Every man has a breaking point, and I’d just reached mine. It occurred on a recent Saturday evening just after 7 p.m. at the Outback Steakhouse in Grapevine, Tex. I was enjoying my usual Outback Special, medium well, and chatting with my wife when a television somewhere in the distance echoed the noxious sound: Sleep Experts.
Sleep Experts — as in, that stupid commercial that’s on every TV station and every radio station every five seconds. As in “I’m Christine Cook, president of Sleep Experts.” As in, the mattress store chain that seems to have a perpetual sale and that will always give you a “free box.” As in “I’m Christine Cook, and I’m going to invade your earspace every waking moment until you finally give in and buy a freaking mattress from me.” That Sleep Experts.
Judging by my wife’s non-reaction to my threat of violence toward a woman, the feeling must have been mutual. She just nodded and kept talking about her friend Kelli’s bad experience with a spoiled piece of chocolate. She also knew — based on her firsthand knowledge that I’m a skinny little wimp with big sarcastic mouth — that I probably wouldn’t follow through with my threat even if the opportunity ever actually presented itself.
But who wouldn’t want to take a swing at Christine? Her chain of 26 Dallas-Fort Worth-area mattress stores have only been open for five years, but she’s already crammed 30 years of advertising and branding into that short time frame. And even as an experienced marketing professional, Christine’s cheery voice and that annoying little jingle at the end of each commercial really grates on my nerves.
Etched into My Brain
Of course, the marketing professional part of me is also fascinated by Christine’s ability to make me want to hit a girl by simply etching her mug and slogan into my brain. I’m not exactly sure when my relationship with Christine started; I must admit I never became consciously aware of Sleep Experts until September last year. That’s when my schedule changed radically and I became a “morning guy.”
My son had just entered ninth grade, and as such, had an opportunity to be a part of an early morning Bible study class for high schoolers. The class started at 6:20, and I experienced firsthand what Robin Williams meant in Good Morning Vietnam when he said in the military the “Oh” in “Oh six-hundred hours,” stands for “Ooohh my gosh, it’s early!” This meant a whole new sleeping schedule for a guy who was used to burning the midnight oil four or five nights a week.
The new schedule went like this: Wake up at 5:35, flip on the radio, and hop in the shower. 5:45 — Shave, brush my teeth and gel what’s left of my hair while listening to the radio. 5:55 — Hop in the car, flip on the radio, pick up two other kids, and deliver them all to the church by 6:19. Then change the radio station and arrive at work by 6:31. Somewhere in there I get dressed.
On any given morning, between my shower, shave, and driving routine, I’d hear Mrs. Cook as many as three times on two different radio stations. One morning I swear they played “Everywhere” by Michelle Branch and followed it immediately with “Omnipresent” by Christine Cook. That’s when it struck me that Sleep Experts really was everywhere and had probably saturated the consciousness of tens or hundreds of thousands of potential mattress buyers across north Texas.
I can’t honestly tell you if Sleep Experts is any better than other mattress stores.
This isn’t an easy feat, of course. But it is certainly worthy of study and emulation by other marketers — including you. Marketing, when broken into its simplest elements, consists of just three steps: 1) have something good to say, 2) say it well, and 3) say it often. I can’t honestly tell you if Sleep Experts is any better than other mattress stores, and I can tell you with some certainty that there’s nothing special about the way Christine says what she says in all those annoying commercials. But on step 3 — saying it often — she gets a gold star on her forehead and line-leader privileges for a month.
Can you do it, too?
So how can you pull it off? Pouring a couple hundred thousand dollars a month or more into local media will certainly do the trick. But unless your last name is Gates (and first name Bill or Ben), you probably can’t afford the coin it’s going to take to emulate Christine’s strategy. The key, then, is to approach it the same way you’d approach eating an elephant: one bite at a time. Here’s a specific six-step formula for you to follow:
Start with radio: Radio has many advantages over other local media. It reaches a wide audience; it gives you an opportunity to really target your market; and it’s relatively inexpensive. But radio’s biggest advantage lies in its ability to consistently deliver to the same listeners over and over.
