May 1, 2017

I will make the assumption that if you are part of my online family you are “one of us”…a serial direct marketer…and marketing terms like “branding,” “public relations,” and “publicity” give us the creeps, right?

Our favorite question:

“How are you going to measure THAT?”

I recall a case of those “creeps” turning into a case of hives early in my career when an advertising sales guy suggested I try some advertising for “brand recognition.”

My response:

“If you can’t guarantee me a Nike swoosh, I’m not interested.”

The hives then disappeared…as did the agency guy…

However, I have become somewhat of a hypocrite over the years.

While recalling some specific case histories and successes of the past and present, there is a version of “branding” that can be incorporated into a strict direct marketing environment…one where measurement and return on investment on every media buy is paramount.

Having said that, I am not going to work on Madison Avenue anytime soon for a general advertising agency…nor do I yearn to be one of the “Mad Men” who lived in a world of, “If the advertising looks good and it is catchy, it must be working.”

Note: Those of you who have not read my book The Advertising Solution can get it here with some incredible free bonuses…it will be the best $12 you will ever spend. My co-author Craig Simpson and I profile 6 legends of advertising who were actually direct marketers trapped in the bodies of general “brand” advertisers…and their commitment to measure advertising is why they became legends. It contains checklists for all you do in marketing. I hope you will check it out

The story that I want to share with you this week is about a major breakthrough at my former company Boardroom that could be traced to a “new branding strategy”–and I realized I carry this one with me in all I am involved with today when it comes to branding without getting hives…

The reason I find this story so educational (and applicable today) is because while it has a “branding” component to it, it also teaches to never throw advertising/marketing/promotion dollars at anything without an expected, measurable return…and I hope you find the lesson valuable.

Hint: Messaging and how that messaging relates to list makeup/segmentation played a huge role.

I guess that comes as no surprise.

Boardroom Inc. was launched in 1972 with a newsletter called Boardroom Reports which taught small business people how to run their businesses better…it was a publication all about the practical and useful…and subscriptions were sold almost exclusively through direct mail.

In 1980, the company launched a newsletter called Bottom Line/Personal (BLP) which essentially appealed to the “consumer side” of that same executive who subscribed to Boardroom Reports.

BLP focused on things like health, personal finance, home, auto, taxes, personal development…practical and useful too but it was all ”non-business information” that an affluent executive would want to know about in order to create more abundance in all aspects of their life.

Not surprisingly, Bottom Line/Personal grew rapidly and soon eclipsed Boardroom Reports in circulation and overall responsiveness—especially to other company offerings including consumer related books.

Clearly this new consumer focus engaged a much wider audience and one that was easier to reach through direct mail (i.e. there were many more responsive lists available on the consumer side).

Our audience was telling us what they wanted most and we were ready to deliver more of what they wanted.

Furthermore, as Boardroom got into consumer publishing in a bigger way, it was clear that the category of “health” was huge by itself despite looking initially like a niche within BLP.

We didn’t have to guess about that either…our customers told us…and while on the surface it looked more like a branding strategy than anything else, it was really about results, note guesses.

The company exploded (in a good way) and REALLY got busy:

Health newsletters followed and dozens of health books too…and it led to a product line where 80% or more of the product line focused on health…with the rest of the editorial being in the areas of finance, consumer information and the like.

Business information had taken a back seat.

So what happened to poor Boardroom Reports?

Well, the core audience interested in “business information,” while enthusiastic for the newsletter, shrunk quite a bit due to attrition and lack of available outside lists.

And of course the house (internal) list was not responding all that well to the business-related newsletter with the new focus on consumer-related editorial, especially health.

That is, attracting new subscribers to Boardroom Reports was hard while new customer acquisition in our new consumer categories was easier and more lucrative.

But it was difficult for the company to let go of its “first born”…and Boardroom Reports chugged along, albeit very marginally.

Then we had an innovative idea for a test (although it is sort of obvious).

Here was the logic:

The database of existing customers–after the explosion of Bottom Line/Personal–had huge identification and affinity with the “brand” called “Bottom Line” –so instead of giving up on the consumers who still might want business information, we met them where they identified with us the most:

Boardroom Reports was re-named Bottom Line/Business.

It was also re-designed to look like a true sister publication to Bottom Line/Personal…and we created promotion that looked and sounded more like what our customers were used to seeing for our rapidly growing consumer publications.

Result: A huge lift in response from the house audience to the new Bottom Line/Business and new life for our original flagship publication….from customers we already had.

We were able to keep the newsletter alive (and profitable) for a few more years.

When we eventually folded Bottom Line/Business it was done by choice and not as much by necessity…always a better way to go.

At that point we realized that the subject area was an outlier and we had gotten so much better at marketing in the consumer categories…which at that time deserved 100% of our editorial focus too.

But we learned valuable lessons we could take forward from this transition from Boardroom Reports to Bottom Line/Business.

1) Our first health newsletter—Health Confidential—had a huge growth spurt when it was re-branded as Bottom Line/Health—and it remains that title to this day.

2) Boardroom’s tax newsletter, Tax Hotline, got some new life when it went wider as Bottom Line/Wealth.

3) Bottom Line/Tomorrow (retirement newsletter) and Bottom Line’s Natural Healing with Dr. Mark Stengler were both launched with titles under the Bottom Line umbrella.

We didn’t even bother trying anything BUT “Bottom Line” at the outset of any new launches…we are fast learners I guess…

4) And all of the books became “Bottom Line Books” rather than “Boardroom Books,” something that is still true today

I know this all sounds a bit simple…and obvious…but the fact that Boardroom was never a household name (or brand) made it less obvious that the company was ever sitting on a killer brand to a pretty large audience.

Plus, in looking back on it, I admit that I was stubborn about the whole concept since I always told people that the idea of “branding” gave me hives.

What that stubbornness got me was today’s subject line AND a reminder that we should never dismiss anything in the marketing landscape that can add to overall reach…and impact.

Of course this needs to go hand-in-hand with being a slave to your numbers, listening carefully to your audience all the time and always being committed to what the great copywriter Gary Bencivenga calls “accountable advertising.”

If you want another case history where this idea of “direct response branding” led to a $50 million per year profit center, please read, “Books are still a perfect product.”

That case history takes a deep dive into “Bottom Line Books” and showed how we took the Bottom Line “brand” to products we didn’t produce in the first place (i.e. other publisher’s books).

And it also talks about the role market research and really knowing your audience—and list—makes all the difference.

I even talk about walking around Barnes and Noble with a hand truck as part of that market research…an interesting story in itself…

As my good friend and expert marketer/consultant Michael Fishman has said to me many times over the years:

A brand name isn’t everything…but it’s something.

Always know how known or unknown your brand is (to any particular audience).

I also like to quote ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky in this context:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Back to today’s story: We didn’t plan on changing the entire branding of our company from “Boardroom” to “Bottom Line” on a whim or because someone said it would make sense to do—but rather, our audience told us that’s where we should go…

And who are we to argue with the folks who pay the rent and the electric bill?



About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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