on-a-mission-from-godEven a vicious criminal wants his gun manufactured by a virtuous man.

He most certainly doesn’t want the gun to have been made with cut corners, with an unscrupulous eye towards maximizing profit margins, and a sociopathic inconsideration for the end-user.

And so it is with everyone: no matter how much we may fail to attain virtue ourselves – no matter how much we behave as foolish children – we still want the things we buy and the people who provide our services to be virtuous.

For advertising and copywriting, this means that demonstrating or dramatizing virtue on the part of the product, manufacturer, or service provider is often enough to move the needle.

This is especially true in cases where proving superiority in performance is difficult or legally prohibited or impossible. In practical terms, demonstrating virtue means using your copy to indirectly show how the actions of  your client are driven by something deeper than economics.

Here’s an example demonstrating this technique of implied virtue:


In a previous post, I focused on the story’s ability to flatter prospective customers, but I ignored how the story implies that Mr. Beckley works on Mercedes because he has an affinity with the values that the car stands for – that he cares about how all that added engineering and build quality ultimately protect the driver.

In other words, Beckley’s  decision to focus on Mercedes and Volvos is a principled, virtuous choice, making him, by transference, a principled, virtuous mechanic (as opposed to a mechanic choosing to concentrate on a more lucrative or less competitive foreign auto market).

So Mr. Beckley not only becomes a mechanic you can trust, but one with whom you share a common brand affinity for Mercedes automobiles. Brilliant.

Taking WIIFY to the Next Level

Currencies_That_Buy-_CredibilityI touched on this emotional dynamic a bit earlier with my post on What’s In It For You (and on One Tough Mother’s Magical Advertising Secret),  But now I’d like to tie that idea to the work of my colleague Tom Wanek.

Tom’s framework of signaling theory, as described in his book Currencies that Buy Credibility, really functions as the missing link between credibility and WIIFY. Here’s how:

1. To show virtue, you have to show an unreasonable devotion to excellence or end-user satisfaction. You have to demonstrate extra-painstaking measures that go beyond the merely economic. And ideally, you want to do this with something other than an explicit claim.

2. Signaling Theory says that non-adaptive/non-economical expenditure of resources can be used to “prove” or signal mating fitness. The male peacock’s weighty tail feathers show off his vigor; they demonstrate his ability to survive despite the handicap, kind of like beating someone up “with one arm behind your back.”

3. In business, an apparently non-selfish investment of money, resources, time, etc. can signal the sincerity or virtue of your business offer. This is the crux of Wanek’s brilliant application of Signaling Theory to marketing. A money-back guarantee (supposedly) shows that you’re willing to take on all of the buying risk, ostensibly due to confidence in your product. Richard Davis’s willingness to shoot himself while wearing Second Chance Body Armor rather dramatically demonstrates how risking Safety and Wellbeing signals belief and trusts in a product:

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4. Ads can demonstrate virtue by leveraging one of Wanek’s 6 Currencies that Buy Credibility, namely:

  • Material Wealth
  • Time and Energy
  • Opportunity
  • Power and Control
  • Reputation and Prestige
  • Safety and Wellbeing

In the Beckley Automotive example, Mr. Beckley is sacrificing opportunity (the opportunity to work on any mark and make of vehicle) in order to signal his shared affinity for Mercedes.

My point is simply that layering virtue with Signaling creates a stronger overall effect than either strategy alone. And that this kind of implied demonstration of virtue is what most people are really after in most of the products and services they buy — that it represents what Ogilvy referred to as “a first class ticket” and “the positively good.

So what are you doing with your advertising? Are you using either or both of these techniques to maximum effect?

P.S. As previously noted, the Beckley Automotive example was used with the kind permission of the brilliant Chuck McKay, a marketing and business strategist with much to offer any business serious about pursuing increased market share and profitability.

P.P.S.  Tom will be teaching at Wizard Academy on the 26th of this month for those interested in an in-depth study of marketing through signaling theory

2011-01-06_1357Frankly, the chances are good that you’re squandering the very best branding opportunities available to you on your current Website.  Read on to find out why, and what you can do about it.

The Importance of Micro-copy

It all started a few months back, when my friend and former colleague from Future Now, Robert Gorell, told me about Hipmunk.com.  He wanted to talk about micro-copy and I was all ears.

Robbert believes (rightly) that the small snippets of copy that make up the predominance of customer interaction represent a huge opportunity for conveying “brand voice” – an opportunity that’s usually squandered.

For example:


All of these are areas where companies could take an opportunity to carefully break with the trite norms of the Web or of their industry and come up with something different. Something reflective of the brand personality. And all these remain fairly vanilla on the vast majority of Websites.

Hipmunk.com is an example of how to do it right

Instead of allowing you to only sort flights by airline, number of stops, or cost, Hipmunk.com also allows you to sort by “agony,” a combination of flight duration, number of stops, and cost.


How cool is that?

This is the kind of copy that brings to mind Tim Miles‘ writing adage: “Don’t tell her you’re courteous. Open her door.” A quote I always like to paraphrase as, “Don’t tell readers that you ‘understand’ them, write something that demonstrates your understanding – something that only a person who understood could write.”

Not only is the sort by agony feature a useful function, but the “agony” label shows that chipmunk “gets it”: they understand that most business travelers begrudge their time wasted at airports and are hoping to reduce it as much as possible, while still taking into account costs.

Micro-copy and Persona-Based Marketing

So while I appreciate the brilliance of the micro-copy, I also see this as an example of persona-based marketing. Because coming up with new and useful ways to sort flights or categorize products or view your options involves getting inside the heads and the lives of your prospective customers. You have to understand before you can create something that demonstrates that understanding.

And this is where Persona-based marketing becomes so very, very important. Personas provide marketers and copywriters a tool and framework for getting inside the lives and heads of their prospective customers. And the more you are unlike your target customer, the more you need help getting into their heads, the more you need personas.

Which is why any male interested in Marketing to Women ought to check out Michele Miller’s new Marketing to Women course, Unzipped.

The Unzipped approach to Persona-Based Marketing

2011-01-06_1429I read (and recommend) Michele’s previous book, The Soccer Mom Myth, and found it to have incredibly deep and worthwhile insights into persona creation.

Now, as a disclaimer, Michele is a fellow Wizard of Ads Partner and The Soccer Mom Myth was co-written by my friend and Future Now colleague, Holly Buchanan. So I’m biased. Then again, I was also as jaded as I was biased, thinking that I already knew everything the book was going to cover about persona-based marketing. Wrong! I was so wrong, in fact, that I invested in taking Michele’s online Marketing to Women course that was offered as a follow-up (and yes, I had to pay the tuition just like anyone else).

At any rate, if you’re available for the course at the end of this month, you should really check it out.

And if you can’t make it, why not buy the book, which is available for Kindle for only 99 cents.

P.S. The course will be co-taught by the brilliant Tom Wanek, author of Currencies that Buy Credibility.

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

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