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15 long forgotten old school marketing rules worth stealing

marketing rules.

I’ve always been an old soul. I like Frank Sinatra, vinyl, black & white photographs of pretty people smoking cigarettes and vintage baby blue broncos.

This old soul of mine seems to shine through in my approach to marketing and advertising, too.

As I’ve gone about building Honey Copy, my creative writing shop that helps brands sell stuff with words, I’ve modeled much of what I do off great advertising minds like David Ogilvy and old school marketing gurus like Al Ries and Jack Trout.

While I still have an endless amount to learn, I think looking to the past for advertising and marketing inspiration, rather than keeping up with the rat race of never-ending “growth-hacking” fads that litter the internet today, has helped me build a different kind of agency –– one that focuses on the long-term thoughtful growth of brands rather than quick one-off wins.

Here are some long forgotten old school marketing rules I’ve stolen and applied from the brilliant minds I mentioned above…

1. It’s much better to be first than it is to be better.

Unless you’re a history buff, you don’t know the name of the second person to walk on the moon, just like you don’t know the name of the second president of the United States.

Remember this when it comes to marketing.

Xerox was the first plain-paper copier.

Tide was the first laundry detergent.

Advil was the first ibuprofen.

Today, when people need to make a copy, they say “Xerox copy"… when they need to do their laundry they refer to the detergent as “Tide”… and if they have a pounding headache from last night’s hangover they ask whoever is nearest, “Do you have any Advil?”

Marketers, creatives, entrepreneurs and snow cone vendors can easily become obsessed with being the “best” to market which can many times prevent them from being the “first” to market.

Much of success in marketing is about being the first in the customer’s mind and that’s why it’s so important to be the first to sell whatever it is you’re selling.

To beat a dead horse…

Uber was launched in 2009. Lyft was launched in 2012.

Do we Uber places or do we Lyft places?

Case closed.

2. If you can’t be first, set up a new space you can be first in.

Let’s say you want to get into the ride-sharing business but can’t be first because of the two brands I just mentioned.

If you can’t be first in a category, set up an entirely new category you can be first in.

Chipotle wasn’t the first fast-food Mexican restaurant.

It was, however, the first fast-casual Mexican restaurant to care a ridiculous amount about fresh ingredients.

Starbucks wasn’t the first coffee shop.

It was, however, the first truly scaleable coffee shop that customers could count on receiving the same quality product, quickly… whether they were in Nashville or Los Angeles.

If you can’t be first in a category, create a new niche you can be first in.

3. It’s better to be first in the mind than first in the market place.

If you and your marketing team fuck up marketing rules #1 and #2… there is still hope.

Apple was most definitely not the first brand to sell personal computers.

However, it’s the first name that comes to mind when we hear the word “laptop”.

A big reason Apple is first in everybody’s minds is because of it’s ultra easy to remember name. In the early days it was going up against the Commodore Pet, IMSAI 8080, MITS Altair 8800 and Radio Shack’s TRS-80…

Which name is easiest to remember? Perhaps the fruit that can be found in every American household.

4. Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions.

A lot of marketing is about perception. If the product you are selling is perceived as being good, it’s good. If the product you are selling is perceived as being bad, it’s bad.

Starbuck’s coffee is luxurious. McDonald’s coffee is cheap. This is true because it’s what customer’s perceive.

I’d bet if you were to put both cold brews side by side in identical unlabeled cups, coffee snobs wouldn’t be able to tell a difference.

Fiji water is another example. Why the fuck would someone cough up a small fortune for bottled water that tastes almost identical to other bottled water?

Because it is perceived as being much more than water. Fiji water is collected from tropical rainfall in Fiji and it’s naturally filtered through volcanic rock that wells up in an underground aquifer.

Fiji water is perceived as being the creme de la creme of water… so that’s what it is.

This can also be referred to as the, “everybody knows” principle.

Everybody knows that Japanese-made cars are of higher quality than America-made cars.

So… Japanese-made cars are of higher quality than American-made cars.

Whether they actually are or aren’t.

You can have the best product in the world, but the minute the world perceives it as being underwhelming, it is.

As marketers, our battle is just as much about perception as it is designing and marketing a stellar product.

5. The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.

This is an extension of marketing rule #1: It’s much better to be first than it is to be better. But, a more micro approach to owning a category is owning a word.

Heinz owns ketchup.

Hershey owns chocolate.

Starbucks owns coffee.

