A man is touring a construction site. He sees a worker laying down mortar with a trowel and walks over to him. “What are you doing here?” he asks. The worker grunts back, “Laying bricks.” So the man wanders over to another worker. “And what are you doing?” he asks. The second worker barely spares him a glance as he answers, “Making a wall.” Then the man sees a third worker nearby who is whistling a cheerful tune as he labors. “May I ask what you’re doing here?” the man says to him. The worker pauses, looks him straight in the eye, and with a broad smile says, “Why, I’m building a cathedral.”
I love this story for two reasons. First, it teaches us the importance of taking joy in our work, of focusing on the end result of our efforts even as we labor over the day-to-day minutiae. Second, it reminds us that the things worth doing take time.
Rome was not built in a day. Neither, for that matter, was IBM. Brands, like cities and cathedrals, do not just magically appear. They are built over time, the result of years of blood, sweat, inspiration and, especially these days, money.
Direct Response can be a valuable tool during that brand construction. Will it shorten the time it takes to build a successful brand? Probably not. But what it can do is help you develop a marketing campaign that generates sales revenue in the short term even as you build longer-term brand success.
Take Dell, for example. There is no doubt that the computer company spawned in Michael Dell’s dorm room has become one of the most recognized and successful brands in the country. But it was profitable long before the Dell Dude’s 15 minutes of fame — thanks in no small measure to the company’s emphasis on Direct Response marketing.
Too often executives feel like they are forced to choose expensive “brand awareness” campaigns that lay out frustratingly vague goals. But they continue to sign off on them, despite their misgivings. Why? Because today’s marketing “conventional wisdom” says that is the only way to build a successful brand. So execs guzzle more Pepto-Bismol and commit millions — billions — to flashy, splashy ad campaigns whose results can rarely be accurately measured.
But there is another way.
Throughout my years in direct marketing, I have seen hundreds of examples of DR playing a vital role in helping a company build its brand while maximizing its sales efforts. Does it replace more traditional marketing? Not necessarily. What it does do is make all of a company’s marketing efforts accountable, so you can (finally!) accurately gauge the success of your campaign and make the necessary adjustments in as close to real time as possible.
Mention DR to brand-oriented marketing folks, though, and watch a lot of them flinch as they imagine some late night carnival pitchman hawking the latest übergadget on a cheesy cable show. They will shudder just thinking about how that image can undermine the high-trust, high-quality reliable brand they are trying to build.
It does not have to be that way, of course — DR campaigns can share the same high production values, the same cleverness, the same qualities as traditional brand-based efforts. No one would accuse Dell’s spots of being low rent, or the Geico commercials of being dull. It is all in how you approach your DR campaign.
When I am responsible for building a DR campaign, I use what I call a “brand filter” to ensure that all DR activities are consistent with the brand image the client is building. More than just a tool, it is really an overriding mindset that governs how to ensure DR’s seamless integration into the total marketing loop.
The Total Marketing Loop
At its core, marketing is all about getting noticed by your prospective customers. Without that, nothing happens. That is just the first step. How do you get noticed? Does it matter if you generate a positive or negative reaction? How long can you hold their attention? How long will they remember what you just told them? And, most importantly, what will they do now?
Different aspects of the marketing loop address those different questions. Direct Response doesn’t replace those other marketing activities; approached properly, in fact, it makes them even more effective.
Consider the four major marketing categories, how they are differentiated from each other, and how they can complement each other.
The goal of general advertising is brand awareness and positioning. There is nothing better than being the name people immediately and consistently associate with some product or service. Say “soft drink,” for example, and most people will think “Coke.” It is in this area, for that very reason, that companies usually invest the bulk of their marketing budgets. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it sure can buy a full-page spread in USA Today or a Super Bowl commercial. The tricky part is measuring just how effective all that high-priced general advertising really is — did your market share grow because of your Friends spots, or was there some other reason? And God forbid if your share did not increase . . .
Sales promotions are designed to find unique ways to entice customers to try your product or visit your store. At one end, they can be as simple as coupons or special discounts for people who mention a specific radio ad. At the other end, they can be large-scale giveaways or contests. The hope, obviously, is that once you are in the store you’ll buy other items — and come back in the future.
Public relations ideally generates exposure that is free, credible and positive. When it works, it can be tremendous — before its launch, Microsoft’s Xbox video game console received a torrent of national media attention in the form of news stories, features and reviews. Thanks to that avalanche of publicity, the Xbox became the best-selling video game system within two weeks of its debut. It’s not as if Microsoft neglected general advertising, but it’s the PR that created the buzz. Unfortunately for marketing departments, though, PR is sometimes hard to buy — and harder to control. It is definitely a double-edged sword, and can destroy a brand’s image just as easily as it can build one. Remember the Edsel?
