Crazy Ideas That Worked
(and a few that crashed in flames)
Here's How YOU Can Benefit!
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1-- How To Write A National Prize-Winning
2-- They Laughed When I Placed An Ad In The
West Virginia Hillbilly!
3-- The Skydiving Rototiller (we
TOLD you this was crazy!)
4-- Showmanship Wins At Federal Court
5-- Business Plan For Hugely Successful New Product
6-- How To Do A “Dry” Market Test
(and not get in trouble
with the FTC)
7-- The Public Didn’t Have A CLUE!
(The secret truths about
8-- Departmental Warfare
(How the combatants came
to the peace table and made history.)
9-- Go Do It Yourself (How
getting out of the cozy office turned up a whole new
10-- The $100
Million Product That People Bought… But Never Used.
|How To Write
A National Prize-Winning Sales Letter
(…even though this example
was submitted to the judges on the back of a brown paper
If there was a way you could convert additional
prospects into clients, would you like to know more? The secret
is to treat every communication, whether via letter, ad, phone,
email, or in person, as a selling opportunity.
There are numerous books on salesmanship; Dale Carnegie set the standard years
ago; Attention, Interest, Conviction, Desire, Close. As a young copywriter, I
used his technique to win a contest by the Direct
Marketing Association by writing
a pure sales letter. Due to the short time allowed (we were given this assignment
while at an intensive training seminar), the sales pitch was drafted on the only
thing handy: a brown paper bag. I figured content was more important than form.
The judges loved it, and the letter was used to draw attendees to their national
annual convention in Los Angeles. My reward was an all-expenses-paid trip to
the convention, including airfare and accommodations at a luxury hotel.
This same approach (the content, not the bag) has been successfully delivered
by us ever since in selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products
and services. Give us a crack at your toughest challenge and see how this can
work for you.
When I Placed An Ad In
The West Virginia Hillbilly!
Yes, that was a real newspaper.
I was the media buyer at an advertising agency in Connecticut
at the time, and my client thought it would be nuts to
spend $100 on an ad. But the client’s $500 product
had an ad budget of $75 for each new sale. We kept careful
track. Not long after, we achieved our second sale as
a result of the ad, for a net cost per sale of only $50.
I was a hero!
Unfortunately, there was no way to leverage that. The newspaper was terrific,
but it was one of a kind. We needed hundreds of sales, so we turned our attention
to wider-reaching media that, even at the higher $75 cost per sale, delivered
the volume we needed. But it was an interesting experiment and we learned a valuable
lesson that you can use: spend most of your efforts on those projects which will
deliver the most results overall.
|The Skydiving Rototiller
(A Down-To-Earth Publicity
Don’t try this at home. As
national retail manager, I was looking for ways to publicize
the Troy-Bilt Rototiller. What better way than with a
TV commercial showing one parachuting to the rescue of
some overworked gardeners and also a series of special
demos at county fairs? But before spending big bucks,
we tried some experiments first.
Being an experienced expert in such things, I rigged up a skydiving, 200-pound
tiller (named Pegasus), provided cameras to my buddies, and launched Pegasus
and myself out of an airplane at 7,500 feet. (See, I TOLD you these ideas were
Things worked mostly okay (except for an upset farmer who objected to Pegasus
landing in his corn field) and after three successful jumps, the idea looked
That is, until the company lawyer found out.
The list of things which “could” go wrong seemed daunting (the spoilsport!),
but as businessmen, we had to weigh all the pros and cons. In spite of the marketing
value, we decided to pursue other, more conventional, promotions.
That’s not to say that such events can’t work. Witness everything
from car dealers riding white horses through town to sponsorships for NASCAR
and numerous skydiving ads for consumer products. If you have the right product,
we can give you some first-hand tips about making memorable promotions.
Wins At Federal Court
We shred documents and other
stuff in Philadelphia.
This is a true story of standing
up for the integrity of your company and having the guts
to prove it to a jury.
Hundreds of thousands of our garden shredders had been sold to happy customers.
But one user got careless and badly injured his hand. Rather than accept our
settlement offer, he and his lawyer decided it was all our fault and we should
pay millions. We hired our own lawyer (Joe Pinto, listed in America’s Top
100) and went to federal court in downtown Philadelphia. As Director of Product
Innovation, I was the company’s representative and expert witness.
To prove how capable and safe our product was, we asked the judge and jury to
come down to the courtyard to see the shredder in action. There was lots that
could go wrong and millions were at stake, but I wanted to prove that we were
a good company that made a good, safe product.
After ensuring that everyone had on safety goggles and was safely standing to
one side, I put the 8hp chipper/shredder through its paces. Old newspapers, garden
leftovers and even 3” thick tree limbs were quickly turned into useful
organic mulch. It soon became clear that even though this was a powerful machine,
it was very safe if run properly.
The judge was convinced. So convinced, in fact, that he stopped the trial, sent
the jury home, and awarded us a defense verdict (no money due).
If you have a company or product that needs a strong show of commitment, we can
help you succeed, whether in federal court or in the competitive marketplace.
