Category Archives: Sales techniques

Why Trump’s election underlines the awesome power of The Big Brand


The global airwaves and webwaves are now rammed with commentators and journalists post-rationalising why Trump got in.

You can’t turn on the telly or read a news site without finding some media luvvie telling you how half of Americans felt disenfranchised and ignored, and how, by voting for The Donald, they were making a statement about the Washington political elite. And globalisation. And immigration. And so on.

What nobody (apart from me, seemingly) has yet said is ‘Trump is an incredibly powerful brand’.

He’s built his public persona over many years. Like Kit Kat. People know exactly what he stands for and what to expect. Like Fairy Liquid. And as the ex-presenter of the US Apprentice series he is a genuine, A-List reality TV star.

And (just like Brand Boris in the UK), you can recognise Trump from his hair alone. What a fantastic logo that is. Just like McDonald’s golden M or Disney’s silhouetted mouse ears.

He’s got some brilliant brand slogans too: “Build a wall”, “Lock her up”. They’re what great slogans always are, specific, memorable and most importantly, ownable. Just like Have a Break Have a Kit Kat.

Compare Hillary’s lame offering: “Forward together”. Straight out of the bland political slogan handbook. Cooked up by a committee. Can’t really imagine people at a rally chanting “Forward together!”, can you?

Trump even created a hugely memorable  Brand Positioning for Clinton: “Crooked Hillary.” If you look at this stuff in marketing terms it’s actually close to genius.

In short, Trump has become quite simply a Very Big Brand. And big brands are what people go for. Ask Lever Brothers or Procter and Gamble.

Lever Brothers sell Marmite. Half the British population hates it (me included). The other half loves it. This division is so marked that it’s actually become intrinsic to Marmite’s brand. Their TV ads even show people spitting it out.

Lever Brothers and their agencies recognised that not everyone likes everything, and cleverly built a massive brand around the fact that lots of people hate Marmite with a vengeance. People in the UK even talk about things being ‘a bit Marmite’. How many brands have become part of everyday language in this way?

Donald J Trump is exactly like Marmite. He hasn’t tried to make everyone like him. But the people who do, love him. And the people who don’t, hate him. The people who love him forgive him his trespasses.

That’s why you’ll never hear anyone, anywhere, say, “Oy yes, Trump, he’s OK I guess”.

Large, established consumer brands can withstand short bursts of terrible PR. Their reputation can take a knock but, if they’re big enough, they easily bounce back. Smaller, less established brands can be destroyed. Again, Trump embodies this resilience spectacularly.

Contrast this with Hillary. A me-too brand if ever there was one. A white, charisma-free Obama-lite –  the own-label diet cola to Trump’s full-fat Coke.


Is grammar really that important?


Should you really be that worried about knowing the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, ‘there and their’ (and ‘they’re’), and ‘it’s’ and ‘its’? Aren’t these quaint old-fashioned considerations that in the modern, super-fast online world we simply don’t need any more?

Well that depends, as my friend stated pithily when we were discussing this issue yesterday, whether you want to look like an idiot or not.

As with many things in marketing, it all comes down to who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to 15 year olds about a new video game, not so much. If you’re talking to 46 year old CEOs of global corporations who might be (potentially) spending $1m on your product then, yes, it very much matters.

If your website or brochure is full of spelling and grammar mistakes, what kind of message does that send your customers who are clever enough, or experienced enough, or educated enough to notice?

It says either “I am too ignorant to know the difference” or it says “I know the difference but I don’t care that people think I’m just ignorant.”

EIther way, why take the risk of turning off a potential customer before they’re even fully engaged with your offer?

Of course, the proliferation of typos, bad punctuation and grammatical errors in today’s marketing has a lot to do with keeping costs down for clients. Hiring or contracting a good copywriter is a cost that more and more agencies feel their clients won’t bear (and they’re often right).

So the client writes their own stuff or, heaven forfend, a web designer or UX person does it.

But the result is copy and content that is badly written, hard to understand and that can genuinely damage your brand.


Good copywriter, bad copywriter – what’s the difference?


