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What are you on, Diet Coke?

Diet Coke Kiosk

Diet Coke’s fiendishly ironic (or not) kiosk at Fisherman’s Wharf; click the picture for a closer look.

The riskiest kind of advertising is that in which you are so much inside the head of your audience that you can actually poke gentle fun at them and they will be appreciative rather than insulted. My favorite successful example is an etrade billboard that towered above San Francisco in the height of the dot-com craziness: “Sure, it’s scary. But so is falling in love.” Sly reinforcement of the trepidation the internet bubble investor was feeling, and implication you should do business with etrade because they understand. Of course, this love affair didn’t end very well, but that’s not the copywriter’s fault.

A less good example is the badvertising kiosk I photographed at the Hyde Street turnaround, one of the most touristy areas of San Francisco. “You moved to San Francisco with a crowd-funded website. A dad-funded hatchback. And a no-funded bank account. You’re on. Diet Coke.” Please tell me how the target of this ad could be anything but insulted.

To parse it, you’re a loser who can’t afford to buy a car and you have no money in your bank account, and you’ve moved to San Francisco like thousands of other idealistic young people who are about to get a harsh lesson in reality. The “crowd-funded website” is what does the greatest damage here, though. I don’t think the copywriter (who I have the feeling is some old cackling dude in New York, with arthritis-gnarled fingers, who last visited San Francisco when Carol Doda was performing on Broadway) has any idea what a “crowd funded website” is—that’s actually quite a complex thing to pull off, hardly in the wheelhouse of somebody who can’t balance a checkbook. No, they’re just trying to paint a picture using some phraseology they grabbed out of Wired magazine and the general idea is that’s what young people move to SF for these days, instead of serving coffee at Vesuvio.

Actually, it isn’t, necessarily. There’s quite a battle among young people these days for the city’s soul as evidenced by protestors vomiting on the massive buses with the black tinted windows that whip the techies back and forth. Being an internet billionaire is not on a par, karma-wise, with being discovered playing your guitar in Golden Gate Park. The stock photo (behind the Diet Coke logo) of the “Painted Ladies”, another touristic attraction with little meaning for the young scrounger unless he sleeps under the bushes in Alamo Square, and the very location of this kiosk where few actual San Franciscans would see it all suggest the campaign was conceived by a couple of nicotine-stained hacks peering out the dirty windows of an office in Midtown Manhattan.

I haven’t yet mentioned the tag line, with its subtle-as-a-brick double entendre. Note in the photo that the period in “You’re on. Diet Coke.” is in a smaller font than the rest of the type (compare it to the punctuation in the body copy) to give us an extra wink. Oh. I get it. “You’re on” is one of those anthemic phrases like “let’s ride” but they just couldn’t resist suggesting the youngster is hopped up on caffeine and artificial sweeteners.

Which makes me wonder…. Could this actually be intended as irony? Is it in fact designed for the tourists, inviting them to mock the Friscans they know are mocking them? If so, genius. But I don’t believe that is what is happening here. Diet Coke team, if you’re reading, please tell me it is or isn’t so.

Playing the “oops” card in email marketing

Have you noticed how many emails you get these days with a subject line like “OOPS, we goofed” or “please accept our apologies”? Then you read and it’s a company that you may or may not recognize, telling you that they previously sent out a message in error saying that your discount was void when it really wasn’t, or they sent out a very private offer by mistake to the entire list and now they’re going to have to honor it?

Made you look, didn’t they? It’s the virtual equivalent of the good old “our buyer goofed” sale. We made a mistake, and you can reap the benefits, you greedy bastard you.

Well [IF YOU ARE MY CLIENT, PLEASE STOP READING RIGHT NOW], I found myself with a natural marketing opportunity this week when my internet service provider actually did face an “oops” moment in real life. It seems that SpamCop went all Putin and decided to block all kinds of completely legitimate non-spamming email servers. The ISPs have to plead to be unblocked and even after they are, it takes some time for the pending emails to resolve  and be delivered.