Do a quick self-audit: How many different stations do you listen to during a given month? If you’re like most people, you’ll only listen to two to five and you’ll have one or two that get 80 percent of your attention. Compare that to the number of different TV stations you’ll watch, Web sites you’ll visit, or magazines you’ll pick up. You’ll easily see that there’s a real opportunity to tattoo your brand into people’s brains using the radio. All you need to do is find the relatively few stations that reach your target market and start there.
Allocate a tiny budget: Here’s a bad idea: Plunge the majority of your marketing budget into something you’ve never done before. Here’s a good idea: Allocate a tiny percentage of your budget to something new. Tiny means 5 to 20 percent, depending on how well the other, bigger part of your budget is performing. If everything else is flopping anyway, you can probably afford to allocate more to terra incognita.
Radio’s biggest advantage lies in its ability to consistently deliver to the same listeners over and over.
Exploit creatures of habit: Here’s the other major advantage radio has over other media: You can predict with a high degree of accuracy exactly when an individual listener is going to tune in. Review my morning routine for some clues: I got up at the same time every day, did the same things at the same time every day, and listened to the same programs on the same stations at the same time every day. Christine Cook knew she could reach me at precisely 5:48 each morning on 102.9 FM. Why such predictable behavior? Because I’m a human! And we humans tend to follow daily routines with astonishing reliability.
Take this a step further and you’ll see this means it doesn’t really matter if your tiny budget only affords you time on the 2nd or 13th or 19th ranked station in the market. The fact that the station isn’t super popular to the masses is irrelevant to the people who listen to it daily with Metamucil-like regularity. The key is to be able to pound the same people at the same time every day.
So take your tiny budget and laser focus it on an extremely small part of the day. Start with one spot per weekday at the exact same time. If you can afford two spots run them within 15 minutes of each other — you’ll catch your prospect before and after his/her shower. If you can afford three daily spots, run them within the same hour. Whatever you do, do not listen to the radio sales rep who will want you to spread your spots out throughout the day so you can increase the number of people you reach. The key isn’t to reach a ton of people a couple of times each; the idea is to reach a relatively few people a bazillion times each.
Whatever you do, do not listen to the sales rep who wants you to spread your spots out throughout the day.
Make an offer: Just because you’re beginning to brand your company doesn’t mean you should forego a powerful offer in your ads. You can achieve a direct response (i.e., call now!) and brand your company at the same time. And don’t forget to extend an offer to future buyers with an information offer for some kind of informational report or DVD.
Stay the course: Christine Cook knows that I’m probably not going to buy a mattress this week. Or this month. Or even this year. I just don’t need a new mattress all that often. But statistically speaking, I’m probably going to need one sometime in the next five years — which means that about 20 percent of us are going to need one this year, and just north of 1 percent of us will need one this month. That means if 2,000 people listen to your chosen station at the same time every day, only about 200 of them are in the market at all this month.
Now comes the hard part — sticking to the plan, especially in the early going. Let’s say you start this plan this week. After five weekdays, those 200 people are going to have a maximum of five to 10 of your impressions in their brain. That’s good, but it’s also competing with the 22,621 impressions that are already in their head from every other mattress ad they’ve heard or store they’ve ever seen. It’s going to take a little time to break down their will to resist. You have to acknowledge this and employ Yoda-like patience as you build momentum.
But build it will. Think forward 12 months. The same 2,000 people have been hearing your ad two to 10 times a week for a whole year now — that’s 100 to 500 times. Now when the statistically likely 200 people need a mattress, you’ll be at the forefront of their brains most of the time. Thinking that this radio formula should start producing huge results right away is as foolish as thinking you can drop a watermelon seed into the ground on June 12 and have them ready for your Fourth of July party. It just takes some time.
Thinking that this radio formula should start producing huge results right away is foolish.
Rinse and repeat: Once the tiny part of your budget begins to produce an acceptable ROI, then repeat the process again by increasing the number of spots you buy on that same station. After all, there’s a whole other set of people that get out of the shower at 6:15… and 7:08… and 7:44. And once you’re making money on all the morning people, then start capturing the afternoon drivers. Then the middle-of-the-day listeners. Then move on to another station that matches your demographic and do it all over again.
The rewards for implementing this plan are tremendous — you can start to literally monopolize your marketplace by capturing your desired target market one small group at a time. As your plan succeeds, your budget will grow, and you can afford to expand your influence to a larger and larger percentage of your target market. At some point you will be making so much money that you’ll run out of stations to dominate. But that’s a problem for another day.