For Hugely Successful New Product
(Test showed potential in
a “non-existent” market)
Buy low -- sell high. That’s
a proven way to make money in our free economy. The problem
is, of course, to know WHEN? In the 1980’s, we
test marketed a product that went on to sell hundreds
of millions of dollars during its life cycle. Here's
Chipper/shredders for gardeners had been around for years. They peaked back in
the self-sufficiency fad of the 1970’s (Sears even advertised one on the
Super Bowl!). By the mid-1980’s, they were dead, buried, and gone forever.
Or so everybody thought.
To us, this looked like the bottom of the cycle; a perfect time to “buy”.
But before recommending that to the leaders of Garden Way, we proposed a market
test that would demonstrate whether or not the sales potential was there. If
it worked, then an expensive commitment to development and production could be
We created an aggressive business plan that started with small expenses and then
built to higher levels. Pulling together a team, we investigated several small
manufacturers around the country. One had a chipper/shredder that could, with
a few modifications, do the job. We arranged to have a short production run made
and available for shipping from their Wichita factory.
The marketing effort concentrated on select lists of gardeners. Mailings were
sent, complete with hard-hitting brochures, letters, photos and reports from
actual users. Soon, the phone was ringing and the units were selling. The first
batch of several hundred sold out. We ordered 500 more, and then another 500.
Now it became apparent that there was real gold here. Garden Way invested in
the little company (and eventually bought it). Chipper/Shredder sales increased
from just $3 million per year to over $50 million per year.
Do you have a business that looks challenging but could become a winner? We can
help you evaluate the keys to success and build a winning plan that will work
for you in the real world.
|How To Do A “Dry” Market
(and not get in trouble with
The Federal Trade Commission gets
justifiably cranky if you advertise a product that doesn’t
exist. Yet, how do you really know if prospects are telling
the truth in surveys if it’s not a real buying
situation? (“Oh yes, I’d definitely buy the
new Acme-Zoomer for $1000; absolutely!”)
Troy-Bilt was thinking of inventing a new garden cultivator but didn’t
want to spend two years and a half million dollars developing it if it wouldn’t
sell well. Surveys gave mixed results and it was hard to know what to believe.
So, we put together a team that delivered an accurate market test in three months
and had a product investment cost of zero.
Here’s what we did. We made 100 prototype cultivators from scraps of other
peoples’ products, then sold them to real customers for real money. We
bought a hundred of a competitor’s conventional tillers, then rearranged
the components to serve as the frame for a cultivator. We bought 100 trimmer/edgers
from Sears, kept only the handlebars, and sold the rest for parts. We added 100
sets of high-diameter cart wheels. Finally, we had the model shop make 100 small
belt covers and put everything together. Result: instant REAL product for the
customer to decide on, send REAL money, and provide REAL feedback on what they
The results from this test were 100% believable. The test products were sold
for $300 apiece, which was just about what the collection of parts had cost,
so there was no net product cost. We proved that people wanted this new product,
so the company now had the confidence to invest its time and money. The product
went on to make about $10 million in sales as a result of this test.
How about you? Unsure about how to get started with a new product introduction?
We’ve been there before and can show you the path.
Didn’t Have A CLUE!
(The secret truths about consumer
I’m a big fan of consumer
research. It can help you quickly choose product features,
benefits, and pricing, plus show you where to best place
your marketing and production dollars. But here’s
a case where we gave the public exactly what they wanted
-- and they didn’t like it after all.
I had invented a nifty little machine for Garden Way that you pushed around your
yard. Powered by a 3hp motor, it sucked up leaves, shredded them to a fine mulch,
and bagged them. It even had a chipper, to turn 1-1/2” branches into landscaping
chips. We called it the Chipper/Vac. Tens of thousands were sold, including through
Sears, at a price of $299.
Surprisingly, a few customers returned them in disgust, claiming, “It doesn’t
mow well at all!” Um…, yeah! It looks kind of like one, but it isn’t
a lawn mower; doesn’t even have a whirling blade under there. Nevertheless,
the cry went up for a “Chipper/Vac that mows”. More customers and
dealers piled on. Our customer surveys said it would be a great idea. But for
several years, I was stumped: putting a lawn blade under there would be a hazard
to your toes if you used the chipping function.
It was only after the chairman of the board asked me to give it one more shot
that a technical solution was found. In a burst of midnight madness, it came
to me: a clutch and belt which would disengage the whirling blade whenever you
left the handlebars, but would leave the chipper, shredder, vacuum and bagger
still working. I finished the working prototype a week later. Surprisingly, the
thing turned out to be the world’s best bagging mower, due to the huge
blower fan. It was a terrific product!
Only one problem: we now had a 3hp mower that cost $500, weighed a ton (or so
it seemed) due to the chipper flywheel, and didn’t even have self-propelled
wheels. Since the chipper/vac functions were used only 20% of the time, and the
mower 80%, it just didn’t make sense to be pushing around that expensive
weight all summer.
We shelved the project. The little Chipper/Vac lived out the rest of its life
cycle, earning good profits until the market got its fill, and competition jumped
So, is market research a dirty word? Not at all. But just like computers, you
only get out what you put in. Had we asked the RIGHT question ahead of time (“Would
you buy a Chipper/Vac that mows if it cost 60% more, did a great job, but was
a bear to push around all summer?”), we would have saved ourselves a lot
As with this and dozens of other cases, many valuable lessons were learned. Do
you have a research question or project? I’ll be glad to pass these lessons
on to you.