The goal of Direct Response marketing is simple: get the customer to act. Now. In a world where your prospect is bombarded with literally thousands of commercial messages a day, you cannot afford to plant a seed and wait. You need to engage the customer’s interest and sustain it long enough to prompt them to do something, whether it is order a product, request more information or visit your store. Consider Home Depot’s “Call. Click. Or visit.” ads, which succinctly but effectively encourage the customer to pick up the phone, check out the company’s website or head over to one of its stores. Simple, yes, but it leaves the viewer with a call to action.
Each of these areas is distinct, and each is necessary to build a successful brand. DR believer that I am, I would never suggest you jettison all your general advertising spots, or refuse a PR opportunity. Direct Response marketing needs those elements to work its magic. Think about it like this: your car runs only because of the harmonious, interrelated functioning of a number of specific, separate systems. If your exhaust system is out of whack, it will impede the whole vehicle’s ability to function. If your tires are not properly balanced, your car will steer poorly. If your spark plug wires go bad, you will have trouble starting it up.
And just like your car runs better after a tune-up, when each of those elements is operating at peak efficiency, the success of your overall marketing program will be greatly enhanced when its component parts — general advertising, sales promotions, and public relations — all are humming along. DR is like the fuel additive that increases efficiency and maximizes performance. It makes everything else operate better.
Consider, for example, those popular Dell Dude commercials from the early 2000’s. Ostensibly, they were general advertising — and, given the frequency with which they ran and the time slots and channels they aired on, they certainly did a nice job of promoting the Dell brand. There was a promotions angle, too, though, as Dell offered free monitors or upgrades to consumers. And since Steven the Dell Dude became something of a minor celebrity, Dell reaped a PR bonanza as well from the ads.
But those commercials were also, at their heart, Direct Response marketing. Each was tied to a specific offer on a computer system, and each provided a toll-free number and web address for customers to use — and use immediately. Would they have been successful without the DR component? Certainly. But its inclusion gave Dell the ability to precisely measure the immediate sales success generated by the spots. DR made the campaign accountable, which, given the money Dell spent, must have been reassuring to nervous execs. As all those branding and PR intangibles made themselves felt indirectly, the computer giant could point to concrete orders tied to specific commercial showings to gauge the impact they were having on the buying public.
It all made for good PR — and even better DR.
The DR Campaign
The best DR campaigns are part art and all science. Depending on the company, the product and the target market, DR campaigns may seem very different. Look a little deeper, though, and I think you will find far more shared attributes than are readily apparent. Remember: what you are seeing in a commercial spot is only the tip of the DR iceberg. The real power lies beneath the surface.
In my experience I have found that the best way to ensure success is to approach each campaign in a similar fashion. That does not mean the you should produce cookie-cutter campaigns. It is more like having an accurate, reliable road map to use as a guide. With the map in hand, you can easily find where your clients currently are and see where they want to be. Then, you can use the infrastructure in place to get them from Point A to Point B. Not everybody starts in the same spot, and not everyone aims for the same exact destination. But the map will work for them all nevertheless, because it’s comprehensive and outlines flexible options.
I like the map analogy because it’s an aid to action —and action is the vital heart of DR. A lot of companies create processes and blueprints, but I prefer to think in terms of journeys. It is your job to help guide the client from where they are to where they want to be. With that in mind, here is a travel guide version of how we get results.
Step 1: Map
Obviously, if you are setting out on a journey, especially if it is to a place you have never been, the first priority is finding a good, detailed map. Since every product is different, every company’s criteria for DR success unique, your immediate task will be to painstakingly map the relevant market — including your clients.
Start by getting to know your clients inside and out. Review their core business. Analyze their current marketing programs and gauge their effectiveness. Study their pricing strategies and their sales flow processes. Research their customers, their business goals and their strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, you may learn more about how their brand is really being perceived than they know themselves.
Then widen the scope of your research. Analyze the competitive landscape to see how other companies are faring in the same or related industries. Study relevant marketing trends and consumer tendencies. As an agency, you should put your collective ear to the ground to gather information about anything else that might affect your clients — pending legislation, for example.
At the end of that exhaustive process you will know pretty conclusively what map you should be using, and where your clients currently are on it. So then it’s time to move on to finding where they want to be.
It is a little more complicated than simply saying “we want to be successful,” or “we want to build our customer base.” That is a given. But where DR, properly handled, really excels is in maximizing the efficiency of your marketing dollars as you grow towards those long-term goals by helping you better achieve the very necessary short-term goal of making sales. Rather than risk the farm on those traditional branding campaigns whose success can only be determined after the fact, DR allows for rigorous monitoring of how well you are achieving your immediate sales goals. The more specific the goals, the better you can measure their ROI — the better you can adjust your campaign to compensate.
Step 2: Communicate
Thanks to your newly strategized DR map, you will then have a very accurate picture of where our client is, and where they want to be. The task now is identifying the best, most economical route to get from here to there.