After thinking I was having a wonderfully peaceful week, I discovered today why I was not getting replies to my various project-based emails: they hadn’t been delivered. Several frantic hours were spent following up to re-send from gmail, in each case asking the recipient to confirm receipt.

Several of these were emails I wouldn’t normally expect to be answered: a casual conversation with a prospect, for example. But when I re-sent they dutifully said yes, I got it which means they read my email. Wait a minute! So this gave me the excuse to email a few folks [YOU CLIENTS AND PROSPECTS AREN’T READING THIS, ARE YOU?] I have been trying to light a fire under and saying hey, I’ve been trying to reach you, maybe the emails just haven’t been delivered, I’m still interested in working with you!

Try it yourself, if you dare. Disclaimer: professional driver on closed course. Possible side effects may include drowsiness and over-optimism.

Google Engage, did you have a seed list?

Google Pizza Box

Google Engage Pizza Box mailing; note protective corners

I often get promotions from Google Engage, the division charged with boosting AdWords sales to agencies. They spare no expense to make sure their message gets across. They’re one of the last big users of dimensional mailers, and they take extra care to be sure the package arrives in pristine condition. This mock pizza box, for example, had corners protectors spot-glued to protect it and was further protected by shrink wrap (which I’ve removed).


Inside the pizza box, as the marketers intended you to see it. Click the picture for a closer view of the wording on the gift card.

Inside, we have a promo that uses the built-in stage management of the pizza box effectively. This is a competition of some sort, and there’s an involvement device (the wheel), a box with rules, and a $40 gift card to pay for pizza since you’re going to be spending a lot of late nights in the office planning your AdWords campaign. The message on the gift card says “Late Night Pizza. Sound Familiar?” Very clever.

However, the first picture doesn’t show the package as first saw it when I opened the box; the second one does. There’s an ugly security notice across the gift card that hides the copy message, promotes the issuer of the card, and announces a $4.95 a month service fee if it’s not used quickly.

Google Pizza Gift Card with sticker

Gift card, as I actually received it, with security sticker covering the message.

I can’t believe this was what Google intended, and I’m sure at least one of of the project managers threw him/herself off the San Mateo Bridge on seeing this. (Why they chose an obviously cut-rate card company, after spending so lavishly on the other components, is a separate matter.)

The cure for this is to first, assume nothing. Don’t just order the cards, ask the issuer exactly how they’re going to look when they arrive. Second, do a check in the mail production house… this blooper could have been caught at that point, though I’m not sure what could have done since this is a time-value promotion. And third, address several pieces to seed names (without telling the mail house) so you can see it in the mail as your recipient does.

This promo arrived several months ago, and I can’t remember if a “please excuse the egg on our face” follow up was sent. I don’t think so, since it would have arrived Fedex like the original package and I would have noticed it and put it aside for later review as I did with this package. Too bad. It would have been fun to write that letter.

P.S. In case you can’t read it on the security sticker, the card issuer is incentivecardlab dot com. As of now, they’re not on my short list for suppliers.

New Crest tube is designed by idiots

Crest Tube

Crest tube can’t hold the toothpaste… brilliant

Do you have a mess like this in your toothbrush drawer? You will, if you’re a loyal customer of Proctor & Gamble and their flagship Crest brand.

Seems like the old tube with the small opening and the screw top wasn’t good enough for them, so they went to this great big cap that is supposed to pop on, but it doesn’t. And they also changed the formula of the paste so it’s more liquidy and oozes out all over the drawer.

Anybody know why they did this? Hard to believe it’s less expensive than the traditional tube. I think it’s a case of a/changing two things at once, which as marketers we know is folly and b/somebody with too much time on their hands.

I’m too cheap to throw it out, but as soon as it’s done I’m going to switch brands to somebody who still uses the old fashioned tube.

What we can learn from college solicitation direct mail

My son is a high school junior who recently took the PSAT, so he’s receiving a ton of prospecting mail from colleges. The other night we went through a stack of these direct mail packs, and it was interesting to see his reactions.

