2011-01-02_2210Let me ask you this: has anyone ever come out, point blank and told you, directly and explicitly, that BMWs were status symbols and more to be coveted than, say, Hondas?

What about Polo or Lacoste clothing? Is it because of explicit word of mouth recommendations that you somehow feel that those brands make better polo shirts than The Gap?

The Importance of What “They” Say

The vast majority of our brand hierarchies and preferences have been formed apart from explicit WOM endorsements. These things rest not so much on what your buddy has said, but what the infamous “they” say. Or rather don’t say, but strongly intimate and suggest.

And it’s these same brand hierarchies that form the background against which customers form and express their opinions. Confirmation bias says we tend to see what we expect to see, and branding shapes expectations…

So what’s the point?

Advertising’s Sleeper Effect

Mass Media effectively shapes brand preference. Few people want to believe they’re “susceptible” to advertising, that they can’t immediately discount a paid for message as obviously biased. And intellectually, they’re right, at least in the short term.

When we first hear an ad message, we take all claims with a large grain of salt in light of the obvious self-interest and bias involved in the message.

But what happens over time?

According to psychological research, over time the emotional bias imparted from the advertising sticks while our intellectual discounting of the message wears away. Over time, (intelligently crafted) advertising affects our internal brand hierarchy. Or at least the ads will affect your friend’s and neighbors’ brand preferences ; )

Why Local Branding Works Even Better

Of course, the customer experience or product reality has to be aligned with the brand promise / advertising message. Fail to deliver on your advertising’s promises and you’ll just go out of business faster. And it’s easier to create a new brand preference where none previously existed than to dislodge an already established brand preference.

But buying this kind of putative WOM can be done, despite what the more militant (and misguided) social media types might tell you.

And done rather easily at that, at least when it comes to most local and medium sized businesses. I mean, do you currently have a strong brand preference for carpet cleaners? Or power washers, roofers, flooring stores, bicycle shops, deck builders, HVAC guys or any of the other hundred things and services sold in your local town?

I thought not.

Some of us might, from prior experience, be able to recommend a provider for one or two of those categories, but not most of them. And that’s where an intelligently run radio campaign could make any better-than-average provider of those things a king in his category – the one “they” say is the best choice; the local brand at the top of the customer’s preference hierarchy.

My Wizard of Ads partners and I bestow such crowns (and riches) on clients all the time. All it takes is a business with the guts to embark on an aggressive ad campaign and an ad writer who knows your business and knows what he’s doing.

If you’ve got the guts, I know an ad writer I could recommend – “they” say he’s the best 😉

nike-free-2Most e-commerce site’s simply don’t provide nearly enough photos, of nearly enough resolution and quality that prospective customers want.  The reason?

Well, first, taking your own photos can be hard, especially if you have a lot of SKUs.

But beyond that, I truly believe that most e-commerce biz owners and marketing managers don’t realize the amount of questions that photos answer.  They just don’t get how many possible concerns and potential objections can be addressed and overcome through the right photo.

With that in mind, I wrote a guest post on Doctor Ralph F. Wilson‘s Web Marketing Today blog on nothing but the persuasive uses of product photos and product videos.

Go check it out.

bentley-series-1-sDoes your copy lack a certain emotional resonance?

Maybe you have a relevant, credible message, but it just doesn’t have that, for lack of a better term, magnetic ability to move readers to decision.  Well, here’s one way to add that:

Present the mind with a compelling mental image, and the emotions conjured by that image will persist in the mind like the bright dots you continue seeing well after the flash from flash photography.

It doesn’t matter if you look away from the camera and shield your eyes from future flashes, you’ll still see the dots.  And in the case of mental images, your readers will continue projecting the emotional atmosphere of the image onto succeeding topics of conversation.

And what makes a mental image “compelling”?

Compelling mental images are emotional, non-nuanced and require no analysis to take in.

Deep down, where it counts, in the emotion-driven unconscious, we are all still operating at the level of foolish children responding to bright shining objects.  Make your image in tune with this bright shining object mentality and then borrow that “halo” for whatever product or service you’re hoping to sell.

Here’s a rather artful example taken from J. Peterman:

“I have a friend in New York who has a 30-year-old Bentley, aluminum-bodied, quite fast, and quite beautiful. People driving Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, look over their shoulders in despair as he passes by. Where did I go wrong, their faces say.

The thing about his Bentley is that the oil-filler cap, which is springloaded for quick opening, is identical to, and unchanged from, the oil-filter caps on Bentleys made fifty years ago. In other words, get it right, then don’t mess with it. Go on to something else.

This is by way of introducing the best umbrella in the world. How can I be so sure of that? Because the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales buy their umbrella from the same source: Swaine Adeney Brigg Limited, makers of hunting crops, canes, and umbrellas since 1750.

The royal family, I think, can afford a very good umbrella. They can also afford to not get stuck with an experimental model, a provisional model, a see-how-it-goes model of umbrella (or anything else).