So what does all this mean for me and my Christine Cook problem? She’s definitely doing something right —the fact that I know exactly who she is and what she stands for even though I don’t even remotely need a mattress is very impressive. The fact that she’s grown her chain of stores from start-up to 26 locations in just five years is very impressive. The fact that she does all of this while raising a family and donating resources to several area charities is very impressive. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure why she’s so annoying after all. In fact, she’s setting a great example of how to grow a business through brilliant marketing.
If I ever meet Christine Cook in person, I’m going to shake her hand and congratulate her on a job well done.
Should I Star In My Own Ads?
Kip Lee’s business was rolling along just fine in Savannah, Ga., in 2005. He’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the newspaper to grow his sunroom and window business, and was just making the jump into television advertising. His first several commercials all featured the ubiquitous Ron Sherman... who has a great personality, a great stage presence, and comes across as friendly, knowledgeable and credible.
When I started working with Kip at that time, I wanted to find out how he’d become one of the top 5 dealers for Four Seasons Sunrooms despite being in one of the smallest markets. As I was reviewing some of his marketing materials during a new client evaluation, one thing caught my attention instantly: his infomercial.
He’d created the infomercial almost as an afterthought because the production company gave him a good deal on it. It was only run early on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and never really accounted for many leads or sales. But something was obvious to me within 30 seconds of watching it for the first time — Kip Lee was successful in his business because he had one of the most friendly, believable, huggable, teddy-bearish demeanors I’d ever seen. People could just feel his sincerity through the screen. When he sat down in someone’s home for a sales presentation, it was over. Prospects knew that this guy wasn’t going to lie to them; they could take Kip Lee to the bank.
Right there and then I told Kip he needed to become a star.
And a star he became. First we put him in a series of TV commercials. Then his picture started going in all of his print ads. Before he knew it, people were recognizing him at the grocery store and at restaurants. “Hey, you’re that guy from TV!”
Random strangers started to high-five him. He even signed a few autographs at a home show — a guy who sells sunrooms was signing autographs.
But getting a decent cost per lead on television remained tough… the early stages always are. Even though he was being recognized, the phone calls were still costing as much as $330 per appointment — twice what he had budgeted. Kip decided to stick with it to keep his salesmen busy if nothing else. Then after a year, cost per lead started going down. And it kept going down. And it went down even further. Finally, after three years on television, his cost per lead was exactly where he wanted it. And not so much because the phone rang more each time his ad ran… but because he started getting calls from TV even when his ads WERE NOT running.
So should you become a star in your ads, too?
There are a few things to consider before taking the plunge. Like anything else, there are pros and cons — and you’d be well advised to step into this room with your eyes wide open:
Acting Ability: You’d better be able to act if you want to be on TV or radio. Everyone’s seen the dope who gets on the tube and looks like a deer in caught in the headlights… or worse, who sounds like he’s reading the cue cards word for word. To really pull it off, you’ve got to have enough personality to charm the crowd, enough acting talent to NOT sound stilted, and enough polish to be perceived as a pro. And trust me… DO NOT ask your spouse for an evaluation on this. Or your mother.
The Fame Factor: Do you want to be recognized when you’re buying toilet paper at Costco? Splash your mug on the television for long enough and it’s an absolute certainty. You’ll start getting stares in parking lots, whispers at dinner tables, and points from children. I’m not saying the paparazzi will follow you around or that you’ll get $10 million for exclusive rights to your next baby’s photos… but you will be noticed and called out ON A CONSISTENT BASIS. Also remember that not everyone’s going to love you… some will think you’re cheesy or dopey or annoying. Are you ready to handle that?
Brand You: When you star in your own commercials, you become your brand. Yes, people might catch your company name, but they’re going to remember YOUR name more. This can be a positive, especially if you’re a likable person. But also think to the future — are you planning on selling your business at some point? If so, you’re really hurting the value of the company by wrapping its image up with your personal image. Just something to think about.
Starring in your own commercials can give your business a tremendous boost. I recommend it for people with the right kind of personality and who don’t have plans to sell their business in the future. Just always remember that fame is a two-edged sword — you might not like it so much once you have it. See you in Hollywood!