McDonald’s owns cheeseburger.

Coke owns pop, cola, soda and soft drink.

If your brand can own a word in your prospective customer’s mind, you have a real shot at becoming a category king.

6. Two companies cannot own the same word in the prospect’s mind.

When I was first building Honey Copy, I was battling for the word… “copywriting”.

However, I quickly realized two things…

  1. Copywriting is a very competitive word (a lot of sites and agencies were already owning it).

  2. When most people hear the word copywriting, they think of a lawyer or an attorney.

So, I said fuck it… I’m not going to attempt to own a competitive word that most people know nothing about.

Instead, I positioned Honey Copy as a creative writing shop that grows brands with pretty words.

That’s a lot more than just one word, but you get the idea.

7. Have a realistic understanding of where you rank among your competitors in the prospect’s mind.

Most businesses and brands believe they’re better than they’re competitors and really struggle with admitting that they’re in second place, third place or even fourth place.

This has never made much sense to me –– a sure way to lose money in business is looking at your business through a pair of rose-colored glasses.

If your brand isn’t the best but you market to prospective customers that you’re the best, they’re going to know something is fishy.

You’re much better off being honest and playing to your strengths.

For a long time, Avis and Hertz were competing in the rent-a-car space. Hertz was clearly the best. If you would have asked any prospective customer they would have told you this.

But, for years, Avis wasn’t willing to accept the fact that they were the second best in the rent-a-car space. Until, one day, they changed their marketing messaging… “Avis is only No. 2 in rent-a-cars. So why go with us? We try harder.”

Previous to this, Avis had lost money for 14 years straight. But, as soon as they adopted this new messaging, everything changed… their cars started selling like hot cakes.

Your prospects know where you stand in competition with your competitors, so be honest and market to your strengths.

Saying, “we’re the best” isn’t marketing.

8. If you’re number two, don’t follow the leader.

Brands who are number two in a specific category will generally attempt to compete with number one by being like them, but better.

Instead, brands should tell how they’re different and try desperately to be different.

Take Hellman’s Mayo and Miracle Whip.

While I personally think folks who like Miracle Whip are sociopaths, there is a small portion of the population that hates mayo and instead prefer a different creamy, fatty spread they can put on their sandwiches…

For these people, there is Miracle Whip.

Now, if Miracle Whip were to be just like Hellman’s Mayo, they would have lost their market share in the creamy fatty spread market long ago.

But, they’re not. They’re Miracle Whip –– a funky tasting spread (that, in my opinion, tastes like shit).

And, they sell because of it.

If you’re number two, be different.

10. Don’t run too many sales (or, perhaps, don’t run any sales at all).

One mistake I recently made here at Honey Copy is running too many sales on my copywriting guide. After running a very successful sale at the end of May, I thought I’d try my luck again a month later.

To my disappointment, the revenue I had made on the sale dropped drastically by about 90%.

It was a good lesson. If you run too many sales, you begin to devalue your services and products.

There is a reason you rarely see sales on luxury brands like Prada and Ferrari. If folks knew they could pay 10% less for a Ferrari 2-3 times a year, why would they ever buy the sport’s car at full price?

The mistake of running too many sales highlights a much larger problem and that’s brands taking too much of a micro approach to their marketing.

Sure, a sale might drive tons of revenue today, but could it ultimately stifle sales one year, two years and three years down the line?

Sometimes in marketing, today’s quick “win” could ultimately lead to tomorrow’s demise.

Why do you think so many mattress stores go out of business?

11. Find a product that is working and double down on it.

Creating too many product lines is a sure-fire way to kill a brand (or come somewhere close).

Once upon a time, Coors Beer tried Coors Water, Bic lighters tried Bic Pantyhose, Levi’s Jeans tried Levi’s Shoes.

There is something that just sounds wildly uncomfortable about Coors Water, Bic Pantyhose and Levi’s Shoes.

It makes you kind of squirm.

While from our vantage point we certainly scratch our heads wondering how any decision-maker could approve these types of line extensions, if you run a business you know how tempting it is to create new products.

I’ve battled this a ton with my copywriting guide. It has sold extremely well, I’ve made nearly $19,000 from it at the writing of this article –– not too shabby for a one man band.

When I see that $19,000 number, part of me thinks, “What if I could create three more guides that each generate that kind of revenue, too?”

Unfortunately, like most things, the reality is quite a bit different than the dream.

