Successful Marketing Tips from a Marketing Expert

What marketing trick bought Pan Am Airlines another ten years in business? How did Rolling Stones magazine keep more subscribers by issuing a threat? Learn about these and other marketing tactics in this excerpt from Steal These Ideas! by marketing expert Steve Cone.

Book Excerpt

Steal These Ideas!
Marketing Secrets That Will Make You a Star

by Steve Cone
Published by Bloomberg;
September 2005;
1-57660-191-9 Copyright © 2005 Steve Cone

Fundamentally, the job of the marketing professional is to excite the potential buyers, to get them to pay attention to his product or service message and not the other guy’s. Most marketing campaigns fail badly in the excitement category, and do even worse in the creation of a compelling call to action.

The whole point of any promotion is to be NOTICED and get a RESPONSE. The marketing industry spends $35 billion a month to grab consumer attention, just in the USA.

Will anyone really pay attention to one more burger ad, one more beautiful older-looking couple seeking financial security by walking hand in hand on a deserted beach, one more gleaming auto isolated on a rain-slicked winding road in Monument Valley?

How can you break out of the pack and hit an emotional bull’s-eye that compels your target consumer to single out your brand and respond to your offer? How do you make this happen?

Take a look at the following stellar campaigns, all of which demonstrate the power of integrating marketing excitement, news value, and compelling calls to action.

The Ultimate Help-Wanted Ad

If pressed to pick my all-time favorite ad, it would be one placed by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous early-twentieth century polar explorer. In 1913, Shackleton placed a very brief announcement in several London newspapers for volunteers for his upcoming South Pole expedition. He hoped to attract fifty to seventy-five inquiries. Five thousand hearty souls responded to:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. –Sir Ernest Shackleton

All three elements for promotional success: excitement, news, and a compelling call to action were wrapped up in just twenty-six words. No need to add a single syllable.

The Early Days of Playboy Magazine

In the early ’50s, when I was 5 or 6, it was impossible to figure out exactly what my dad did at work all day. He was pretty vague about it and as it turned out, with good reason. He was writing some of the very first promotional direct mail letters for Hugh Hefner’s then new and struggling publication, Playboy magazine.

These letters would be sent to compiled lists of men who subscribed to other men’s magazines — which of course made sense. What was a little different was how my dad wrote these letters . . . from the perspective of a Playboy Bunny. Each mailing included a picture of her in full Bunny regalia. The picture appeared on the letter, the reply device, and throughout the accompanying brochure which included shots of her other Bunny pals. She even signed her name.

Consequently, millions of American men received letters in the mail from “a real live Playboy Bunny,” describing the scintillating attributes of Playboy magazine: great fiction, social commentary, and of course more revealing pictures of her and her friends. This approach was way more successful than if Hugh himself or some other male editor had written the letter — because it was just much more EXCITING!

Rolling Stone Magazine

Back in the ’70s, the notorious anti-establishment, self-proclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was managing editor of Rolling Stone. He authored a subscription renewal letter that was completely different from what any other magazine had ever contemplated.

The letter, short and to the point, declared that Rolling Stone was Thompson’s only legitimate source of income. It went on to say that if you didn’t respond, he would be thrown into utter despair and probably wind up in Needles, California, “sucking from a nitric oxide tank down to the bottom death blast of freon, listening to German tourists describe their coyote sightings.”

Basically, Thompson threatened the recipient, demanding a response, or else. To underline the warning, the outside envelope featured “I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE,” scrawled in large handwriting across the front. Not your everyday Time or Newsweek renewal letter, to be sure.

This direct mail subscription effort was a huge success, and Rolling Stone used it the entire time Thompson was on the payroll. It was so much fun to read. So different. So Hunter Thompson. So exciting.

Pan American WorldPass and How Last Became First

By the time the late ’70s rolled around, the experience of flying had been downgraded from glamorous and elite to mundane, overcrowded, and as torturous as a never-ending bus trip. Yet flights were full of corporate executives and middle managers winging their way across the country and around the world on a regular basis. Working hard, making money, getting ahead, these were not happy travelers.

Although the airlines reveled in their popularity, they were also aware of the growing dissatisfaction of their large bloc of business travelers. In a classic marketing moment, several major airlines decided that their best customers deserved to be singled out and rewarded for frequent travel. And thus, the frequent flyer programs were born.

These programs were really exciting for participants. At last, the airlines made a distinction between the tourist and the trooper. Flying for free and upgrading to first class were the big come-ons and frequent flyers went to great lengths to make sure they stayed abreast of every new perk and bonus mile route. It is important to understand what a big deal the frequent flyer programs were at that time.

Working with a small team at Epsilon Data Management, I helped United Airlines create Mileage Plus, one of the first of these reward scenarios. Several years later, I was fortunate enough to create the last entry of a major airline into this new game: Pan American Airways’ WorldPass, the richest of all the frequent flyer programs.

According to airline industry analysts, WorldPass probably contributed to Pan Am’s ability to remain in business for an additional decade. This is a story about creating excitement and news value even when you are THE ABSOLUTE LAST business in your sector to recognize your top clients.

By 1981, all the other major U.S. carriers had well-developed frequent flyer programs, and Pan Am was seeing the effect on their bottom line. So what to do? The company was lucky to have a marketing director at the time, Adam Aron, who had natural marketing instincts, flair, and an appreciation of the power of big ideas.

The typical frequent flyer marketing approach was not as generous as it appeared. At that time, the goal was to spend as little as possible to communicate with your business travelers, and to be as restrictive as possible in giving out award travel for miles earned.

Adam had a different idea. His charge to me was to create the most expensive-looking program with the richest award structure. He wanted to leapfrog the competition — all of which had well-established programs and, in most cases, a four- to five-year head start. Since Pan Am was the last to arrive at the dance, Adam was determined his airline would be in the dress that everyone noticed.

The core promise of Pan Am’s program was to reward individuals who flew a specific number of miles on an annual basis with a “world pass.” This pass was an actual gold-colored plastic card that entitled you and a companion to fly anywhere on Pan Am’s extensive worldwide system, first class, free for thirty days.

This strategy was a winner from day one. No other airline even remotely had such an award, nor could any of them match the worldwide route structure that Pan Am was famous for. The effect was immediate. WorldPass electrified passengers, Pan Am employees, and the trade press. Adam’s focus on giving the customer something that was truly exciting and “richer” than the competition turned the whole industry inside out and left them scrambling to catch up.

So last-in became first in frequent flyers’ minds. The initial direct mail enrollment package sent to 80,000 frequent flyers contained a free round-trip domestic ticket good at any time within the next six months — no blackout dates, no ifs, ands, or buts other than the requirement to enroll in WorldPass. Response rates to this one letter were more than 50 percent. Probably an all-time high in direct mail history, with the exception of responses to letters from the IRS!

Continue Reading on Page 2: Other Quick Airline Stories about Creating Customer Excitement

Copyright © 2005 Steve Cone

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Steve Cone is managing director and head of advertising and brand management at Citigroup Global Wealth Management. Along with five other senior executives, he coordinates worldwide brand management for all of Citigroup’s businesses in more than one hundred countries, encompassing 200 million customers. For more information, visit


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