A quick tour of marketing magic

A client of CNET’s recently asked me to do a presentation on “important events in marketing,” and I got to thinking about it in the pool this morning.  Good marketing sings; it resonates with something that’s already in the recipient’s mind.

A client of CNET’s recently asked me to do a presentation on “important events in marketing,” and I got to thinking about it in the pool this morning.  Good marketing sings; it resonates with something that’s already in the recipient’s mind.  And that’s why I love it: A good message  expands when it hits its target. 

Here’s Release 0.9 of what I will say:

Note that this will be a somewhat personal tour, since I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with some of the great examples. 

The two campaigns that I like the most are brilliantly local and clever, in the best sense of the word...

The first was Federal Express.  I was a 20-something security analyst, and Federal Express was trying to get traction with a broad public for its revolutionary overnight delivery service. It did what good marketers did, and considered what made it different.   The first couple of years it focused on “absolutely, positively…overnight,” which was a new and seemingly impossible promise in those days, in messages delivered by an impossibly fast-talking man (produced by Ally & Gargano).

Then the company’s marketing whiz, the late Vince Fagan (one of FedEx’s terminals in Memphis is named after him), realized it needed to reach a broader market; call it the long tail of the overnight-shipping business.  FedEx started a flight of ads assuring “little guys” that it would talk to them too: One featured a single little guy in a small office surrounding himself with noise (radios, bells and the like) so that he could sound important enough when he picked up the phone to call Federal Express. The tagline, “Hello, Federal?” became famous…and so, ultimately, did Federal Express.

Some years later, in the early 80s, I spent a weekend at a company retreat with Michael Dell. Dell did not have particularly memorable ads, but it had a memorable positioning, which is what underlies all good marketing.  (Likewise, Google does not advertise for itself, but it has a clear position in users’ minds.)  Years later, people would assure me Dell had begun as a one-to-one Internet company, but in fact it was born as a one-to-one direct-mail, phone and fax company. In some ways, it was an Internet company before such a thing existed, with its focus on personalized service and ordering. At the time of the retreat, it was flying  in the face of conventional wisdom, bypassing computer retailers and corporate salesforces to sell direct to individuals and promising personal attention. I remember thinking at that retreat: “Well, yeah, sounds good, but can they really deliver?” Whatever! For many years, they did. Of course, now many competitors are following Dell’s lead, but the company is a great example of how a simple concept, fully and single-mindedly realized, can produce a decade or two of industry leadership.

Around the same time, Apple made its second mark (after the Apple II) with a more traditional example (by medium) of untraditional marketing (by content).

With some justification, Apple wanted to position the Macintosh as revolutionary, a breakthrough that would enable millions of enslaved users to break their bonds… “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The ad was created by Steve Hayden at Chiat Day, who is still a friend and now vice chairman at Ogilvy & Mather with clients including American Express and, ironically, IBM.  

Second Life of advertising

Currently, I think one of the best and most modern examples of brilliant marketing is the MasterCard user-generated ads. (Though I must confess, I have no personal connection to this one.  Until I went to Google to find the ads, I thought they belonged to Visa!)  You can check them out (though you no longer can create your own at the site) at www.priceless.com. This started as a great campaign because it hit a nerve – that we often get our greatest satisfaction from things that can’t be bought… yet somehow, yes, there is a purchase involved that can be made with a MasterCard. The do-it-yourself part takes it one step further: Rather than trying to guess your choice or presenting you with an array of choices that will confuse you or make you unhappy (shades of Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice), MasterCard lets you create your own choices.  Call it the Second Life of advertising, where you get to create your own world.

Moscow metro

Good marketing makes analogies: It presents the familiar in a new way, and, at its best, ties the product to something one already understands, viscerally.  It’s tired to associate cars and sex, though advertisers still do it all the time. 

By contrast, the two campaigns that I like the most are brilliantly local and clever, in the best sense of the word, and amazingly, they both revolve around the Moscow metro.

Consider what Nantucket Software did with the Moscow metro back in 1992, a couple of years after I began to visit Russia frequently.  At the time, Nantucket was not only trying to sell its product, a database tool called Clipper that competed with then market leader dBASE II.  It was also trying to explain the whole concept of a software license in a country where private property – to say nothing of intellectual property – was a novel and controversial idea.

Nantucket country manager Bob Clough (who went on to run Microsoft Russia) came up with a brilliant idea: He used the Moscow metro system, familiar - to all Muscovites, and probably to most Russians as well – as a metaphor.  Formally called “Moscow Metropolitan in the name of V.I. Lenin,” it is dominated by the “circle line,“  with other lines piercing through it.  (There’s no actual center; the lines all intersect within the circle but not at a central point; see this map  from a collection assembled by metro-loving designer Artemy Lebedev.)  

Clough designed a poster called “Metropolitan in the name of Nantucket,” shown below. 


It showed the map of the Nantucket metro system, with a headline mimicking the officialese of the Moscow metro: “Your [software] license: your consolidated [bus, tram and metro] pass for 25 years.” It looked exactly like the Moscow metro map, but instead of the familiar Moscow lines and stations, it had the line of technical support, with stops for certified training centers, technical seminars, “all-union” developer conferences,  phone support, Nantucket News ( a newsletter), Clipper Clubs, and, with a broken line and empty “under-construction” circle, an electronic bulletin board.  There was the international line, with stops for Brazil, Germany, Belgium, USA, Canada, Japan – and J.V. Magnet/Nantucket, the local Nantucket operation.  There was the line of modern technology, including  C,  assembler, open architecture and  product upgrades. There was the line of third-party products, including graphics, a report generator and “your products here.”  You get the idea….

For people who didn’t know what a software license was, this was a brilliant explanation. It made everything clear, and it teased the viewer’s intelligence rather than insulting it.     

An error message in officialese

Amazingly, my final favorite marketing miracle also echoes the Moscow metro. It’s the creation of Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine/portal (in which I have an investment and a board seat).  Specifically, it’s the brain child  of Yandex chief editor Elena Kolmanovskaya, who like many Muscovites has taken the metro every day for most of her life.   In the metro, there are hundreds of long, high-speed escalators. At the bottom of each one sits a monitor in a booth.  These monitors rarely do anything at all, but in particular, they do not  answer questions. On the outside of each booth there is a sign that says “Dezhurniy po eskalotoru spravok ne daet."  That is, “The escalator monitor gives no consultations,” a kind of officialese error message. No one is responsible, but answers are not available.

Yandex has turned that around, and has put up cheeky, paid ads – in the metro - saying, in effect, "Can't get answers from the officials?  Come to Yandex. We give answers!"  Of course, there are many places in Russia you can find this phrase – at banks, guard stations, museums, bill-paying stations and kiosks of all kinds.  But the metro carries a special place in many people’s hearts.  

This ad, posted in a subway car, says: “The engineer does not give answers; take all your questions to Yandex!” And ironically, it’s posted next to a recruiting ad…for train engineers.

So the message resonates…and it too is generating a surge of response from users.  They are finding, photographing and posting their own examples of "Spravok ne daet" signs everywhere.  Yandex is also running radio ads, mimicking official announcements, and some listeners are convinced (incorrectly) that Yandex is even making announcements in the metro itself.  That's not true, but there's now a pervasive sense that even though officialdom may not be giving a response, it is getting one!