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Here's How to Put Power in Your Advertising
By Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
© 2005, Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

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It was in the Spring of 2003, and having recently refinanced, I wasn't in the market for a new mortgage. So, all I remembered from the radio spot was a man emphatically saying, "Closing costs are a racket and a rip-off. Don't pay them!" It was a remarkable claim. Closing costs are expensive and here was a man saying that he didn't charge them. I own my home, plus several rental properties, and I hate to pay the four to five thousand dollars every time I refinance one of them. Such high fees have more than once caused me to decide against buying a new mortgage. If this man's claim was true (and being a skeptic, I didn't really believe it was), then this ad had a very powerful message. One that would shake up the mortgage business. I made a mental note to check him out the next time I was in the market. Of course, I didn't even notice the name of his company, but I rested assured that if he had any merit, he'd still be advertising when I was ready to buy.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq raged on, the economy continued to struggle out of recession, and the Federal Reserve kept dropping interest rates to stimulate the economy. Before I knew it, they were low enough for me to refinance again. So, I started listening for that mortgage company's radio ad. When I finally heard it, I noticed that it was even stronger than I recalled. The company was Lenox Financial and the pitchman declared, "Refinance your mortgage for FREE!" He insisted that they did not roll the closing costs into the loan. And, he explained that they didn't need to charge closing costs because they would make money from the interest over the life of the loan. This made sense to me so I called. And true to their ad, when they faxed the good-faith estimate to me, there were no closing costs listed. What was the catch? I noticed they charged an eighth of a percentage point more interest than their competition who charged closing costs. Big Deal. I refinanced two mortgages with them and saved myself over $300 per month. I then recommended them to several of my friends, who in turn refinanced with them. How successful has this campaign been for Lenox Financial? I'm not privy to those details, but I now hear them running ads to hire additional loan officers to keep up with demand.

Lenox Financial ran a successful ad by creating a powerful message; their powerful message was created by developing a powerful marketing strategy; and their powerful marketing strategy was created by solving a problem in the marketplace. In retrospect, the problem they solved was obvious: people were not refinancing when interest rates moved down because of the expense of closing costs. While other mortgage companies continued to do business the way they always had, Lenox Financial surmised that by not charging closing costs they could increase the volume of the loans they were placing and in turn generate more revenue than ever before. They went outside of the box and differentiated themselves from the hundreds of mortgage brokers with whom they were competing. Now their competition is having to follow their lead and offer the same deal in order to get business. In short, Lenox Financial changed the way mortgages are sold in its market.

The Lenox Financial ad was straight-forward and to the point. It didn't need to be clever, cute or funny to generate interest. It didn't have to scream to be heard; it didn't need 100 point type to be seen. The company chose radio, but they could have used any common media and it would have worked, because when a message is strong enough, the target audience will find it.

How important is a strong message? More important than ever! Today, we're seeing a huge growth in the diversity of advertising media. Yet, at the same time the reach of traditional media is shrinking. Newspaper readership is down, Tivo is eliminating TV ads, and commercial free satellite radio is threatening the airwaves.

Meanwhile new technology has enabled alternative media to creep into the nooks and crannies of our perception. Innovations in advertising have become so pervasive that ads are cropping up in some unusual places such as bathroom stalls, pump handles at gas stations, even at the bottom of the holes on the golf course. Plans are in the works for New York and other major markets to place flat screen TVs, that will run ads 24/7, in taxi cabs and elevators. Wherever a captive audience can be found, you'll soon find advertising.

The average American is currently exposed to more than 3,000 ads every day. With so many ads bombarding us, the message of each is diluted. And, in this widening sea of communication where the average ad is nearly swallowed up; a weak message doesn't stand a chance. The same technology boom which created this abundance of ads has also enabled a plethora of people to enter the profession. This in turn has diffused the strength of experience within the advertising community and further weakened the average ad's message.

All of this has caused a shrinking supply of advertising dollars. In other words, advertisers are losing faith in the power of advertising. They don't believe it works. If you think John Wanamaker had it bad when he said, "Half of my advertising doesn't work; I just don't know which half," then you should see the 2004 survey of advertisers by Primedia which reported that 90% of ads failed. In short, advertisers aren't getting any ROI (return on investment). If we want this situation to change then one of two things must happen: either the cost of ads must decrease or the quality must increase.

Between those two, the only real solution is to improve the quality of the ads. And, that means a powerful message. To find your powerful message, you need to discover your unique selling proposition (USP). In short, what you do different or better than your competition. If you don't have a USP, then here's one way to find one. Ask your customers and prospects what problems they face in doing business with you and/or your competition. You'd be surprised what you can learn from a candid conversation with someone who could or should be giving you business but isn't.

Several years ago, Bio-Lab the makers of Guardex pool products did just that. They asked pool maintenance workers, the primary users of their product, how they could improve their pool testing kits. They learned that the pool maintenance men were drilling holes in the bottom of the plastic boxes to drain water that would get trapped in the kit, so that it didn't spill out later on in the back of their vans and get the bags of chemicals wet. Bio-Lab pre-drilled the holes and ran ads boasting of the new improvement. Sales increased.

Thomas Stemberg, founder of Staples Office Supplies and several other successful businesses once said that he got his best ideas for starting a new business from being frustrated as a customer. How are you frustrating your customers? How about your competition?

Here's a better known example. Around 1973, Burger King recognized a problem within the fast food industry. Hamburger franchises had become mini-factories that cranked out a consistent one-size fits all product, but in doing so, they were ignoring a large segment of the population with individual preferences. I remember those days because when I was a child I did not like Burger King. They put sweet pickle relish on the kid-sized hamburgers, and would not make one without it. I was clearly frustrated. Industry thinking at the time was that special orders slowed down the production line, and the customer understood they were not short-order cooks. Subsequently, when my parents wanted to get fast food, I always voted against Burger King. The various fast-food restaurants were losing hundreds of customers like me every day. Burger King was the first to make a correction with their Have it Your Way campaign. Whether they saw it as a problem or as an audience that was yet to be mined, didn't matter, either way it made for an extremely successful advertising campaign. They also initiated a powerful marketing strategy that everyone else had to follow.

A powerful marketing strategy doesn't require discovering a problem and fixing it. But, it does mean staking out some territory. Your USP could be that you cater to a well targeted audience or that you provide incentives to induce buying. Take McDonald's for example, which utilizes both strategies. They have become the fast food leader by highly targeting children. Their signs and logos in bright primary colors are easily recognizable from a distance. A friendly clown is their spokesman. And, their big innovations such as including a toy with a kid's meal and putting a playground on site have forced all their competitors to copy them.

In today's market, your ad must be stronger than ever to succeed. A powerful ad is spawned from a power marketing strategy. To create your powerful marketing strategy, look to your USP, or better yet, solve a problem no one else has thought of.

Robert Wilson is an advertising consultant and speaker, contact him at www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.

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