The Swaine Adeney Brigg umbrella is made from one piece of wood. It’s solid and thick exactly where other umbrellas snap and fall apart. The runners, caps, and ferrules are made of solid brass; the hand spring and top spring are nickel silver. The cover is cut, sewn, and tied painstakingly to each rib. The shape (open) is domed (more room to get under it).

How long will the best umbrella last? I don’t know. My Bentley friend told me about a man who bought a Bentley even older than his. It had 250,000 miles on it when he bought it. He’s already driven it now an additional 127,000 miles.

The Swaine Adeney Brigg Umbrella (No. 1957). Black, of course. Cherry handle; with the Warrant of the Prince of Wales engraved on the plated gold collar.”

img10052880632OK, so we’ve got all the wonderful associations of Bentley, British, and Royalty baked into this copy.  All wonderful stuff when you’re appealing to the aspirational shopper.  But the most powerful image in the copy is this:

“People driving Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, look over their shoulders in despair as he passes by. Where did I go wrong, their faces say.”

The core emotion presented is: “I’m the object of envy even amongst my peer group (aka, upper-class owners of luxury cars).”  And it’s neatly tied to, the only slightly more nuanced thought of “…because I own something awesome that they don’t have.”

A four year old with a brand new bicycle can experience and understand the emotional and social dynamics involved in those images – images and emotions that color everything that follows.  From “something awesome (that’s a preferred choice of British aristocracy)” to “mechanical simplicity and brilliance that works” to Swaine Adeney Brigg Umbrellas.  The logical chain of reasoning within the copy is almost laughable, but it’s irrelevant: the emotional and thematic associations are what matter, and they are powered by that one, very simple image of envy over a coveted symbol of aristocracy.

So while everyone wants to rave about J. Peterman’s magnificent prose style and sophisticated cultural allusions, these aren’t the elements that sell; they’re simply the adult clothing used to disguise the far more child-like emotional images that do.

What about you?  Are you presenting your audience with a compelling mental image?

Or are you skipping all that to get into technical details, features, or garden-variety benefits?

P.S. As you may have guessed, the mental image doesn’t have to be directly, logically related to your product or service. It’s the emotional associations that count.

P.P.S. This technique works even better when you have some logical fig leaves to offer your readers.  The Swaine Adeney Brigg Umbrella IS a premium quality, highly-covetable object, after all.

anniversaryTurns out I missed my blog’s one year anniversary, which took place on October 7th. Doh!

Oh well, since I also missed the chance to post these thoughts pre-Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share this as a way of saying thanks to all of you, my readers and subscribers.

Anyone familiar with Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, or even with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet from Save The Cat, knows that stories revolve around a very predictable set of structural elements:

  • The hero almost always starts out with some fear, block, wound, or limitation to be overcome or transcended as a result of the journey taken, usually expressed in a stasis = death moment
  • The hero typically resists the “call to adventure” before being somewhat forced to “cross the threshold,”
  • There’s an “all is lost moment”
  • and in any story not a tragedy, there’s also the happy ending

What you don’t likely think about is that we all go through this cycle multiple times in our lives. Heck, if “mythic” structure applies to freakin’ TV commercials, don’t you think it can apply to your work-a-day world?  Well, it can and it does.  And that realization has really been a portal to sincere gratitude for me.

See, instead of expressing gratitude in general for everything good in my life, I take a trip back, 5 years ago, 10 years, ago or even earlier.  I mentally go back to the last time I faced a stasis = death moment in my life, or the last time life pushed me past the threshold by kicking me squarely in the nuts.  I recall all those unpleasant feelings and what my life was like in that moment, and from that act of remembrance, all of the many blessings that have come into my life since then fall into sharp relief.  I get to see the happy endings to a lot of cycles, and the gratitude that comes from that lasts far longer than a strained attempt to be thankful in general.  Highly recommended.

A year ago I was leaving my old blogging home at Future Now and starting up an unknown blog in the already overcrowded field of copywriting and marketing.  And while the ending hasn’t yet been written, the journey has been a blast.  Thank you for being part of it.

– Jeff

“”Know something, sugar? Stories only happen to people who can tell them.” – Alan Gurganus

bullseye.22112600_stdBeing on target [with your messaging] is much more important than being facile with words.” – Gary Halbert

…stories without words can have enormous power. Just look at the first acts of Pixar’s UP or WALL-E… So what if when we sat down we gave ourselves a task other than producing words: Changing the verb from writing to storytelling may change the way we think about the work.” – Brian McDonald

Improving copy rarely comes down to improving the words.  Once in a blue moon word choice proves decisive, but even then, what leads a good copywriter to select the better word has nothing to do with vocabulary size or what most people think of as wordsmithing and everything to do with an ability to match the emotional nuance of the word to the psychology of the prospective customer. Even when it comes down to the words, it’s not about the words; it’s about the customer.

