Famous Last Words: Ruminations on Branding
I was heartsick to hear American Heritage magazine is folding. I remember when it was founded back in 1954, the brainchild of three TIME alumni: James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph Thorndyke. It broke all the rules. It accepted no advertising, was printed on heavy, glossy paper and had a hard cover with a full-color painting printed on it. It was not just a magazine; subscribers kept every issue and displayed their collections on bookshelves, along with Time-Life books, Harvard Classics and other great continuity series of the time.
American Heritage circulation promotions were created by the legendary Frank Johnson, after whom the Johnson box was named. For newcomers to the business, the Johnson box is part of a direct mail letter. In those days, letters looked like letters and always were printed in Courier type. The Johnson box was a headline over the salutation—sometimes in boldface—and surrounded by a rectangle of asterisks. Even today, the headline of a direct mail letter is called the Johnson box.
Johnson once told me that it irked him to no end to be remembered as the Johnson in the Johnson box. He felt his greatest contribution to direct mail was the invention of a “bedsheet” circular that came out of an envelope and unfolded and unfolded and unfolded all the way to 17˝ x 22˝, dominating everything in the room.
For more than 50 years, the bimonthly American Heritage featured simply wonderful illustrated articles by the country’s foremost writers and historians and was an absolute joy to read and own.
Eventually, it was bought by Forbes Inc. and went to a traditional soft cover. At the end, American Heritage had 350,000 subscribers—as many as it ever had at its peak—obviously upmarket, intelligent readers who must have discretionary income and that renew well. I am incredulous that a great publication that’s been around for more than 50 years could simply crash and burn—another great brand trashed? But then, so did Time-Life books, LIFE and many other great brands.
Speaking of brands, someone recently told me that Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., would be closed for a year and a half for $8.5 million in renovations. This was the venue of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865 by the very famous and deranged actor, John Wilkes Booth. “I assume the money is in place,” I said to the person.
It turned out that the money may not be in place and that the theater would like to raise some, but it had never done direct mail and had no experience with it. What did I think?
Starting cold at this late date to test and roll out with a fundraising effort for a project to be completed in 18 months is most likely not doable. Getting test mailings out and responses back starting from a standstill would take several months. Confirming tests and rollouts would require more time. And what would happen if nobody gave a damn and the tests bombed? In a moment of pure inspiration I said, “Hey, why not go to the Ford Motor Company and hit it up for the money and rebrand it?”
My flash of genius: It could be renamed Ford’s Ford’s Theatre—just like Citizens Bank Park, the new baseball stadium of the Philadelphia Phillies, or Lincoln Financial Field, home of our Eagles. I was mentally patting myself on the back for this branding concept—getting Ford to be the angel and cash in on its namesake, the most famous cultural institution in our nation’s capital.
Then I remembered that the Ford Motor Company is on the rocks. It lost $2.7 billion in 2006 and announced 30,000 layoffs along with the closing of 14 plants at the beginning of this year. In 2006, the company lost $738 for every vehicle it sold.
Combining a dying motor company with a dying theater was a truly lousy idea.
The moral of this column: Direct marketers should probably stay the hell out of the branding business.We don’t understand it. At least I don’t.
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter. Visit him at www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.