20 June, 2010

Sometimes you need the Big Ugly Sign

Melbourne Herald Sun 19 June, 2010

One of our busiest business trainers, Brendan Nichols, has a good story he delivers at some of his seminars. It’s called “The Big Ugly Sign Theory”.

He speaks of a block of land he owned in an upmarket area. It had beautiful ocean views and he gave it to a local estate agent to sell. They put up a smart display board and waited for two months, with very little interest.

So Brendan decided to do it himself. He hammered a big sheet of plywood to a pole and hand-painted on it: “Private Sale - Good price - Phone xxxxxxxx now”. As he describes it, “The phone rang off the hook and I sold the land”.

Now this story is painful for those of us who spent much of our lives perfecting the art and craft of advertising creation. We want to the ad to look beautiful, the headline to be clever, for people to comment on what a lovely ad it is.

But I have to admit that this is not always what the product needs. Sometimes you have to tone down. So what’s the theory behind Brendan’s story? Well if you look around you, there’s a forest of real estate signs from the big house agents. Each is bigger and glossier than the last.

What the scrawled sign did was signal that this was a vendor sale. Probably they weren’t very sophisticated, maybe it was a chance to get the block for a cheaper “straight from the farm” price. It was certainly enough to stand out and spark interest.

Of course if everybody had hand-made signs on every sale property, it would then be the fancy billboard that would attract the interest.

It’s a fine call to decide which way to go, which is why you call in a professional - if they’re good, they can make that fine judgement. Do you need the glossy brochure and inserts to say that you are a wealthy, successful company they can trust. Or do you photocopy a sheet of paper to say you are honest, down-to-earth and cheap?

Well if you’re a bank, nobody would believe the second anyway. But the first can work in the right context. Like the retailer I once heard about. His shoe sales were going very slowly so he pulled out several dozen shoes of all types, piled them on a large table near the door, and put up a big sign saying: “Run-out discount sale, check for sizes”.

Soon the table was surrounded by shoppers pulling out shoes, checking them for size - and he soon sold his stock. In the right context, yes it can work.

Another of my clever friends is Bill Shannon who has an agency called Shannon’s Way. A few years ago he mentioned that one of his campaigns was for the Industry Superannuation Funds. “What,” I accused, “don’t tell me you’re responsible for those terrible ads with that wooden Bernie Fraser recommending the investment funds?” The former Reserve Bank Governor might be a clever chap but he ain’t no matinee idol - or exciting presenter.

Bill grinned, “Yeah, that’s us, aren’t they wonderful? They’ve got to be some of the most boring ads on TV - and they work like gang-busters!” Of course. He’s selling people their most important decision - where to invest their life’s savings. They don’t want to give their money to a flashy car-salesman. They will believe someone who is steady, dull and boring. (Sorry Bernie, nothing personal.)

Money is a serious business and we want to believe that the people handling ours are reliable, serious, even boring people.

Come to think of it, that’s also Kevin Rudd’s secret of success. (Sorry Kevin...)

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