There was a lot of good stuff. Overall, the colleges did a strong job of presenting what makes them unique, and if it’s not a good match for my high school student there’s no fault to either side. But he had a couple of interesting comments from which lessons can be learned.

A couple of colleges disqualified themselves for consideration with cut-rate production. Here’s a college he’s never heard of, and you send him a solicitation that looks like you’re operating on a shoestring, and out you go into the discard pile. Lesson: be aware of the competitive environment in which your solicitation is viewed. If you really can’t afford a professional photographer and designer, maybe a heart felt letter from the president, in laser addressed envelope,  is the way to go.

And, a good third of the schools wanted my student to continue the dialog by going to a special web page and logging in with his name and password. This is Gen-X, or even Baby Boomer, marketing: assuming people will feel special because you’ve gone to the trouble to set up a “personal web page”. My millennial found it laughable. Passwords and user names are for World of Warcraft and a discussion of them usually leads to how you have been hacked. He also drew amusement from how he was “gmaxwell” on some college sites but maybe “gmaxwell3” on others and wondered if that meant he was less desirable to the latter.

To me, the best of the bunch was a completely non personalized self mailer from Carleton College with body copy that started: “Nice work on the PSAT!” Do they have access to his score? No matter. Why not assume the best about him and give him a compliment he may or may not deserve?

Chrysler, Dylan show how not to use celebrities in your advertising

Much has been made of the expensive nonsense that was the Chrysler ad in last week’s Super Bowl. What does “more American than America” mean? And is it disingenuous to proclaim “you can’t import American pride” when Chrysler is in fact owned by a German company? What was most troubling to me, however, was the way that Bob Dylan’s most public product endorsement (surprisingly, there been others) turned him from an icon into a pitchman.

The use of Eminem and Clint Eastwood in the two previous Super Bowl spots was brilliant. Eminem didn’t appear till toward the end and he looked like an anonymous and well-dressed young hipster, no visible tattoos, prompting many viewers to say “who’s that?” (The theme of the spot in that dark year, by the way, was “Imported from Detroit,” a direct contradiction to this year’s.) There’s no hiding Clint Eastwood’s voice, but the man himself was in shadows until the very end for the “halftime in America” spot, another piece of brilliant writing and staging.

By contrast, Dylan is in almost every frame of the 2014 spot so it comes to seem like a “you’ve seen him on…” retrospective. It doesn’t deflect the blatantly obvious to have the ironic cut of him flipping through his own albums in a record store. And at the end he does in fact turn to us and come right out and say it: “we will build your car.” And if you act fast, you’ll get a bonus set of floor mats!

Celebrities stand for something beyond their (often tawdry) actual selves. If you pay to put them in your advertising and fail to leverage that aura, you’re shooting yourself in the crankcase. The only exception might be the Ed McMahon/Bob Dole category of commercials used to pitch to an elderly audience, which is believed to have great respect for figures of authority. Come to think of it, Dylan’s actually old enough to join those ranks.

Here are the actual words to the Chrysler Dylan 2:00. Thanks to Mike Wayland, Michigan Live automobile blogger, for providing them so I don’t have to watch the spot over and over again to write them down.

Is there anything more American than America?
‘Cause you can’t import original.
You can’t fake true cool.
You can’t duplicate legacy.
Because what Detroit created was a first
and became an inspiration to the… rest of the world.
Yeah…Detroit made cars. And cars made America
Making the best, making the finest, takes conviction.
And you can’t import, the heart and soul,
of every man and woman working on the line.
You can search the world over for the finer things,
but you won’t find a match for the American road
and the creatures that live on it.
Because we believe in the zoom,
and the roar, and the thrust.
And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing
you can’t import from anywhere else. American…Pride.
So let Germany brew your beer,
Let Switzerland make your watch,
Let Asia assemble your phone.
We…will build…your car.

And, here are the Eminem and Eastwood spots in case you to watch and compare.