To me, there’s no mystery to it. You can tell who’s a good copywriter and who’s a bad one within a few seconds of reading their work.

By a good copywriter, I mean one that’s going to write copy (or content, if you prefer) for you that really sells your products or services. One that knows how to get under the skin of your target audience and writes stuff that will get them clicking through to your Buy Now page before they know what’s hit them.

And here’s the secret…

Bad copywriters mostly concern themselves with how they say stuff. Good copywriters concern themselves mostly with what to say.

This is because the message, the offer, the nugget of information contained in the words is always far, far more important than the words themselves.

A good copywriter will ask you loads of very detailed questions about the product, the marketplace and the target audience. And spend a lot of time seeking the razor-sharp idea that will most convince your audience to act (or think) in the way you want them to.

A bad one will simply write some puns around your product name or come up with what they think is ‘clever wordplay’.

I saw a particularly awful example of a bad copywriter’s work yesterday while strolling past the British Museum.

There were some posters on the railings announcing particular exhibitions. One had a picture of an ancient coin. With a line next to it about how things change through history. Geddit? Coin, change?

Trouble is, this headline told me absolutely nothing about the exhibition. I gleaned it was something to do with coins from the picture but the oh so clever headline added nothing to the communication whatsoever. There were several more, equally hopeless.

This is the classic sort of stuff you see every day of the week from Bad Copywriters who have hardly paused for a second to think what the communications objective of these posters might be. They’ve gone straight for a lame pun because they think that’s what copywriters do.

And, as they’ve bought this drivel in the first place, their clients clearly concur.

Borrowed Interest: why it’s the lazy person’s alternative to an idea

Borrowed interest. This is where you import an idea, a headline, a visual treatment or something else irrelevant to the product or service you’re selling from somewhere else.

It used to be something that only your local builder, minicab or beauty parlour did. Because they didn’t know any better and it, sort of, looked like the advertising they saw from the big boys.

They’d nick the campaign line from famous brands, so you’d get Betty’s Hair Art Refreshes the Styles that Other Salons Cannot Reach. Sid’s Plumbers. No Other Plumbers Look like us, or Plumbs Like Us. And so on. You get the idea.

Or they’d nick a line from a famous song. Or use a naff library shot image to create a lame visual pun. Much easier than understanding what your customer needed and presenting a compelling reason why they should buy from you rather than somebody else.

Nowadays, because of the democratising of the ad industry, where sales promotion folk do ads, where ad folk do dm, where dm folk do PR, we’re starting to lose our craft skills. On the agency side and on the client side.

And this has resulted in Borrowed Interest creeping into the work of agencies (and brands) that seriously ought to know better.

So what’s wrong with it?

The problem is, it’s usually done because the client/planner/suit/copywriter/art director can’t be bothered to delve deeply enough into the product or service they’re selling. It’s hard work to get inside the head of your target audience and understand their specific motivations, needs and desires.

(Another reason why so much work these days looks like it’s aimed at 19 year olds, even if it’s clearly a product for 50 year olds.)

So instead of isolating a really interesting and compelling idea that’s firmly rooted in a consumer benefit, you get an idea that is simply bolted on to the product. The dimmer suits and clients go “Oo, that’s clever!”  because you’ve turned the title of a film or song into a headline for weedkiller.

This means that you lose the opportunity to say something really distinct and ‘ownable’ about the thing you’re supposed to be selling.

Instead of crafting a bespoke advertising solution (much as I hate that word, it’s appropriate here) you’re simply taking an off the peg idea and sellotaping it to something far more interesting.

It’s lazy and it’s ineffective. And it’s everywhere.

It’s really no different from your local car repair shop’s calendar with naked women all over it. In fact, it’s arguably worse than that. Here’s why…

But what about celebrities, aren’t they borrowed interest too?

Social psychologists have studied this phenomenon. And it’s crystal clear that using celebrities harnesses the power of what these boffins call ‘association’. So if you associate your product with a celebrity (or a sexy naked woman) it will share the goodwill that the celebrity engenders in the audience already.