Many times, a better strategy than creating more product lines is simply doubling down on the product that is selling like hell.

It’s like digging for gold –– when gold miners hit a vein they don’t go digging for another vein, they commit all of their time, money and man-power to pulling as much gold as possible from that vein.

Entrepreneurs and marketers should be doing the same with their marketing.

12. Sometimes, to make more money you have to cut a few products.

One piece of advice I give time and time again to clients is to retire products that aren’t selling or selling very little.

In almost every business, Pareto’s Law (also commonly known as the 80/20 rule) applies. It states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.

In other words, 80% of a brand’s revenue comes from 20% of its products.

A great strategy to simplify a business and increase the revenue is cutting the 80% of the products that aren’t selling and doubling down on the 20% of products that are generating 80% of the revenue.

Pay attention to your sales. They are an excellent indicator for what the world wants.

13. Don’t be afraid to take the opposite position of your competitors.

In the vast majority of industries, there is a leader and that leader has claim to specific verbiage. McDonald’s, for example, owns verbiage like “cheap” and “fast” and “kid-friendly”.

So, if a start-up fast food joint was looking to compete with McDonald’s, they shouldn’t market themselves as cheap and fast. And, they most certainly shouldn’t attempt to make some product to compete with the McDonald’s Kid’s Meal.

Instead, they should market themselves in the opposite direction. It’s sort of like Newton’s Third Law –– for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

For every person looking for a cheap meal, there is someone out there looking for an expensive one.

For every person looking to pay for their meal and have it in front of them immediately, there is someone that would prefer a slower more luxurious dining experience.

And, for every person that has a kid they want to shut-up with a mouthful of nuggets, there is someone who doesn’t want to eat anywhere near a screaming snotty-nosed little brat.

This is evident in almost every industry. Marketing against your competitors doesn’t need to be a game of beating them at their own game. Instead, beat them at a different game, be the exact opposite of the things they stand for.

14. Being honest and admitting where you fall short is good marketing.

Marketing gets a bad rap because a lot of marketers do two things that are borderline lying (or at the very least an intensive stretching of the truth).

One, they make their brand’s strength appear to be stronger than what they actually are.

Two, they cover up their brand’s weaknesses or attempt to draw attention away from them.

What marketers forget is that the customer isn’t stupid. In the words of David Ogilvy, “The customer isn’t a moron. She’s your wife.”

Customers know that Listerine taste like shit and they know that grape-nut cereal is underwhelming and they know that Smucker’s is a really funny sounding name. So, instead of ignoring these truths, these brands should just be honest about them.

Listerine had a slogan for a while… “The taste you hate twice a day.”

So did Smucker’s… “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.”

And, we can’t forget about General Mills admitting their grape nut cereal is a “learned pleasure” and that customers should “try it for a week”. This, apparently, increased sales by 23 percent.

Being honest about your weaknesses can turn your weakness into strengths if you add a pinch of creativity.

If Listerine tastes like shit, it must be good at killing germs.

If grape-nut cereal isn’t very tantalizing to the tastebuds, it must be pretty good for you.

If Smucker’s has such a stupid name and people keep buying it, it must taste pretty damn delicious.

15. Double, triple and quadruple down on the marketing that’s working.

FOMO is a very real feeling in the game of marketing. If you don’t have a podcast, a blog, an in-person meet-up event, a newsletter and a following on every social media platform in existence, it’s easy to feel like your brand is missing out on acquiring more customers and in turn more money.

Unfortunately, unless you’re a massive brand like Nike, it’s impossible to find the time, money and resources to kick-ass at every marketing channel.

I’ve found time and time again both at Honey Copy and when working with brands directly that it is far better to be great at one marketing channel than decent at five.

Pareto’s Principle applies here, too. There is a very good chance that 80% of your revenue is generated from 20% of your marketing efforts. So, find the 20% that is working and double, triple and quadruple down on that 20%.

For me here at Honey Copy, it has been writing articles and pushing readers to my weekly newsletter.

What are you waiting for? Get to stealing.

I wish I could take credit for the brilliant marketing rules shared in this article. But, I can’t.

While I’ve certainly intertwined these lessons with my own thoughts and insights, they’ve been pulled from books like Ogilvy on Advertising and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

So, if this article tickled your fancy, I’d highly recommend you continue reading there.

By Cole Schafer.


You gotta check this out –– Sticky Notes is my email list reserved strictly for entrepreneurs and creatives looking to sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year.


Cole Schafer