Equal is not good enough

Years ago, when studying to become a stockbroker, my classmates and I were discussing the relationship between risk and reward among investors. Our instructor gave us a useful rule-of-thumb:

Between two investments of equal return, the rational investor will choose the one with a lower risk. And, between two investments of equal risk, the rational investor will choose the one with a higher return.

That’s sound advice from the early lessons (although it is shocking how often investors prove themselves to be irrational… but that’s besides the point).

I was thinking today about the concept of the “equality of the offering” and the rational consumer. Here are two of my experiences as a consumer:

Equality of hotels: Recently I was traveling to meet with a client. They had booked me into the Best Western; a decent hotel from my various traveling experiences. After my stay ended, I was asked to fill out a survey online comparing this experience with previous hotel experiences. After much thought, I told them frankly that this experience was incredibly unremarkable: There was nothing during my stay at their hotel that made me say “wow” or might induce me to return. In fact, just last year, I stayed at their competitor’s hotel across the street and the stay there was almost exactly the same. The service was mediocre. The complimentary breakfast was passable. The high speed internet connection was there when I needed it. The only difference was the room itself: last year’s hotel room was slightly larger and had a couch.

Will I go back to the Best Western? It’s doubtful. Because the experience was so unremarkable, I’m willing to stay at another hotel, and another, and another until I find one that I like.

Between two (or more) hotels that offer an equal stay, the rational guest will choose the nicer room (particularly if they’re not paying for the room, as was case).

Equality of home renovation box stores: Recently I’ve been renovating a couple rooms in my home. I outsource the projects I can’t do but I’ve been enjoying the work I can do. The part I enjoy the least, however, is the trip to the home renovation store. There are two near my house: Home Depot and Rona. And the experience is nearly equal: terrible service from typically absent staff, overwhelming selection with little guidance to make appropriate choices, and long line-ups to reach minimum-wage cashiers. And let’s not forget about product return procedures that are unwieldy at the best of times. So how do I choose? Well: Rona is closer but Home Depot has a self-serve checkout (which never has a line-up). So if I go during the day when the store is quiet, I’ll go to Rona because it’s a faster trip to and from my house. But if I go after 5pm (when more people are walking through the store), I’ll go to Home Depot because I can get in and out o the store faster.But that’s it. That’s how I decide where to go. That’s not customer loyalty!

Between two home renovation box stores, the rational consumer will choose the store that offers the least amount of pain.

If Best Western, Home Depot, and Rona asked for my advice, it would be this: Find ways to be different. Separate yourself from the pack by taking a chance on something that your competitors won’t do. It might mean alienating some customers but it may mean winning even more customers who desire that additional difference. And I believe the added cost will be swallowed up by increased customer loyalty.

The power of story in marketing

One of my jobs as a writer is to capture the story of the product or service my client is trying to sell. Depending on the medium (webcopy, article, brochure, etc.) that story is told in different ways. But no matter what, that story needs to be there.

People are drawn to story. Religion and entertainment are both fueled by story. Books like The One Minute Manager or The Wealthy Barber relate information through story. Blogs and Facebook and Twitter tell us the story of our connections. Good commercials tell us a story.

In business writing, that story is either subtle or overt:

Sometimes the story needs to be subtly woven into the fabric of the copy. An example of this might be webcopy that talks about the features of a product then comes back to the benefits by saying “picture yourself enjoying more free time because you own this product!”

And sometimes the story needs to be overtly told as if you are there, present in the room while it’s happening. One of the most famous advertisements using this overt storytelling method is John Caple’s 1925 advertisement “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play…“. The ad in its entirety is below. It’s an old school advertising (long copy, and it has the gee-whiz feeling of a Hardy Boys novel; friends don’t hang around and play piano for each other any more).

Notice how it effectively sells the product without clearly stating the features and benefits. Instead, the storytelling is overt, and the features and benefits are integrated into the product. In our busy world, where people pause on a website for just a moment or two, a story might be just the thing that keeps them there a little longer.

—   They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!

Arthur had just played “The Rosary.” The room rang with applause. I decided that this would be a dramatic moment for me to make my debut. To the amazement of all my friends, I strode confidently over to the piano and sat down.

