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The "Useless Marketing" Trap

Or here's another example: McDonald's had this big powwow when it realized that sales were slumping and that it had a tired brand. So they brought together their 10 ad agencies at some place in Illinois. That was the first mistake. First of all, 10 agencies around a table can't get anything done. They're just going to be putting each other down.

Second, instead of bringing the agencies together, why not bring the guys who make the burgers and the fries? Why don't they have somebody who realizes those McDonald's stores look like relics? The Golden Arches don't work anymore. It looks like a '50s anachronism. The magic is gone, it just isn't there anymore. What McDonald's needs is a bottom-up fix, not a new ad.

But instead of asking themselves the right question -- What are we going to offer people in a country that's changed its eating habits? -- they keep throwing good money after bad, supporting ad-agency people who just want to win more Clios, not sell burgers or whatever. Corporate management, and not just at McDonald's, hasn't realized that, yes, you can throw many millions of dollars at broadcast ads and, yes, some of it is going to stick, but there are better ways of building a brand.

Q: So who is getting the marketing game right?

A: I think that the people who work on Madison Avenue need to go and look at infomercials once a month.

Q: Infomercials! You're joking, right?

A: I couldn't be more serious. Everybody who has ever been up at night watching those things knows how well they work: Fifteen minutes into the infomercial you want to buy whatever they're selling.... You want to buy those sunglasses that are unbelievable or the tummy cruncher that you know won't work. But the infomercial people are just so great at selling -- they can sell anything because selling is what they're about, not entertaining. They show you before/after, before/after, before/after. They show you testimonial, testimonial, testimonial, testimonial -- and you know, despite yourself, you start to believe it. All the infomercial people care about is sales. Infomercials aren't entertaining, but you can bet they're selling the stuff they're pitching.

Q: What can businesses with smaller budgets do? How can a relatively small outfit get the maximum punch for its commercial dollar?

A: I often think that the difference between big business and small businesses is that big businesses can afford to lose money. Corporate America can drop $100 million and it's no problem at all. Small businesses have to safeguard the dollars, so they're much more prudent and effective in the way they use their marketing budgets.

There's a chain of workout facilities called Crunch, and they're a great example of the points I'm making. Not long ago, I flew on JetBlue, an airline that doesn't have an inflight magazine. So I look in the pouch to see if there's anything to read and there was this simple card waiting to be picked up, something you could print for a nickel, and it had yoga exercises you could do on the plane to ease the discomfort of being jammed in a tight little space. So Crunch gives you these little yoga things to relieve your discomfort on the plane, and because of the way they describe these yoga exercises and the cool, funny, tongue-in-cheek way the exercises are described, you remember the Crunch brand.... This is just a guerilla, smart, intelligent way to get the Crunch name out there, and do so for relatively little expense.

Q: Any other small-budget strategies?

A: We have a client, a 12-store, off-price women's clothing retailer called Foxes, and we got them as a client nine months ago or so. One of the things we looked at was how much money they were spending on advertising, and the answer was about $250,000 a year. When we looked at where it was going, we saw the way they spent it wasn't being thought out. Basically, they just said, "Let's spend a quarter of a million dollars in advertising." So we told them -- and this is very counter to what so-called marketing firms will do when they get a retail client -- we told them to stop their advertising completely while we rethought the entire strategy. And they did, they stopped it completely.

Q: And what happened to sales?

A: This is an anomaly, but the fact is that they went up. Now don't get me wrong, they won't stay up. But it just goes to show what they were getting for that $250,000 they were spending: nothing!

Now, we're working on a cable-TV campaign for them that is smart and creative and plays to what Foxes is all about, which is this: When a woman goes in there and sees that she can get a suit that usually sells for, say, $400 and its going for $200, she's going to get on her phone, call her girlfriends immediately, and say "Get the hell over here!" That's how that particular business works. With any business, if you want to build it and not waste your money on entertainment, you have to crack the code of what the business is all about.

With new clients, one of the first things I ask them is, "What kind of return are you getting?" And the answer is very often, "You know what? We don't have a clue." Well, if you don't know what you're getting, that usually means you ain't getting anything.... With good marketing, effective marketing, you know the results you're buying because you can see them reflected in the bottom line.

There are wonderful, smart entrepreneurial people running companies all over America who will fight the landlord tooth and nail if he raises their office rents a few bucks. But, if a so-called expert tells them to spend $20,000, $2 million, or even $20 million on marketing whose results can't be quantified, they go right along without a question and write those big checks. That's where I hope Your Marketing Sucks can help to make the people spending that cash realize that there are better ways to build a business.

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