Creating Copy That Is On Target

The number one thing you can do to improve your copy is to ensure that it is “On Target,” or to continue to improve the degree to which it is on target.  And by that I mean improving the match-up between customer desires/motivations/expectations and the message sent by the words.  In the video below, copywriting legend Gary Halbert provides a strikingly clear explanation [Note – Skip to the 1:40 mark if you’re in a hurry]

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And yet, as important as this factor is, most copywriters don’t have a systematic, proven method for ensuring that their copy is on target – mostly because they don’t have a system for modeling their client’s prospective customers psychology.

I teach a fair amount of copywriting to client’s internal copywriters, private students, and open classes, and by far, these are the top not-so-secret “secrets” that I teach:

  • how to model the prospect’s psychology
  • how to ensure the messaging is on target.

And I’ll be teaching both of these things this December 8th and 9th in Austin.

Writing for Radio and The Internet

Fortunately for me, I co-teach my Wizard Academy Copywriting class with Chris Maddock, who tackles copywriting from the other end.  He works on the storytelling aspect that Brian McDonald alluded to in the quote I pulled from his blog post.  By teaching students amazingly efficient techniques for creating gripping and vivid mental movies in the minds of their readers, Chris works on the student’s core writing abilities – their ability to generate an emotional response.  I simply ensure the students can direct those newly developed abilities at the right target.

If this sounds like what you or your company’s copywriters need, there are still seats available, and if you act soon, those seats come with free on-campus room and board.  Check it out.

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Back before Starbucks, most on-the-go coffee choices sucked. Starbucks tasted a lot better, offered fancy-schmancy cappuccinos and, well, seemed a small daily luxury a lot of people where willing to spend an additional $3 on.  Life’s too short to drink lousy coffee and all that.

Even though espresso-made specialty drinks aren’t really in the same category as regular brewed coffee (and, frankly, Starbucks brewed coffee is not particularly tasty, IMHO) the public had been exposed to something better and was willing to divert coffee dollars to specialty drinks.

mcdonalds_billboardThen McDonalds unleashed their own premium brewed coffee (which really is pretty tasty) and a line of cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks, with Burger King and several other fast food chains following suit. The choice is no longer between paying $4 for something that tastes good or suffering with crap coffee.  Now you can pay $1 (or nothing on Fridays) and walk away with a pretty good cuppa joe.

Is it any wonder that Starbucks closed lots of stores, implemented lots of cost-cutting strategies, restructured their prices, and came out with a more budget-friendly line of instant coffee in order to stay relevant, attractive, and competitive?

3 Business and Marketing Lessons to take away from this:

1. As people’s options change, so do their buying habits. When was the last time you looked at your customers options and made sure yours compared favorably to the competition?  When was the last time you thought about offering up a new option?  Bundled services, un-bundled services, leasing, pay-by-the-hour, etc.


  • Saturn took a merely OK car and made it a success simply by offering an alternative buying experience.
  • There’s an HVAC company doing quite well simply by allowing customers to lease HVAC systems (with maintenance and replacement baked into the lease payment) rather than buying them.
  • One Hour Heating and Air Conditioning gave people the option of not waiting at home all day for the HVAC guy and people took that option in droves.
  • My wife’s photography business offers customers a flat fee and they get the digital files and printing at cost, rather than making the majority of her money on prints.  It has been very successful for her.

Want to grab new customers?  How about making them an offer they haven’t seen before…

2. Competitive landscape determines options.  Often times, you don’t have to be the very first to offer something or do something.  You just have to be the first in your local area or industry.  Cappuccinos and specialty coffee drinks weren’t new creations of Starbucks. But as Starbucks expanded, they were often the first to offer them in a franchised, wine-bar-without-the-wine atmosphere for their given location or town.

For the local business this has both an upside and a downside: the upside is your ability to import successes from other towns, states, nations, and especially to import strategies from other industries.  The downside is that the internet and the global marketplace often provide people with lots of options. If you’re competing against the internet, you need to face up to that and work that into your business strategy. As Tolkien tells us, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

3. Categories don’t define perceived options. Before Starbucks no one would have guessed that you could get someone to pay $4 for a cup of coffee. But Starbucks wasn’t selling coffee, they were selling cappuccinos – they just managed to steel a lot of coffee business in the process.  And while the jump from cappuccinos to coffee, from $4 to $1 isn’t that big, the principle remains the same: you are likely competing for dollars with businesses far outside your category.  When it comes time to buy Christmas presents for the kids, bikes and sports equipment and toys and video games and books and trips are all competing for the same dollars.

This is especially true if you’re selling a premium or near-luxury product.  In order to trade up somewhere, I generally have to trade down somewhere else. Convince me your product or service is the place where I should spend my “trading-up” dollars.

Finally, never discount the age-old option of doing nothing.  I could buy a new 27-inch iMac, or I could do nothing and be happy with the my current Mac laptop.  I could go on a vacation, or enjoy a staycation instead.  As an advertiser, doing nothing is often your biggest competition, and yet, many copywriters ignore this competitor entirely.

And that’s all for me – I’m off to get a free coffee at Burger King ; )

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