In the preface of his recent book "Prove It Before You Promote It" (Wiley & Sons), Steve Cuno says that cutting marketing because sales are down is like reducing insulin when a patient's diabetes has gotten worse. But while marketing's role shouldn't be diminished, Cuno illustrates how it can be far better played.
Drawing on his decades of direct marketing experience, Cuno-chairman of The RESPONSE Agency in Midvale, Utah-focuses on the fact that advertising was invented to sell, not simply create awareness. After all, high awareness doesn't translate into marketing success, and big dollars are wasted by continuing campaigns that have not been critically challenged.
Here's part of our riveting conversation.
Boldt: What is the "marketing mythology" that your book aims to debunk?
Cuno: The big one is the idea that "what everyone knows" is fact. "Two million people can't be wrong." Yes, they can. A few years ago, we all knew that stress caused ulcers; doctors knew it, everyone knew it. But it wasn't true.
Another one that I go after? "Your gut intuition is not infallible." In fact, statistically speaking, it's probably wrong half or most of the time. And that's significant because I've seen one big decision after another made because somebody thought their gut was never wrong.
"Creativity is the preeminent determinant of advertising success." That's a myth. "Correlation as causation." If you dig hard enough and you use enough selection bias and hindsight bias, you're going to be able to establish a correlation between award-winning advertising or likable advertising or highly creative advertising and successful products. And that can lead you to decide that creative, award-caliber or likable advertising is a predeterminant for success. It's a myth. Creativity is important, but it's not the sole determinant of success.
Boldt: What about the value of surveys and focus groups?
Cuno: "Your surveys and your focus groups are predictive." That's a myth. You gather people in a room and say, "What would you do if you saw this commercial?" If they all say, "We'd buy the product!" you think you have a winner on your hands, and you roll it out.
When you ask people to imagine how they're going to react to something, number one, they have absolutely no clue how they will react. But they don't know that they don't know, so they're going to do their best to give you an answer. So what people think they're going to do and what they [actually] do are two different things.
Boldt: Why exactly is it better to "prove it before you promote it"?
Cuno: It should be fundamental. But many people still use advertising as some kind of adornment, rather than some kind of selling tool. Advertising started out as this proxy salesperson to move product. Somewhere along the line, people started attaching metrics to it in terms of how many people do we reach? How often do we reach them, and how many people remember the message? Over time, somehow the industry started using those metrics as measures of success as opposed to how many widgets did we sell? "Awareness." "Reaching frequency." "Awards garnered." Advertising was invented for a lot more than get your name out there-it's to sell widgets!
Boldt: What are a couple of secrets for making every marketing dollar count?
Cuno: One secret is don't trust your gut intuition. Set up scientifically valid tests. Don't settle for mythology you've always heard. You don't have to test everything, but look at the sources of information you've got: If it's "everybody knows," challenge that. Understand that human behavior in the marketplace is largely predictable and that's really important. The trick is to really discover what that human behavior is that's predictable, then you can create test scenarios where you watch how people react. Do not ask people to predict what they would do in a given circumstance. Watch what they do.
Boldt: Is that why direct mail tests work?
Cuno: Sure, you don't even have to hit that large of a group to get something predictive. You want to test it a couple of times to make sure you didn't get a fluke, but it's amazing what you can learn by watching people. Direct mail is the perfect place because there's nothing in the mail that tells you it's not the real thing. Offer testing, headlines, etc. It goes way back to John Caples ... who knew that the headline "How to Fix Cars" would do 20 percent better than "How to Repair Cars"? And with predictive behavior, you can then roll out that campaign with confidence.
Boldt: Based on actual results, what is a type of creativity that really works versus one that doesn't?
Cuno: There are flukes, but clear usually beats enigmatic. Usually the latter is a copywriter showing off. But the fact is the market generally is not going to work particularly hard to decipher what you really mean. Whenever you find yourself writing a line and saying, "Wow, that line is good!" then it has to go. The product should shine, not the copy. Falling in love with your own copy is a warning sign. You want to be benefit-oriented, and writers have a hard time with benefits versus features.
I also like to apply the "at a glance" test. They're not going to dig into your ad. They need to find out three things: what's for sale, that it's targeted to them and what is the major benefit to them. They have to get that at a glance; that's what will motivate them to keep reading [and then respond].