hap­pens to the man who would will­ingly wear the cloth­ing of a ser­ial killer. Most of us would refuse to don Jef­frey Dah­mers cap, even if it had been pre­vi­ously washed and san­i­tized. No mat­ter how unsci­en­tific, ara­tional, and even “silly” our repul­sion is – regard­less of how much it rep­re­sents “Mag­i­cal Think­ing”  -  you’ll still find that:

  • The vast major­ity of peo­ple won’t will­ingly wear a piece of cloth­ing worn by an evil man, and
  • Those who WOULD wear Dahmer’s cloth­ing deeply offend our sen­si­bil­i­ties and pro­voke our imme­di­ate dis­trust.  They creep us out.

What does all that tell you?

Shared val­ues run deeper than ratio­nal­ity. Way deeper. As Richard Weaver writes, “…logic depends upon the dream, and not the dream upon it.  We must admit this when we real­ize that log­i­cal processes rest ulti­mately upon clas­si­fi­ca­tion, that clas­si­fi­ca­tion is by iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is intuitive.”

We iden­tify objects as tainted or sacred at an intu­itive, emo­tional level. At a place were our rea­son­ing is pow­er­less to touch.  A place where the prin­ci­ples of mag­i­cal think­ing reign supreme over the laws of sci­ence. At the very place where we make our buy­ing deci­sions.

And for mar­keters, that means 2 things:

  1. You can’t expect a ratio­nal expla­na­tion to com­mu­ni­cate a shared value that’s held at that intu­itive, emo­tional level.
  2. You’d bet­ter under­stand the rule sets behind the “mag­i­cal think­ing” that our emo­tional and lizard brains engage in if you hope to move beyond mere ratio­nal expla­na­tions in your advertising

Case In Point: Colum­bia Sportswear’s Tough Mother

First, some back­ground on Colum­bia Sportswear’s for­mer CEO and now Chair­man of the Board, as taken from the inside flap of her book:

When a heart attack claimed Gert Boyle’s hus­band in 1970, the forty-six-year-old house­wife and mother of three found her­self at the helm of Colum­bia Sports­wear, a small out­er­wear man­u­fac­turer in Port­land, Ore­gon, that was strug­gling finan­cially. With no busi­ness expe­ri­ence what­so­ever, Boyle was faced with the chal­lenge of run­ning Colum­bia, which had been founded in 1937 by her father — a Jew­ish immi­grant who had fled Hitler’s Ger­many. Boyle and her son Tim per­se­vered, turn­ing a com­pany that in 1970 had forty employ­ees and less than $800,000 in annual sales into the lead­ing seller of ski­wear in the United States, with more than 2000 employ­ees and over a bil­lion in annual sales…”

One of the turn­ing points on this incred­i­ble suc­cess story was (sur­prise!) a change in adver­tis­ing messaging.

Prior to the Bor­ders Per­rin & Nor­ran­der mar­ket­ing cam­paign that billed Columbia’s CEO, Gert Boyle, as “one tough mother,” Columbia’s ads empha­sized how their sports­wear wasn’t just designed, it was “engineered.”


A per­fectly ratio­nal approach to build­ing value for the prod­uct that failed in the mar­ket­place.  Cus­tomers may ratio­nally com­pare spec sheets and engi­neer­ing func­tion­al­ity, but they iden­tify qual­ity and an affin­ity for an object at a much deeper, emo­tional level. And they buy at these deeper, emo­tional — and, yes, mag­i­cal — elements.

What Colum­bia needed was to con­vey their pas­sion for no-nonsense prod­uct design in a way that “worked,” and to con­vey that mes­sage through the laws of mag­i­cal think­ing.  They needed mes­sag­ing that took advan­tage of our notions that blood is thicker than water, that essences really exist, that shared val­ues take place at more pro­found level than “good busi­ness prac­tices” and engi­neer­ing labs.

For­tu­nately for Colum­bia, their next, leg­endary ad cam­paign did exactly that by focus­ing on Gert Boyle’s “Tough Mother” approach to prod­uct design, and by express­ing that approach through the mother-son rela­tion­ship that existed between Columbia’s CEO and its Pres­i­dent.  Here’s how that looked:




2010-05-26_1142Peo­ple saw those ads and believed.  They believed that Gert really cared, fer­vently and vio­lently, about the prod­ucts her com­pany man­u­fac­tured. They believed her inter­est in build­ing cloth­ing that pro­tected the wearer went way deeper than just nor­mal, ratio­nal busi­ness desires to “engi­neer” a bet­ter product.