“Jack is up to his old tricks,” somebody chuckled. The crowd laughed. They were all certain that I couldn’t play a single note.

“Can he really play?” I heard a girl whisper to Arthur.

“Heavens, no!” Arthur exclaimed “He never played a note in all his life… But just you watch him. This is going to be good.

“I decided to make the most of the situation. With mock dignity I drew out a silk handkerchief and lightly dusted off the piano keys. Then I rose and gave the revolving piano stool a quarter of a turn, just as I had seen an imitator of Paderewski do in a vaudeville sketch.

“What do you think of his execution?” called a voice from the rear.

“We’re in favor of it!” came back the answer, and the crowd rocked with laughter.

Then I Started to Play

Instantly a tense silence fell on the guests. The laughter died on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first few bars of Beethoven’s immortal Moonlight Sonata. I heard gasps of amazement. My friends sat breathless — spellbound!

I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade — seemed to grow dim — unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and visions it brought me. Visions as beautiful and as changing as the wind blown clouds and drifting moonlight that long ago inspired the master composer. It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me — speaking through the medium of music — not in words but in chords. Not in sentences but in exquisite melodies!

A Complete Triumph!

As the last notes of the Moonlight Sonata died away, the room resounded with a sudden roar of applause. I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand — wildly congratulated me — pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm! Everybody was exclaiming with delight — plying me with rapid questions… “Jack! Why didn’t you tell us you could play like that?”… “Where did you learn?” — “How long have you studied?” — “Who was your teacher?”

“I have never even seen my teacher,” I replied. “And just a short while ago I couldn’t play a note.”

“Quit your kidding,” laughed Arthur, himself an accomplished pianist. “You’ve been studying for years. I can tell.”

“I have been studying only a short while,” I insisted. “I decided to keep it a secret so that I could surprise all you folks.”

Then I told them the whole story.” Have you ever heard of the U.S. School of Music?” I asked.

A few of my friends nodded. “That’s a correspondence school, isn’t it?” they exclaimed.

“Exactly,” I replied. “They have a new simplified method that can teach you to play any instrument by mail in just a few months.”

How I Learned to Play Without a Teacher

And then I explained how for years I had longed to play the piano.”A few months ago,” I continued, “I saw an interesting ad for the U.S. School of Music — a new method of learning to play which only cost a few cents a day! The ad told how a woman had mastered the piano in her spare time at home — and without a teacher! Best of all, the wonderful new method she used required no laborious scales — no heartless exercises — no tiresome practising. It sounded so convincing that I filled out the coupon requesting the Free Demonstration Lesson.

“The free book arrived promptly and I started in that very night to study the Demonstration Lesson. I was amazed to see how easy it was to play this new way. Then I sent for the course.

“When the course arrived I found it was just as the ad said — as easy as A.B.C.! And, as the lessons continued they got easier and easier. Before I knew it I was playing all the pieces I liked best. Nothing stopped me. I could play ballads or classical numbers or jazz, all with equal ease! And I never did have any special talent for music!”

Play Any Instrument

You too, can now teach yourself to be an accomplished musician — right at home — in half the usual time. You can’t go wrong with this simple new method which has already shown 350,000 people how to play their favorite instruments. Forget the old-fashioned idea that you need special “talent.” Just read the list of instruments in the panel, decide which one you want to play and the U.S. School will do the rest. And bear in mind no matter which instrument you choose, the cost in each case will be the same — just a few cents a day. No matter whether you are a mere beginner or already a good performer, you will be interested in learning about this new and wonderful method.

Send for Our Free Booklet and Demonstration Lesson

Thousands of successful students never dreamed they possessed musical ability until it was revealed to them by a remarkable “Musical Ability Test” which we send entirely without cost with our interesting free booklet.

If you are in earnest about wanting to play your favorite instrument — if you really want to gain happiness and increase your popularity — send at once for the free booklet and Demonstration Lesson. No cost — no obligation. Right now we are making a Special offer for a limited number of new students. Sign and send the convenient coupon now — before it’s too late to gain the benefits of this offer. Instruments supplied when needed, cash or credit. U.S. School of Music, 1031 Brunswick Bldg., New York City.

That is golden marketing copy from a golden age!