Timeless truths from an advertising legend

My Life in Advertising was published over 90 years ago, but remains one of the most incisive and influential marketing books available today. Its author, Claude Hopkins, was a legendary American pioneer in the world of advertising, blazing a path forward that his modern counterparts continue to follow. His inventive and often unorthodox methods led to skyrocketing sales for his clients – and when applied correctly, offer similar rewards for businesses today.

While technological advancements have irrevocably changed the marketing industry between then and now, the core concepts in Hopkins’ book remain the same. These lessons resonate powerfully today for the same reason they worked so well in the first place: Because they all originate with simple truths about human nature.

Lesson 1 – Know your audience

A successful marketing campaign can only be created by first getting to know your audience. Or, as Hopkins puts it: “One can never strike the right chord until he knows the trend of popular opinion.”

Many common products aim for the biggest demographic in society – the middle to lower class. Marketing successfully to this group means developing a keen sense for what appeals to them, by sticking to what they know and what they are striving for. Obscure technical details, or other tangents requiring prior knowledge or experience, will be hard to understand and distract from the key message of how the product will improve their lives.

In My Life in Advertising Hopkins gives clear examples of ad campaigns that failed because they were ignorant of their audience and what they wanted to know.

Hopkins was hired by Goodyear to advertise their new ‘straight-side tires’. Up to that point, Goodyear had focused their ads around the manufacturing process and technical details of this innovative kind of tire. As a casual consumer himself, Hopkins had seen the ads for the product before but he still didn’t know what straight-side meant, or why these tires were better than other models.

In short, Goodyear had failed to consider where their consumers were coming from. Upon asking Goodyear, Hopkins learned that the tires had 10% more air capacity because they were not ‘rim-cut.’

Hopkins immediately simplified the language and reframed the entire ad campaign, so that it was oriented around the customer. He changed the name of the tires to ‘no rim-cut tires’, a name that made more sense to the average person. He emphasized the great results for the consumer, rather than the manufacturing process of the producer or the technical details of the product. The results were immediate – and as Hopkins explains, “Goodyear tires soon occupied the leading place in tiredom.”

Both then and now, the casual consumer is not inspired to make purchases based on the detailed technical aspects of the products they buy. Niche products are an exception, but this exception only reinforces the rule about the necessity of knowing one’s customers.

Even when dealing with niche products, a balance has to be struck – and no one does a better job at this today than Apple. Much of their catalogue is wildly expensive, yet wherever you turn, you’ll still find an Apple product.

Apple’s more niche products include their ‘Pro’ line, which is used by professionals who require higher end specs and performance, and is correspondingly even more expensive than the more standard alternatives. These professionals need to know the technical details of the Pro product line, in order to understand exactly how it can improve workflow.

The launch video marketing of Apple’s new Mac Pro handles this requirement beautifully, by presenting geeky specs alongside their real-world performance impact, with aesthetic highlights mixed in to keep even the casual viewer interested.

By contrast, look at how Apple markets its more mainstream products, such as iPhones.

These two ads understand what the average consumer really cares about when shopping for a new phone: Screen size and camera quality.

The same approach can be observed in their iPhone launch video.

Notice how Apple takes the focus away from the technical properties of these phones. The average person wants a mobile phone they can enjoy, not something they need to study to figure out.

Admittedly, the video does mention some technical aspects – perhaps unavoidably, as these are technology-based products – but the information is described in easily digestible way, using terms that are widely understood. The presentation sticks to what the mass audience already knows, and what it wants to hear: That the new iPhone is easy to use, and will help you have more fun in life.

Lesson 2 – Use tests

Claude Hopkins often stressed the importance of conducting tests, as each of us tends to be a poor judge of our own ideas. Indeed, testing is the only sure way for a business to learn about its own customers, and what kinds of things appeal to them.

30 years into his advertising career, Hopkins was hired to advertise for the toothpaste brand Pepsodent. He would eventually come up with one of the most successful campaigns of his career, netting the company millions.

But this result came only after a series of failed campaigns. Hopkins was already a star in the advertising world at this time, with decades of experience under his belt. But he still needed to continuously change, tweak, and compare headlines for his ads, offering different promotions and coupons until he finally struck the right note.

By tapping into people’s desire for personal beauty, Hopkins set the tone for generations of winning toothpaste advertisements. He later recalled the earlier period of market testing, so essential in helping him find the right formula. “After this experience,” he wrote, “I can cite a hundred ways to advertise a tooth paste wrongly. And I can prove the mistakes …. Pepsodent offers the best argument I know for being guided by actual data.”

One of Hopkins’ favorite tests was to compare headlines for his ads. Each variation of the headlines would have a coupon attached; he would then count the number of coupons cashed in to measure the effectiveness of each. These real-world tests from Hopkins and other marketers helped to pioneer analytics marketing, arguably giving rise to a method still widely used today by digital marketing agencies in Bangkok: A/B testing.