As Ma Boyle puts it:

The impact of the ads was almost instan­ta­neous. Sales quickly increased and I was sur­prised when strangers came up to me on the street and asked if I was the ‘tough mother.’ Bet­ter yet, the image cre­ated by the adver­tise­ments took hold.  Instead of see­ing us as just another out­er­wear com­pany, our cus­tomers thought of us as the com­pany where the cranky and crotch­ety old broad made sure that they were get­ting a good prod­uct at a fair price.  The bot­tom line was that what we were really express­ing was that we were human… Peo­ple relate to us because they believe there is a per­son at Colum­bia who really cares.  And the best thing about our ads is that they are true. I do care.”

After see­ing the com­mer­cials, cus­tomers liked Colum­bia bet­ter.  Their affin­ity for Gert rubbed off (the phrase is telling, is it not?) onto the prod­ucts.  And sales soared, lead­ing to one of the clear­est suc­cess sto­ries from a national “image-based” cam­paign since the Marl­boro Man.

What about you?

What are you irra­tionally com­mit­ted to?  What val­ues do you cling to even when it costs you – even when it makes no busi­ness sense at all?

Does your adver­tis­ing even men­tion them?

And are you com­mu­ni­cat­ing those val­ues ratio­nally or magically?

P.S. If you really want to be inspired, check out some of Columbia’s old TV Ads.  I’ve always liked the one with the zam­boni, myself ; )

The ThinkerLook at the photo to the left. Yeah, it’s Rodin’s The Thinker and you’ve already seen it before — take another good, hard look any­way. In fact, study the thing for a minute. I’ll wait.

OK, hav­ing just “expe­ri­enced” the pic­ture for your­self, read Rodin’s descrip­tion of his statue:

“What makes my thinker think is that he thinks not only with the brain, with his knit­ted brow, his dis­tended nos­trils, and com­pressed lips, but with every mus­cle of his arms, back, and legs; with his clenched fist and grip­ping toes.”*

Now go back and take another look at the pic. Did you notice new things? Did you find your­self notic­ing new details on the statue’s nos­trils, lips, back, and toes, while giv­ing silent affir­ma­tion to Rodin’s words?

That is the mark of great prod­uct descrip­tion: using words to guide the senses and shape the expe­ri­ence.

And the more you sell pre­mium prod­ucts and expe­ri­ences — the more you sell the dis­til­la­tion of pas­sion — the more you had bet­ter tap into the power of copy to direct the imag­i­na­tion of the reader.

The Sci­ence and Art of Great Prod­uct Description

Lest you think the Rodin exam­ple was noth­ing but a par­lor trick, I thought I’d cite some hard sci­ence and proven psy­chol­ogy behind this tech­nique, while also giv­ing some help­ful how-to hints:

1) Vividly imag­in­ing the future reduces impul­sive choices

And the reader’s imag­i­na­tion will trend towards the future — unless YOU direct the imag­i­na­tion of the buyer! I may be tempted to buy your prod­uct, but the more I imag­ine the future rewards and plea­sures of stick­ing to my diet, stick­ing to my bud­get, and so on, the less likely I am to buy.

But if the copy directs my senses to vividly imag­ine the plea­sures and ben­e­fits of ownership/consumption, I’ll be moved to buy rather than abstain.  Great copy recre­ates the enthusiast’s expe­ri­ence in the mind of the prospect.  Mediocre copy just describes the product.

2) Trans­lat­ing a prod­uct into an expe­ri­ence de-comodifies your prod­uct

“If it wasn’t hard, every­body would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.”  Tom Hank’s char­ac­ter said that about base­ball, but it applies just as well to pre­mium prod­ucts and ser­vices.  Mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter prod­uct requires extra effort and pas­sion.  Often in the ser­vice of squeez­ing out an extra 10% refine­ment in 10–20 dif­fer­ent areas.  And that’s the prob­lem… at least from a copywriter’s standpoint

See, small refine­ments in a lot of areas don’t trans­late well in a spec-sheet head-to-head com­par­i­son, where the cheaper alter­na­tive ends up look­ing like a 90% as good for half the price alter­na­tive.  And that’s why good copy­writ­ers lean so heav­ily on “cre­ation” sto­ries, which project the man­u­fac­tur­ers pas­sion onto the reader, and make those rel­a­tively fine dis­tinc­tions seem like all-important dif­fer­ences. Gary Weeks gives a first class exam­ple of this in the copy he cre­ated for his Weeks Rocker.  There’s a rea­son the man’s able to sell $1600 rock­ing chairs over the internet.

