Notes from an Acrocanthosaurus (part 2)


(Or what it’s like to be a dinosaur still working in advertising.)

Sixteen years ago I met this guy who professed to be an expert in direct marketing. As someone with a long history in branding, I had avoided direct marketing like the plague. I associated it with the worst kind of advertising. The last thing I wanted was learn how to get anyone to “ACT NOW!”

But, I was curious. We were both academics by nature (I was an adjunct professor at The Parsons School for twenty-three years; he had a Master’s degree in Education.) And so I listened as he told me about all things direct marketing. He’d studied brain waves at Time, Inc., (where he’d spent most of his career) and could explain why the brain processed a direct marketing message differently from a branding message.

We hit it off and went into business together about six months later, just after September 11th. Yeah, that September 11th. Business was pretty slow our first few months but we did get a few assignments from my contacts and his. But it was all direct marketing. Clients were willing to spend money to make money, but only if that money came in immediately.

The next few years were pretty much a blur as our company grew quickly with both direct marketing and branding assignments. But the bulk of our work came in the form of big, blue chip clients asking for solutions that combined branding and direct marketing. Word had spread that we’d figured out how to effectively send both messages – simultaneously.

Our formula was rooted in my partner’s deconstruction of how the brain processed information. What he found, in a nutshell, was that for a direct response message to work it has to put the customer into an active, conscious state – also known as a beta brain wave pattern (12 – 38 HZ). That active state will induce the person to pick up the phone or grab the mouse and CALL OR CLICK NOW!

On the other hand, for a branding message to be effective, he discovered that the brain must be in a relaxed, alpha state (8 – 12 HZ). It happens when you zone out in front of the TV. That’s when your subconscious is most primed to receive a branding message. Cue the soda-drinking polar bears!

We were successful because we intuited that the brain switches back and forth very quickly from beta to alpha. (We launched the Kindle for Amazon based on that insight.) If you want to see how that switch mechanism works, just turn on your computer. Click. (You’re responding to stimuli—beta waves.) Suddenly you’re watching that great dancing poodle video and you’re back to alpha. Wait. A banner ad. Something you want. (How’d they know?) You’re back to beta.

Our messaging formula, then, was based on separating out the direct response and branding components of an ad into content and context. The content was the offer and the call to action (direct response stimuli). The context was how we packaged that message; the emotional framework that elicits alpha waves and gives a brand the opportunity to sink into the subconscious.

Clients used our formula and found that it worked better than their existing direct response ads. In direct response speak, that’s called beating the control— getting a greater response than the best effort to date. For the past fifteen years, we’ve been beating controls. It has allowed us to work for some of the biggest companies in the world, including Amazon, American Express, the NFL, and Scholastic.

And then, along came Facebook. If you need any more proof that the brain switches back and forth between an agitated and relaxed state, just plow through your feed. Trump is a monster! Look at that crazy cat! Oh, those cool shoes I was looking at a few minutes ago on another site. (How’d they know?) Of course I’ll take that quiz. Look at that baby! Nice golf clubs. Let me find out more. (How’d they know?)

This is the new world we live in: consumers going back and forth between alpha and beta like a seesaw. No wonder we’re all exhausted at the end of the day. It also helps explain why Facebook has a market cap of 335 billion dollars.

Fifteen years on, the media landscape looks a lot different. Branding and direct response have been working together on nearly every new digital platform, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Instagram and Snapchat.

We make no claims on being ahead of our time. We’re still trying to understand this new world and how to help our clients take full advantage of it. Thankfully, the human brain still works like it did when we started. And I’m still a die-hard brander. The only difference? I no longer avoid direct marketing.

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