Today, tests are more important than ever. In the Internet age, advertisers are able to collect massive amounts of information about users, making tests far easier to conduct. The vast amounts of data available also make analytics a must, as those who fail to embrace this valuable tool risk getting left behind.

Lesson 3- Don’t overtly sell; provide a service instead

While the purpose of adverting is to sell a product, the direct approach often isn’t the most successful. Consumers see thousands of direct ads each day, and learn to ignore most of them. But there is a solution. As Hopkins put it: “People will listen if you talk service to them.”

Your customers work hard for their money, and spending it on one thing means missing out on something else. By making your ad seem like you are offering an advantage or service that can truly help the customer, your product becomes the more attractive option.

This insight links back to the concept of the hero’s journey in marketing, which we discussed in more depth in a previous blog. By overtly trying to sell a product, it becomes clear you are trying to give yourself an advantage, to become the hero. But as Hopkins observed nearly 100 years ago, customers “will turn their backs, and always, when you seek to impress an advantage for yourself.”

You should instead aim to be the guide to the hero. You must help them achieve their goals, and give them an advantage. Many companies have this idea completely backwards, presenting their message the other way around.

Hopkins gives us an example that highlights the effectiveness of framing the customer as the hero in their own story. When working for a mail order catalogue company, Hopkins ran a campaign selling women’s clothes, which can be paid in installments. However, the ads he ran he did not mention installments, describing them as ‘credits’ instead. The ads offered to give customers more time to pay, thanks to the 6 months’ credit they would receive with their purchase. Each ad stressed how these new clothes will let them look their best, helping them develop their careers.

By framing the payments as credits that helped the customers improve themselves, Hopkins made the installment idea appear “flattering, not humiliating. It showed sympathy and understanding.” In doing so, Hopkins made it feel like the company was offering women a service, or an advantage. The company became the guide on the women’s quest to improve themselves.

With people nowadays exposed to more ads than ever, it’s even more important to appeal to their natural biases by offering them an advantage. This brilliant ad by Samsung provides a recent example of such a strategy:

The ad does not overtly sell a product. It doesn’t say “we’re the best”, “buy now”, or anything else that makes itself the star of the story. The ad simply shows one imaginative use for its product, focuses on the transformation of the user, and the possibilities are left to the imagination.

Lesson 4 – Use samples and coupons

Samples and coupons are a recurring theme in Hopkins’ book. “The hardest struggle of my life has been to educate advertisers to the use of samples, or to trials of some kind,” he writes.

These are effective because they draw attention to the advertisement, build brand recognition, and create a demand for products. As mentioned above, ads perform better when they promise a benefit or advantage to the customer. Samples and coupons “get a reading and get action from people seeking to serve themselves,” Hopkins points out – which is, at the end of the day, what every ad is meant to accomplish.

The added utility of samples and coupons is that they are also effective in generating leads. In Hopkins’ day, coupons were widely used in newspapers and magazines. They offered a variety of benefits – such as discounts, free samples, or more information – to readers who take the time to cut them out and send them in.

The effort required to cut coupons and redeem them is a feature of this tactic, not a bug; only those who are interested in your products will do so, giving advertisers “a chance to follow up that interest”.

When Hopkins was hired by Van Camp Packaging Company to create a campaign for their evaporated milk, he combined this idea with other psychological insights, and put them to excellent use.

People’s preferences regarding staple products like evaporated milk are hard to influence. More often than not, people stick to what they know and are reluctant to buy from a brand they are unfamiliar with. To make things worse, most staple products are of the same quality, making it especially difficult to convince people to switch away from their purchase habits. Products of similar quality are also difficult to advertise, because it is difficult to claim any special advantage that one brand can provide over the others.

“About all one can say is: ‘Buy my brand. Give me the money that you give to others. Insist that I get it.’ Those are not popular appeals,” Hopkins said. So when advertising for staple products, the main goal needs to be to build brand recognition, and there may be no better way to do this than by giving away samples.

For weeks, Hopkins placed coupons in the newspaper which could be redeemed for a can of Van Camp’s milk. At the same time, he ran ads telling stories about the product. Hopkins made sure every grocer was given these ads and coupons, and that they must hand them out to every customer. The company paid the grocers the retail price for every coupon cashed in, giving them real incentive to follow through with the request.

This campaign was universally effective, even in New York where a rival brand had been enjoying a monopoly. Although the campaign cost Van Camp money at first, the demand and recognition that Hopkins was able to create through these coupons and samples led to the company capturing the market, and coming back with a profit in less than a year.

Importantly, Hopkins had designed the coupons in such a way that the offer of a free sample was put alongside the presentation of facts and information about the milk. People therefore had to learn something about the product in order to get it for free. This tactic is much more impactful and cost-effective in building demand than handing out unsolicited free samples, which Hopkins felt cheapens the product.

The core lesson still applies for social media marketing agencies in Thailand today. Samples and coupons are common in e-commerce, and they range from giving discounts in exchange for signing up to a mailing list, or offering sample of their products in a smaller quantity at a lower price. While some businesses continue to offer samples for free, most require some sort of action or payment, even if it’s just shipping.

