Directing marketing works, even in a tough economy

BY Gregory P. Demetriou, President of American Mail Communications
While distressed credit markets, shocking Wall Street losses and plummeting profits have forced many businesses to cut back on their direct mail marketing efforts, the “perfect storm” of the careening economy did not stop a large commercial printing firm from planning its traditional year-end mailing.
Every year, the company printed and mailed very attractive calendars reflecting its high-quality graphic and printing capabilities to prospects and clients, including print buyers, marketing and communications directors and advertising executives. Since the response was always positive, and the mailing produced an acceptable return on investment (ROI), the firm’s chief executive officer decided to stick to the plan, despite the economic downturn and the firm’s reduced profits.
He believed that the traditional knee-jerk reaction to a recession — the urge to cut everything back and stop planning for the future — could only hurt his business, and viewed the chaotic economic climate as an opportunity to move forward. His goal was to increase his firm’s market share while competitors, who hunkered down and waited for the crisis to pass, did nothing.
Historically, his approach made sense: Many well-documented studies conducted over the past 80 years confirm that companies that invest in marketing during tough times come out ahead and pass their competitors in sales, profits, market share and ROI during and after the slow period.
After a long creative process to get the calendars’ look just right, they were printed. But, when sample pieces landed on the CEO’s desk, he was devastated. His eyes immediately landed on — what were to him — several glaring errors, including typos and inconsistencies in photographs. Instead of producing a showcase piece, he was staring at a catastrophe and quickly realized he was saddled with a large quantity of full-color, glossy calendars that were virtually worthless. With business already shaky, he felt, the short- and long-term damage caused by this disaster could end up costing the company much more than the price of printing. Reprinting would not only be prohibitively expensive — which the company could ill afford in light of the economy — but also incredibly time consuming.
However, his 30 years of experience were not wasted. After some brainstorming, he turned the situation on its head, spinning the crisis into an opportunity by creating a “Can you find the intentional errors?” contest — a printers’ “Where’s Waldo?” The calendars were mailed with a personal cover letter announcing the contest and stating that the five errors in the piece were a test. A special offer was made to the first person to call in and identify all of them.
The response was well beyond expectations. In the past, they would get some compliments on the calendar. This time, they carefully tracked the calls, and the comments included: “I’m not sure but I think I see two.” “OK, I found four, what did I miss?” “What a great idea! Can you help us do something similar?” He knew he had made lemonade out of lemons and that the calendars were a success.
In addition to drawing attention to the company, the reaction spurred the CEO to rethink his entire marketing plan. Instead of producing and mailing a costly calendar once a year, he perpetuated the contest, creating attractive, but less costly, quarterly mailings with intentional errors, explanatory cover letters and attractive prizes.
The debacle was transformed into an effective marketing and branding tool that set his company apart from its competition. As the contest gained traction, recipients began looking forward to the firm’s mailings and participating in the hunt. The company became more widely recognized, the list of prospects and clients grew and printing sales increased — despite the negative economic conditions.
The moral of the story: Stick to what you know works. In this case a tried and true direct mail marketing effort with the calendars was continued — albeit changed in a positive way to take advantage of a negative predicament. It’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it that makes the difference. During tough times, smart business people don’t simply curl up and wait for the crisis to pass. They see hard times as a challenge — an opportunity to solidify market share and attract new customers.

Gregory P. Demetriou, President of American Mail Communications in Farmingdale, has been in the direct mail marketing business for more than 30 years, managing direct mail programs for clients and serving as a resource for organizations planning mailing campaigns. He has presented workshops and seminars on the topic, written for business publications and produced a “how to” book on direct mail techniques. A committed philanthropist, he was named the 2008 Volunteer of the Year by the Association of Fund Raising Professionals, which also recently elected him to its Board of Directors. E-mail him at greg@americanmail.com or call 631-694-1500.

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