If you’re selling a service where you’ve got nothing physical to show, like a bank, it’s often an interesting solution to create an ownable character (think of the LLoyds TSB people, for example, now dumped. DOH!) or import a celeb as the face of your faceless brand. Santander have got Jessica Ennis and Jenson Button all over their stuff at the mo. This probably does good things for the brand, especially when banks and bankers are so unpopular, as they are currently.

But a problem arises when you don’t buy out the celeb concerned. I was convinced I was looking at a Santander ad the other day, but it was Jessica wearing her Prudential hat. Big mistake, allowing your brand’s pet celeb to work for a direct competitor. DOH, DOH, DOH!

But as long as your celeb is saying something relevant about your product and ‘fits’ with your brand values then it’s often a good way to bring your brand to life.

And we all like a bit of domination

Cleverer brands often use another psychological technique called Authority. Endless experiments have shown that we defer to authority figures. Doctors, headmasters, tall people (really), generals, royalty…

So if you’re selling toothpaste, get a dentist to talk about its benefits. Even better, get a celebrity dentist.

Selling makeup, get a Hollywood makeup artist (or film star) to talk about its benefits. Selling insurance for old people, get a famous old person to endorse it.

I won’t insult your intelligence by listing the big brands that do this all the time. Just turn on the telly.

Of course, you have to choose the right person. Pick someone who’s completely irrelevant to your product or service and, although, you may get a little bit of traction through the association principle, you’re basically slap bang into good old-fashioned borrowed interest territory.



Is selling a science or an art?

It’s a funny old business.

If you’re a big gun creative director in the world of advertising, your salary depends on the amount of awards you’ve won.

But if you’re a big gun creative director in the direct marketing business, your salary depends on the amount of stuff your work sells.

That’s why real direct marketing copywriters are always looking for new ways to increase the response rates their work generates—always seeking a little copy twist or technique that will add a percentage here, a percentage there, to the ‘pull’ (DM jargon for response) of the campaign.

And they know these techniques work because they test. And test and test. If the new technique adds response, you keep it. If it doesn’t you ditch it. Simple.

It’s what makes direct marketing seem more like a science than an art. Which, in many ways it is. And, as in science, things often happen that are completely counter to many people’s intuition.

Here’s a great example, and a very interesting technique.

A client I was working for made their money out of those Premium Phone Lines that everyone hates.  Not a client I’m particularly proud of, but instructive none the less.

The business model was this: you send a letter telling the punter that they have been selected to receive an award. You give them a list of the awards which will be distributed. They have to ring up to find out which one they can claim. Naturally most get the cheapest one on the list, the voucher, the mp3 player etc.  The phone call they make costs a ludicrous amount like five or six quid, which is how the company makes their money.

So it’s all about getting as many people to call as possible, like any other direct mail exercise.

Now, two of the most powerful sales/response motivators are what social psychologists call Social Proof and Scarcity.

Put crassly, Social Proof works by appealing to one’s herd mentality. “Nine out of ten owners say their cats prefer it”, “87% of women said it improved their appearance of youthfulness”.

If you want to persuade someone to do something, show them that lots of other people are doing it. It’s an unbelievably powerful motivator. It’s one of the reasons testimonials always work so well, for example. (And the reason why suicide rates always increase when one is reported in the news.)

Scarcity, on the other hand, works by planting an idea that something the punter wants/is on the point of buying is quite scarce/rare so you better snap it up quick, madam. “Only two days until Sale ends”, “Last ten pairs available” “Strictly Limited Edition”. (Ebay is a master of manipulating this of course: “Don’t miss out on…”)

What I did for this client is combine these two motivators. I wrote some copy for a test which said “Experience shows us that this offer is certain to be hugely popular. We apologise therefore if the phone lines are particularly busy when you call, but your call will be answered. Please call promptly however as the number of awards are strictly limited to those shown here.”

The client was very reluctant to run the test because he felt that telling the people the lines would be busy would put people off calling.

Quite the reverse.

Inserting these simple sentences into the call to action bit of the letter increased response by enough to make it a valuable addition to the control pack.