3) Curios­ity and Edu­ca­tion are every bit as pow­er­ful as a great deal

When you describe an expe­ri­ence that’s for­eign to the reader, you cre­ate curios­ity — a desire in the reader to “see” for her­self. To taste the nuances of fla­vor in a well crafted wine, or to feel the tex­ture and feed­back that only the com­bi­na­tion of first-class draw­ing paper and high-quality char­coal can pro­vide.  Or even to “see” their PPC cam­paign with new eyes — eyes capa­ble of sift­ing out the hid­den moti­va­tions of prospects/searchers and the flawed mes­sag­ing in the ads.

For many, learn­ing, dis­cov­er­ing new expe­ri­ences, and expand­ing one’s scope of com­pe­tency are as seduc­tive a prospect as any straight­for­ward value propo­si­tion. Gary Vayn­er­chuk rode this wave to fame and for­tune. And two Maine Lob­ster­man have taken this kind of value-added offer­ing to a new level, and made them­selves into mil­lion­aires in the process!  You can too.

4) The Joshua Bell Effect

Ask­ing peo­ple to rec­og­nize true merit and qual­ity on its own, deprived of any cues or prompts, is sim­ply ask­ing too much from your cus­tomers and prospects.  Kind of like ask­ing you to have rec­og­nized all those details about Rodin’s The Thinker with­out his quote as a prompt.

Per­haps the most strik­ing modern-day exam­ple of this was an exper­i­ment done by the Wash­ing­ton Post wherein Musi­cal Prodigy Joshua Bell played his stradi­var­ius in the sub­way to see how many would rec­og­nize his musi­cal excel­lence, absent the con­cert hall cues and media fan­fare nor­mally sur­round­ing his per­for­mances.  The result: he was ignored by every­one but chil­dren. Even music snobs need cues to rec­og­nize tal­ented, vir­tu­oso performance.

As a copy­writer you’re job is to set the stage for your vir­tu­oso product/service and to pro­vide prospects with the cues they so des­per­ately need to rec­og­nize real qual­ity when they see it.  When you tell prospects where to look, how to look, and what to expect, you’re not only entic­ing their imag­i­na­tions, but help­ing those soon-to-be cus­tomers to fully rec­og­nize the dif­fer­en­tia­tors your client has already baked into the prod­uct. Which both sells more prod­uct on the front end AND improves cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion on the back end, too.

Does your prod­uct copy merely describe the product?

Or does your copy pre­dict the prospect’s expe­ri­ence of the prod­uct, help­ing them to see with their ears and antic­i­pate all the plea­sure and ben­e­fits that are sure to come with ownership?

2010-05-03_1347Peo­ple don’t change their minds — they sim­ply make new deci­sions based on new infor­ma­tion.

If you don’t pro­vide them with new infor­ma­tion, they won’t make any new decisions.

That’s Roy Williams’ take on the sub­ject of chang­ing minds, and I tend to agree, depend­ing on how broadly one inter­prets “infor­ma­tion.”  It’s pos­si­ble to give peo­ple no new infor­ma­tion in the nar­row sense of the word, but to cause them to feel dif­fer­ently about what they already knew.

In other words, you can spark a new deci­sion by pro­vid­ing a new per­spec­tive rather than new information.

Case in point: This print ad for BMW

(The Good)


While I’m not out to make any claims about the ulti­mate effec­tive­ness of the ad, I am going to say that this rep­re­sents a far cry from a shame­ful or gra­tu­itous use of sex.  It’s actu­ally a very delib­er­ate and pointed use of sex-appeal aimed at get­ting you to feel dif­fer­ently about the desir­abil­ity of pre-owned cars.

An intel­lec­tual approach would be to talk about the inspec­tion and refur­bish­ment that these pre-owned cars go through and the war­ranty you’ll receive when you buy one.  But that’s been done so many times it’s prob­a­bly already assumed by the reader.

Read­ers already know that pre-owned cars are a bet­ter deal finan­cially, yet they still feel an irra­tional desire for “new.”  And irra­tional obsta­cles call for emo­tional adver­tis­ing.  They call for cre­at­ing new per­spec­tives rather than pro­vid­ing new information.

Bot­tom Line:

When you’re con­tem­plat­ing the use of shock-appeal or sex-appeal in an ad, you need to ask your­self if the ad is merely shock­ing, tit­il­lat­ing, and enter­tain­ing read­ers, or if it’s chang­ing how they feel about what you sell.

Oth­er­wise you’ll end up with the Ugly end of Sex in Adver­tis­ing, such as this ad for… can you even tell?

(The Ugly)


Believe it or not, this is an ad for a vac­uum cleaner!