You may be wondering why I call this phase “communicate” instead of something like “pathfinding” or “identifying.” I do so because it reminds everyone — both your team and your clients’ own marketing personnel — of the paramount importance of being on the same page. What good is a map if you cannot agree on it? If you have ever gotten lost while camping, you probably still vividly remember your companions strenuously arguing about which way to go, each of them convinced he had the solution. Those are the kind of trips that prove memorable, but definitely not enjoyable — and that is the kind of atmosphere we want at all costs to avoid. So the virtue we stress most is that of clear, honest communication as you set about studying your map.
In planning for a roadtrip, you have to take into account certain realities. How much time do you have to reach your destination? Given the distance to be traveled, is that schedule feasible? How much money do you have for gas, food and lodgings? What assumptions are you making about road conditions, weather, other drivers, etc.?
Pretty much the same principles apply in a DR campaign. What kind of budget can a client devote to the campaign? What kind of production schedules apply? What’s your overall timeline? Is there anything out there you don’t know about — new competitors’ products, pending legislation, etc. — that could impact the campaign?
Before implementing a DR program, you need better be crystal clear about all those (and many more) variables, concerns and projections. The essence of DR is so simple that people new to the field often do not realize how myriad and complex the details are, and how neglecting any of them can limit or even negate the success of your DR campaign. The devil really is in the details — ignore them at your peril.
With that in mind, we drill deep to develop detailed reporting formats that will enable us to measure results by target market, by commercial, day by day and week by week. This data will be critical to guiding the DR campaign towards the sales goals you have set.
This is also the phase of our DR journey where you can really begin to make use of the “brand filter.” It acts as your compass, ensuring that you never waver from the image of the brand you are helping build. Short-term sales success at the expense of a company’s brand image simply is not an option for — nor should it be in any responsible DR campaign.
Step 3: Prioritize
You have got our map. Once you have taken an inventory of your resources. You will then know where you are going and how you are going to get there. What’s next?
Now is the time for you to look closely at each impending step in your DR journey, and to determine in which precise order you should take them. This is the point at which you should really develop a detailed marketing plan — really several integrated plans, each designed to help you reach a specific sales objective.
What media will be best suited to support the campaign? If the offer will be primarily made via television, should you develop supporting print, direct mail or web material? What kind of publicity can you generate? If you can, you should develop strategic partnerships to better promote your clients’ product and win them additional positive exposure.
Make sure to spend a lot of time developing and fine-tuning the DR offer itself. Obviously, if it proves ineffective, the campaign will fail. So you need to use a wide array of market research tools, including surveys and focus groups, to ascertain what most appeals to your target audiences. It is not unusual for offers to vary slightly depending on where and when a commercial airs. Perhaps different features of the product might attract different demographics. Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit about the floor wax that was also a dessert topping? Not a bad fit for the HGTV crowd. But if you want to advertise it on the Food Network, we might stress its value as a dessert topping that doubled as a floor wax. Different audience, different emphasis. Silly example.
Your preoccupation is how best to acquire leads, and how to then successfully convert those leads into actual sales. It’s important that you reiterate the goals you set earlier in the process and hold yourselves wholly accountable to them.
As with all DR activities, you should avoid like the plague assumptions you cannot test. It is not enough if you think that one media outlet or one offer will prove most effective — you need some hard data to back up those theories. That attitude pervades all your actions from this point forward. It also keeps good DR campaigns on track and on budget at a time when too many traditional branding campaigns become marketing money-pits.
By the end of this step in the process you will know where you are, where you are going, the route that will take you there, and the specific actions you must perform along your path. Sound complicated? You betcha. Is it worth it? Definitely.
If nothing else, I hope this article has shown you how far removed today’s Direct Response marketing is from those badly-lit, badly-acted late night infomercials where some huckster offers you a gadget the slices, dices and parks the car, all for the low, low price of only $19.95. Everywhere you look in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, you can find DR campaigns that are creative, credible and constructed on rigorously scientific principles — and making big bucks for the companies using them, including Dell, Home Depot and Geico. DR has hit the mainstream.
Does that mean that traditional brand advertising, sales promotions and public relations have gone the way of the dodo? Of course not. DR hasn’t made those marketing tools obsolete — on the contrary, it’s made them even more effective by helping them achieve short-term sales success while building long-term brand value.
Integrating DR into your marketing loop is not something to be undertaken casually. Done well, it can become a powerful addition to your marketing arsenal. Done poorly, or haphazardly or incompletely, it can sabotage the best of intentions. Care must be taken to attend to every detail, to test every assumption and to understand every facet of the DR process — and never, while doing all that, to lose sight of the big picture.
This is why I developed the idea of the “brand filter”. It’s a way to align the entire project team around the identity that is being projected — and helping build — for the client. It informs all DR decisions, and helps ensure that short-term success will not come at the expense of long-term brand goals.
I am often asked whether DR works better for large, established companies or for nimble young startups. I have seen it work for both. Frankly, it is not so much who you are as how you implement your DR campaign. There are differences, certainly, but they are outweighed by the similarities. Just remember: to thine own brand be true.