And now you know why. “Hugely popular” and “particularly busy” leverage social proof. “Strictly limited” leverages scarcity.

All of which goes to show, if you’re really interested in selling stuff, not just winning awards, you should study human motivation and the psychology of persuasion. You’ll get far more ideas than you ever will from the D&AD annual.

Why WHAT you say will always be more important than HOW you say it

When I was a fresh-faced, bushy-tailed graduate trainee at a top London ad agency many years ago, we were always taught that when you’re producing advertising of any sort, what you say is always more important than the way you say it.

In other words, it’s the message that counts not just the way in which you present it. At all costs, the message had to zing out and be clearly communicated to the target audience—whether on tv, outdoor media, in the press or, these days, online.

Increasingly, however, this old mantra seems to have fallen by the wayside (so many other tried and tested techniques that have been discarded in favour of a few Facebook likes and ludicrous ‘branding’ exercises).

And a lot of the work you see out there has clearly spent 90% of its creative time on the ‘how’ and barely none on the ‘what’.

The simple communication of strong reasons to buy is replaced by puns, wordplay, unnecessary jokes, complicated art direction and illegible typography. These are the things that often float the creatives’ boat, and the things that win creativity awards.

They’re not necessarily the things that sell stuff, however. Here’s an example…

A superbly talented designer/typographer at an agency I was freelancing at was asked to design some 48 sheet posters for Yell, the old Yellow Pages company. The concepts were simple copy statements which needed some zip and impactful art direction to make them leap off the hoardings. Nothing wrong with that.

The designer’s solution was to turn the type into street maps (as ever the Yell sell was all about finding your local suppliers fast and easily). Very cute and clever idea with yellow and black Yell brand colours to the fore. Great looking work.

But totally illegible.

Not only that, a lot of people didn’t even ‘get’ what the design was meant to be. Even some of the account team selling it into the client hadn’t realised the design was meant to look like a street map—presumably they thought it was just a pretty, eye-catching pattern?

But everyone agreed the posters looked fantastic; the Executive Creative Director was raving about the brilliance and innovation of the design.

The fact that they were literally impossible to read seemed to whizz over everyone’s head; including the clients’, clearly, as they bought the campaign lock stock and barrel and spent a fortune on the media. Talk about the Emperor’s New Clothes!

Yell, of course, went down the pan soon after.

But the campaign and its designer won Best Typography award at The Creative Circle.

Are you understanding, valuing and reassuring your clients?

It doesn’t do any of us any harm to be reminded of some of the basic principles of what we do from time to time.

That’s why I’d like to thank Rebecca from PTC for reminding me and my fellow seminar attendees how important it is to think about how your client is really responding to what you’re offering, doing or saying.

After all, how often have agencies been perplexed when a client takes their business elsewhere and then discovered it was simply because the agency hadn’t paid attention to the most basic aspects of client service? Namely, making sure your client is always:


Sounds easy. But how often we forget this simple stuff when we’re so busy trying to sell them our latest genius headline!

Do we genuinely understand them? Have we really listened to their needs—and that means emotional as well as business, don’t forget. Have we paid attention to their body language? Have we probed and prodded to make sure they’re really saying what they mean?

I know that when I was a client I would find it utterly infuriating when the agency account director was clearly not listening to what anyone was saying and, in the whole time the relationship continued, he never really bothered to find out what it was the company really did—how The Reader’s Digest business model really worked. Basic stuff, one would have thought?

Do we really value them? Do we constantly remind ourselves that without the client we’d have no business and be out of job? Do we think of them as a customer to be served or an annoyance to be dealt with?

And do we reassure them enough? Do we carefully, painstakingly explain what we’re proposing to do for them?

Clients are often a little scared of creative work and creative types—they’re sometimes out of their comfort zone, don’t speak the latest jargon and feel excluded. We must make sure they feel included, their opinions listened to and respected, their fears, worries and concerns are teased out at the earliest opportunity.

We must make sure they’re buying our services with confidence and understanding, not simply responding to a hard sell and worrying about it later.