Pop Culture: Direct Marketers' Friend, Foe or Future?
"Wake up people!" shouts Lily Tomlinor rather her character "Ernestine"from the outer envelope of a recent mailing for Web communications service provider WebEx.
Ernestine, who rose to stardom in the early '70s on the TV show "Laugh-In," is WebEx's corporate spokesperson. The sarcastic quipster joins the likes of Bart Simpson, William Shatner, Austin Powers and Alf on the seemingly endless list of marketing-bound pop icons.
But in direct mail, pop icons seem the exception, not the rule. Are such famed faces ineffective in the postal medium? Is pop culture an abstract vagary best left to ad-agency hipsters targeting the masses? Or is this a somewhat untapped means of boosting response, and WebEx is really onto something?
"Unlike general advertisers, who seem to want to jump on every bandwagon, fashion, fad and trend ... direct mailers areas they should bemore inclined to concentrate on timeless fundamentals," says veteran direct mail consultant Richard Armstrong, whose clients have included Greenpeace, the Smithsonian Institution and Food & Wine magazine. "Once we've found something that works, we're very reluctant to part with it."
Armstrong likens the use of pop culture to the use of humor: "Madison Avenue copywriters are big believers in humor ... but direct mail copywriters use it very, very sparingly ... . We believe the old adage that 'there is no more serious surgery than separating a man from his money.' "
No more serious surgery, that is, than separating a direct marketer from a control. "Things take so long to become control, that [any references] probably won't be around long enough, and you run the risk of seeming dated," explains longtime direct response copywriter Tom Gillett, a former in-house copywriter for Time Inc., whose clients include Reader's Digest, Christian Science Monitor, The Week and Bloomberg.
This is not to say WebEx is alone in its endeavor. "Who's Line Is It Anyway" co-star and talk show host Wayne Brady recently surfaced in a mailing for communications-technology company Avaya; Chuck Woolery's love-connecting smile graces outer envelopes for Great Expectations dating service; Morgan Fairchild is no stranger to Old Navy mailers; and John Lithgow has been seen in MCI Worldcom's TelecomUSA mailers.
However, these appearances are sparsethe Who's Mailing What! Archive is far from star-struck. In fact, some companies who use their spokespeople in other marketing media leave them out of direct mail.
One such company is Verizon, which latched onto James Earl Jones years ago. Launched to pop icon status when his voice struck fear into Luke Skywalker and many an American youngster in the late '70s, Jones has been so trumpeted by Verizon that his name has virtually become synonymous with the company's.
Why, then, is he absent from the company's direct mail? Verizon's agency, Draft Worldwide, was unavailable for comment, but Verizon's executive director of marketing communications, Tom Crowder, presumes, "It may be because people recognize him for his voice," and direct mail (which Crowder says is a significant component of Verizon's marketing) just wouldn't be as viable a medium.
Some Things you Just Can't Borrow
Based on some consultants' comments, one could wonder whether Verizon's mailers were sans Jones for
another reason. "Using pop culture falls under the category of 'borrowed interest'attempting to engage the prospect's attention with a device not clearly related to the product," explains Robert Bly,
author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Direct Marketing" and a veteran independent copywriter and consultant. "Borrowed interest should be used with caution, and sparingly, if at all. The danger is irrelevance."
Armstrong agrees. "I'd be very hesitant to use contemporary pop culture images unless I was selling a product that was part of that culture. Again, this is different from the Madison Avenue approach. They believe in using popular images to attract attention and interest ... and then ... [that] interest will be magically transferred over to [what] they're selling (e.g., using Seabiscuit to sell soap). If I were a creative director, I would strangle any copywriter or artist who came to me with that kind of strategy because it's too disjointed and distracting to work in direct response."
Of course, says Armstrong, "sometimes the product is begging for it. If you're doing a subscription promotion for Vanity Fair, for example, it's going to be filled with references to pop culture because that's what [it's] about."
Or, "if it's topical, such as a sports figure used to promote fitness products, there's a direct link," says Gillett. Such celebrity testimonials or endorsements have always been done, he notes, and really can't hurt.
Designer Rebecca DePriest and collaborating copywriters took full advantage of Vanna White's relevance in a package for Oxmoor House. The producta book called "Vanna's Favorite Crochet Gifts"obviously created more than a tie-in to the "Wheel of Fortune" star, but as DePriest explains, instead of building the package around the book, "we built it around Vanna. The crochet audience admires her." The fact that it's a book being sold isn't revealed until you open the polybag mailing.
Marketing That Makes Headlines
Still, risks exist even with such relevant tie-ins, as Kobe Bryant's current situation proves. The accusations against him likely will impact multi-million-dollar marketing efforts.