These are great ways to provide samples and discounts, as they take action and commitment on the part of the consumer – and therefore are only redeemed by those who are genuinely interested.

By having people sign up to a mailing list, companies can follow up on the interest they displayed. This tactic can lead to sales, but its utility does not end there: This new set of consumers can become the subject of future market testing, helping you further improve your ad campaigns.

Lesson 5 – Don’t be afraid of the truth

Sometimes the best marketing strategy comes from telling the simple truth, even when doing so is unexpected. Obviously not every truth can be told – if only because of the aforementioned need to consider the interests of your audience. Instead, tell the truth that will resonate with them, the truth they would find interesting.

Once again, conducting tests (and understanding human psychology) can help you identify these precise truths and filter out the unhelpful ones. Certain facts and statistics that show how popular a product is with other people, can push new consumers towards it as well.

Far less effective are extravagant or superlative claims like ‘the best’, which are ineffective in appealing to the audience. This kind of self-compliment makes no impression on most people, as audiences have heard it all before. Indeed, people have grown to expect statements like these, and automatically filter them out like so much empty noise.

Other kinds of truth are less expected, however – and therefore more memorable. Hopkins’ identification of uncommon truths led to vastly successful ad campaigns where he utilized these concepts for the benefit of his clients.

Perhaps the most famous example came when he was put in charge of advertising for Schlitz Beer, which was fifth in the market at the time. When he first joined, the company’s advertising message had revolved around the purity of its beer.

Hopkins visited their brewery where he learned all about how the beer was made. He found this process fascinating, and sensed that others would as well. He went back to Schlitz Beer and told them that the basis of the campaign should simply be about telling the truth. Hopkins insisted that the way to hook consumers was by explaining this amazing process of brewing beer, and how the company was able to make their beer so pure.

Schlitz Beer was hesitant. After all, this was the same process that every beer company used. However, as Hopkins correctly pointed out, no one had ever explained the process before. Hopkins felt that if the process amazed him, along with everyone else who visited the brewery, then it would amaze people in print as well.

He was right. Within a few months, just by telling a story that people hadn’t heard before, Schlitz became the #1 beer on the market.

More recent examples illustrate just how powerful a truth-based ad campaign can be. Dove’s ‘real beauty’ advertisements have resonated powerfully with audiences far and wide. By getting underneath the concept of beauty, Dove provided a highly relatable experience for their customers.

Through testing – here we see the value of market data once again – Dove found that only 2% of women considered themselves beautiful. Yet most beauty product manufacturers marketed images of impossibly beautiful women, creating a frustrating disconnect with what people were actually feeling. Dove saw the opportunity to tap into this frustration, in order to make the brand more relevant and relatable.

For the campaign, Dove brought ‘real women’ into the picture. They sent talent scouts to recruit a diverse selection of women whose appearance in their ads would instantly question the mainstream ideals of beauty. This effort got women to appreciate alternative ideas of what beauty meant, helping them feel comfortable and confident in themselves.

The campaign represented a new and original way to connect with the majority of women, who (as Dove’s own tests revealed) didn’t consider themselves to be beautiful.

As part of the campaign, Dove also ran a series of ‘evolution’ videos.

The ads struck a chord by showing how companies use makeup and manipulated images to create unrealistic standards and expectations. As Dove opened up questions and discussions around ideals of beauty, the company was able to attract and relate to a large audience.

The effort also let Dove get in front of prior criticisms of the beauty industry, by taking the side of its critics; the ads essentially agree that women can live up to certain ideals only through image manipulation. Such honesty was refreshing for many female consumers who felt that a company was finally on their side, taking pressure off of their beauty expectations instead of continuing to pile more unrealistic goals on top of them.

Since the campaign was first launched in 2004, Dove has stuck to this theme of real beauty. The powerful and original message helped their ads go viral, and were incidentally given wide and positive coverage in the media. This campaign helped Dove stand out among many companies competing for a large consumer base, while also receiving significant amounts of recognition and free media coverage by simply telling the truth.

Dove’s achievement came from knowing their audience, which in turn required market research. They elected not to include an overt sales pitch in these ads, instead relying on plenty of truth-telling even in areas that would normally go against the instincts of beauty companies. These methods, along with other key sales offerings such as samples and coupons, continue to work because they play upon the core desires that all of us feel when we consider how to live our lives and how to spend our money.

Claude Hopkins succeeded not because he used these tactics – but because he used them intelligently. Any tool or resource can be powerful in the hands of a master, while remaining ineffective (or worse) when applied carelessly. To learn more about the processes highlighted in this article, and how Lexicon can help your business make the most of its next marketing campaign, get in touch with us today.

Lexicon is a full-service digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We specialize in corporate storytelling and produce all of our content in-house, including branding,  copywritingvideo production and graphic design. We bring all of our services together and use Digital PR and social media marketing storytelling to connect our clients with the ideal target audience.


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