(How the combatants came to
the peace table and made history.)
Every company that has hardworking,
energized employees has some interdepartmental rivalries.
But when I was appointed to the role of Director of Product
Innovation at Troy-Bilt (a $100 million company), the
situation was fearsome: a street divided the two main
buildings, with Marketing on one side and Engineering
and other manufacturing functions on the other. The marketers
were brilliant, but saw the engineers as obstructionist.
The engineers were outstanding, but saw the marketers
as blue-sky dreamers. Combined, development was at an
The first thing I did (being a true-blue marketer but with some technical savvy)
was go across the street and make friends with all the engineers. Then, their
VP and I formed a select committee that reviewed and encouraged all new development.
The group got executive backing and soon it was the hot place to be. All sides
came together in a team environment where each person understood the desires,
capabilities, and limitations of the other. The atmosphere changed to one of “Yeah,
we can do that!” and a string of $10 million additional products soon were
Does this sound familiar? If you have good people who just don’t seem to
mesh well together, we can help you build a winning team. Once the team is in
unison, their great ideas can come to fruition quickly and profitably.
|Go Do It Yourself
(The saga of how a young marketer
got his hands dirty and discovered a profitable new segment.)
If you’re a gardener, you may have
had your garden tilled in the springtime by a commercial “Custom
Tilling” operator who created for you a beautiful seedbed
for $25-$50 (or more, these days). That notion started over 30
years ago with a small book I wrote called, logically enough, Custom
But it never would have happened if I’d been sitting on my
duff in a cozy office.
The Troy-Bilt company had been making wonderful (and very expensive) gardening
tillers for years, selling them to serious home gardeners; they had rear-mounted
tines, powered wheels and were so easy to use, you could guide them with just
one hand. This was back when most other tillers were the front-tine variety which
were very cheap and devilishly hard to run; people called them “Torture
Back at the cozy office, we were looking for ways to sell more. Most of Troy-Bilt’s
customers were older or retired and had no desire to till for hire. Why not,
we reasoned, discover if it’s possible to earn money by custom tilling.
Discover all the tips, tricks and pitfalls, then write a book and create a whole
program. I was nominated. For six weeks of that spring, I set up a part-time
business, bought my own tiller and trailer, advertised and did the work. By the
end, I was tanned, fit, bug-bitten, and (in today’s dollars) about $5000
richer. Now we knew it could be done. The next step was to convince others to
The book was published, ads were placed in national magazines, mailings were
sent to existing customers and prospects, and before long we had about 10,000
people (mostly guys and gals in their 20’s and 30’s) who were doing
this for extra income each spring. The loved their Troy-Bilt tillers, bought
some extra ones as their businesses expanded, and bought lots of replacement
tines and other parts. We encouraged them with a newsletter and offered them
incentives to pass along to their friends.
The industry has tapered off since then, with fewer people gardening and cheap
rear-tined imitation Troy-Bilt tillers now available at every home center and
hardware store. But you’ll still see ads each year: “Have Tiller,
Will Travel”, and many of our old custom tilling friends now have full-service
lawn maintenance contracts doing summer chores for businesses just like yours.
Moral of the Story: One great way to make your business grow is to go get your
hands dirty and learn the marketing truth for yourself. Become the world’s
expert on how to make, sell, and help the customer with your product or service.
Then take that knowledge and leverage it so that many other people can spread
the business in a chain reaction. Then you can go back to your cozy office (but
only for a little while). It’s easy; you can do it; I can show you how!
Million Product That People Bought… But Never
(Actually, it was fifty thousand,
$2000 products, but the principle is the same.)
You’ve heard it said that it is steak
which people eat, but it’s the “sizzle” that
stimulates their appetite. As a marketer, this explains why the
car companies use fancy convertibles to attract buyers to the
showroom, even though most people end up buying the sedans (okay,
they buy minivans and SUV’s, too).
Troy-Bilt made a darned good garden tiller, but most people really only used
the equipment once a year, to till up the garden for planting (plus some cultivating
and tilling under residue later). $2,000 for a once-a-year job just didn’t
make sense to many.
My task was to broaden the appeal.
Working with my new-found buddies in Engineering, we developed a multi-purpose
tiller that could also split firewood, generate electricity, pump water, drag
agricultural implements, and tow carts and other wheeled equipment. Each attachment
was reasonably priced and market surveys indicating good sales turned out to
But the real surprise was that while thousands of additional basic tillers were
sold at $2,000 each, only a few hundred attachments (average $400) were sold
each year. Why? Because we were selling the sizzle -- the idea that this tiller
COULD be used all year around for many things. That notion removed the objection
to buying and using the Troy-Bilt , even though it was still used just once a
year for tilling.
Can this work for you? Let’s talk it over and take a look. You may be able
to use a little more sizzle to sell a lot more of your steaks.
A Little Too Wild For You? See our "conservative"
side on Strictly Business.