"Mr. Bryant has endorsement deals with Nike Inc., McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, ... Spalding and Upper Deck trading cards that net him an estimated $20 [million] to $22 million a year," reported Rich Thomaselli in a
recent Advertising Age article. "None of the marketers would say whether any campaigns involving Mr. Bryant would be pulled, but sports marketing experts suspect that will be the case."
Risk, however, doesn't seem to scare companies, even after a close call. Adidas, which until last year had a marketing contract with Bryant, just signed a $45 million lifetime promotional contract with NBA star Kevin Garnett, according to CNN/Money.
Ah, the Good, Old Days
Some might consider a nonhuman icon like Bart Simpson a safer bet. Or, a "nostalgia marketing" approach, using an icon from the past whose longevity has been proven.
WebEx's Ernestine is pretty safe on both accounts. But is she bringing in response? "WebEx used a testing company to compare the Ernestine campaigns with an offer-driven campaign, and the offer-driven campaign pulled a little better," says Wendy Shay, director of emerging technologies practice at the Loomis Group, which handles WebEx's direct mail.
The Loomis Group included Ernestine in the direct mail since she supports the corporate image. "And she's great for getting people's attention." says Shay. "But [the testing] proves the 'always lead with the offer' statement to be true."
While Ernestine didn't beat the offer, "Overall, the pieces using Ernestine ... met the goals of the client, at around 1.3 to 1.5 percent [response]," says Shay. Ernestine will appear again in the company's direct mail, but not as the starfuture mailings will balance Ernestine's appeal and the offer's drive to action.
Your Direct Mail Rules!
Regardless of a marketer's perspective on pop culture, "There are reflections of [it] that should be considered, such as words or phrases in your copy," says Gillett. "You might have said something 'rules,' where you would have never said that 15 years ago. To be contemporary, your copy should reflect those changes."
In fact, one expert suggests that considering pop culture is not only wise, it's currently essential. "Direct marketers need to reintroduce some elements of attitudes, entertainment, of people's sense of self into their pieces," says
J. Walker Smith, president of market research and consulting firm Yankelovich Partners Inc. "We've reached a plateau in the S-curve we've been on, where we've gotten better in our use of demographics, databases and lists," he explains. "Now people are looking for the next source of productivity."
And with today's consumers' aversion to marketing, says Smith, the solution for the future "will be the focus on attitudesreconnecting with the audience in a personal way ... to incorporate popular attitudes into their messages."
Frightful as this may be to some traditional, hard-sell direct marketers, Smith says he has witnessed the benefits. "There's an incremental lift in response ... all related to the fact that when the person opens their mailbox, there's a piece of mail that suddenly speaks to them in a different way ... directly to their lifestyle and personal interests," he explains.
Smith isn't pushing pop icons, but messages that recognize societal trends, the biggest of which, he says, is "a new sense of what people want from popular culture. They want less hype ... they don't want an exclamation point at the end of every sentence anymore ... They want authenticity," asserts Smith. "Coca-Cola's whole new marketing campaign focuses on authentic moments in people's lives. This is directly appealing to the consumer's desire for things that are more real. ... We joke that Martha Stewart has been replaced by [the TV show] 'Trading Spaces,' but not only because of her legal troubles ... but because she champions things that are unattainable for real peoplethings that require unlimited amounts of time and budget. ... 'Trading Spaces' features ordinary people doing things that real people can do with realistic amounts of time and money."
He cites MasterCard's integrated marketing campaign featuring its "Priceless" tagline as another effective example.
Direct Mail in Balance
But what about always leading with the offer? Smith believes today's marketplace demands balance. "This is a real issue right now as response to all marketing is declining. Direct marketers have traditionally shied away from [referencing popular culture]," he says. "In the early '60s and '70s, when the creative heyday of advertising was taking place, marketers realized they were uninvited guests in people's households and lives. They realized that if you're uninvited, you better have something to offer them. The notion came about in the form of entertainment ... But, people went too far down that path and lost sight of selling the product. So marketers began doing things to more directly affect the bottom line, which led to direct mail's heyday. ... It was measurable and focused on selling ... . So, direct mail marketers shied away from all the other things. But, if you go too far in that direction, it's not an effective long-term solution either."
Tip Your Hat to the New Generation
While Madonna may not ever make direct marketers' most-wanted list, there is some evidence, WebEx's campaign among them, that pop culture's impact is, in fact, clear and present.
It has inspired the use of the URL, notes DePriest. And words like "simple," "fast," "time-saving" and "easy" describe "gazillions" of products in the last few years, seemingly reflective of society's desire for more time, less clutter.
But expertsincluding Smithstress relevance to your company or product, no matter your philosophy
on pop culture or what you choose to reference. "It either makes sense or it doesn't," says DePriest.
Suddenly, Richard Armstrong's witty comment about Seabiscuit's future in soap comes to mind. Relevant? Nay, or in this case, neigh.