Budget Rent A Car mines data, comes with new $15 gas gimmick

Last week I was in Southern California, meeting with a client about how to use customer and transaction data to market more effectively. Coincidentally, when I picked up my rental car from Budget, they made me an offer which did just that.

I generally rent a car when I’m staying overnight. Rarely do I make any significant dent in the gas tank. Thus I always fill up on the way to the airport rather than just returning it and paying a refueling charge which is prohibitively expensive, or accepting the offer to prepay for a full tank I’m not going to use.

Neither Budget nor I wants me to fill up on the way to the airport. I don’t like refueling because I’m usually cutting it close time-wise, plus I often finding myself paying extra because the previous customer didn’t fill it up all the way. Budget doesn’t like it because they aren’t making any money on me. So they came up with a new offer: pay $15 for gas, no additional refueling charge as long as I drive under 75 miles.

If I drive 75 miles, at the worst they’ll break even. I was in a midsize car, and gas in this area was around $4.50 a gallon. But most customers probably don’t come close. (I didn’t.) So they’ve found a new revenue channel and I’m perfectly happy to pay it. $15 is close enough to the $7 or $8 I’d pay on my own that I am willing to buy freedom from the inconvenience.

Designing an offer like this for your own business, or your client’s, isn’t rocket science. You need to understand the pattern of usage, which will probably vary by area. This was at Orange County Airport, where people are either renting a car for a trip to Disneyland (well over 75 miles by the end of the trip) or right in the Irvine area (my scenario). And they may have tested different pricing to find that sweet spot where the customer is happy to pay for freedom from the inconvenience of the fill-up.

I am an agnostic car renter in that I’ll buy whatever is cheapest in the results that pop up on Kayak, so long as they’re not out of the airport. But Budget has given me a reason to pay extra attention to them next time. Nice work.

FSI coupons score for the home team before 2014 Super Bowl

Super Bowl FSIs

Football-themed FSIs a week before the big bsme

Okay, football fans, what’s special about this past Sunday? If you said Pro Bowl, you just got sacked for a loss. Correct answer: it’s the weekend before the Super Bowl, and therefore the Sunday when the FSI coupons do a Richard Sherman trying to connect themselves to the Super Bowl without actually mentioning the name of the event, since they haven’t paid the hefty licensing fee.

Here comes Kraft with “your bold lineup for game day dipping”. Foster Farms wants us to “save big on tasty favorites for game day”. With a casserole made with Carnation evaporated milk, “game day just got tastier”. Attacking a problem we didn’t know we had, Hefty plasticized paper plates advise us to “soak proof your game day”. And, in case you’re planning to eat a few too many nachos, Pepcid offers to “kick off the big game with even bigger savings”. Cheez-It advises you to “kick off the big game with these fan favorites”. And Land O’Frost offers “easy game day entertaining with our premium line-up”. Anybody notice a trend here?

But the story on the sidelines is that there are far fewer of these themed coupons than in years past. And, where many of them did photo shoots of hyperactive fans enjoying their products in a home setting, now most simply stick some stock art of a green football field behind their usual overdressed product graphics. What’s the strategy, coach? Where’s your jumbo package or that gimmick play?

It just may be that marketers have found these themed ads aren’t worth the effort in terms of incremental sales. The overwhelming majority of coupon clippers are female, and so the underlying message is that the little woman is going to put out a bountiful spread for the men in her house and their loutish guests. But more and more consumers may be blowing the whistle on this blatant pandering. It may be that it’s better to promote your tried-and-true product positioning after all.

In my house, I know, the males are going to be expected to put together their own Super Bowl spread and clean up after themselves. Maybe I should get some of those soak-proof plates.

Direct marketers think we’re pretty gullible, it seems

The best scams and con games involve an element of human greed: that wealthy banker in Nigeria who made you his heir because of an incident you don’t remember, and may actually involve someone else; the check that reaches you by accident yet has your name on it and is perfectly legal tender. In the more adept scams, the next step usually is to tap into your bank account. In direct mail, it would typically be a subscription or sale of some kind.

Water Park Voucher

Timeshare “fake check” offer

In our more cynical age these tactics may not work as well, and I don’t see them as often. But they show up every now and then, like embers of a dying fire that flicker back to life. This “fake check” example charmed me with its absurdity: Indoor Water Park Voucher Enclosed/Verification of Delivery Information Required/FINAL NOTICE. Wow, that’s a lot of security to deliver what looks like a discount to an amusement park. But I did open it and it turns out it’s a timeshare offer, which happens to include admission to the water park. And if this isn’t enough, there’s a kicker: “our records indicate that by responding within 48 hours you will also receive a $100 Restaurant dining card”. I am almost tempted to take advantage of this offer to see what kind of person responds. Almost.

It’s easy to poke fun at the individual who would be lured into buying a money-sink timeshare purchase by the offer of a free ride on a water slide. But what about the distinguished prospect for Forbes, a respected business magazine? Would they really be motivated by that violator lower right on the envelope that says DO NOT BEND?

Forbes Do Not Bend

Forbes “DO NOT BEND” offer

The target for this tactic was, traditionally, somebody who isn’t used to getting a lot of respect. The reason the package says “do not bend” is that a photo is inside (or sometimes a computer punch card, or a certificate of some kind). Wow, I’m so important that Steve Forbes, president of Forbes, is sending me a photo. But the funny thing is there isn’t any photo, or anything else which would be harmed in any way if you folded this mailer in half and stuffed it in your pocket.

Forbes is using a mass-production format and so you can bet they’ve done plenty of testing, and from that they’ve found out that hinting at an enclosed photo, then not providing the photo, is a great way to save some money without reducing response. In other words, it works, or they wouldn’t be doing it.

It’s humbling that such mailers are effective, and especially humbling that my household was deemed a ripe enough target to receive them. Maybe I should pack my bags for that 3 Days and 2 Nights including Water Park Passes for 4 guests, after all.

How to write a good lift note or publisher’s letter

International Living mail pack

Here’s the complete International Living mail pack. Click the photo to enlarge to a readable size.

The lift note, or publisher’s letter, is an additional element in a direct mail package which is designed to elevate (lift) the response rate and profitability sufficiently to repay its printing and production costs. It might highlight the offer, answer one specific objection, spotlight a key benefit, or emphasize the penalty for not responding.

The pub letter is a variation which is literally a communication from the publisher. The conceit is that he (in the old days, always a male) grabbed the mailer proofs as they were on their way to the printer and was inspired to add a personal message. He might talk about his pride in the product, make a guarantee, or offer the classic “frankly, I’m puzzled” perspective in which he wonders why more people don’t respond to such a great opportunity and urges the reader not to lose out.

We don’t see too many lift notes in today’s lean direct mail packs, but I received a fine example recently from International Living. These folks are one of the last old-school newsletter publishers and they send a classic 8-page letter about the low costs and lifestyle benefits to be found retiring abroad.

The pub note, which is personalized and the first thing you see upon opening the package, begins: “I’m concerned that you have not had a chance to review the enclosed letter”. The publisher (now it’s a she) drops in a paragraph describing the product then continues, “in the past, you may have received an invitation from us. However, I’m quite sure you have not received one recently…” and then goes on to sell not the newsletter, but the investment of 10 minutes of my time to read the rest of the package components.

What’s nice about this is that the copywriter took the knowledge that the name was rented from a list of people who have not been prospected previously, and turned this into a very personal message and benefit. (Reminds me of the classic Emily Soell letter for Vanity Fair which begins “if the list on which I found your name is any indication…”)

Does it work? I sure hope so. In essence, by elevating and personalizing the lift note, International Living has turned it into the driver of the package. The preprinted long form letter, which today’s distracted readers are less likely to pay attention to, becomes a supporting brochure. It’s a great way to refresh an appeal to an older audience which today is far more cynical and less trusting than the previous generation. I’m definitely going to try this tactic for myself, next time I have the budget to write a package with lots of components. How about you?