Modern marketing ideas from 1923
June 19, 2019
My Life in Advertising is an autobiography from the inventor of modern marketing techniques, Claude Hopkins. It was published in 1923.
Claude worked in advertising for most of his life. To track the results of his advertising, he used key-coded coupons and then tested headlines, offers, and propositions against one another. He used the analysis of these measurements to improve his ad results.
The ideas Claude proposes are widely applicable today in marketing, product management and, other fields. They work in print and on the web. They are largely timeless.
Below are my own notes on My Life in Advertising. They include Claude’s thoughts on AB testing, funnel analysis, market segmentation and influencer marketing. We often think of these marketing and product management practices as new, but Claude was doing them nearly 100 years ago.
On the very first page, Claude talks about how frequent failures are in advertising.
All of us in this line attempts things which cannot be done. We are dealing with human nature, with wants, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies which we cannot measure up. No amount of experience can guide us correctly in even the majority of cases.
He declares his success rate to be less than 50% here and is happy with that. Less than half of his advertising experiments are deemed successful. The key to longevity is simply to not bet the house on any one experiment.
He references the advantage that sheer hard work has given him
If I have gone higher than others in advertising, or done more, the fact is not to do with exceptional ability, but to exceptional hours.
One of Claude’s first enterprises was in leaflet distribution. He would convince companies to let him distribute their leaflets. He charged a higher price than other boys but did the job better.
He implored advertisers to measure his results against the other kids and soon obtained a monopoly.
That was my first experience with traced results. It thought me to stand for known and compared returns. In no other way can real service reveal it’s advantage. Doing anything blindly is folly.
When selling shoe polish door to door. He learned he could sell 1 in ten women when he met them at their door. However, he realized that you could sell to nearly every woman who let him into their pantry to demonstrate the product.
A good article is it’s own best salesman. It is uphill work to sell goods, in print or in person without samples.
This is a good example of early funnel analysis!
Later he talks about how he got some books to sell. His mother had wisdom about how to kickstart sales.
Mother said: “Get the leading men first. They will bring in the others.”
She’s telling him to find the influencers in his town and sell to them first because other people will follow them. This is influencer marketing.
When that doesn’t work out (the leading men are pious and don’t like the books he’s selling), he goes to the businessmen instead. They eat the books up and he sells them all. Here he learns the power of choosing the correct target market.
We must never judge humanity by ourselves. The things we want, the things we like, may appeal to a small minority.
There’s not much of value in this chapter. Stories about a sermon he made which made his mother disown him, picking in an orchard and how crap business school was.
The book is autobiographical so some time is taken up with stories of Claude’s life.
Kicks off by reinforcing his message that hard work trumps all.
He switched from bookkeeping into advertising because he reasoned that bookkeeping is an expense to keep down. It has limited upside. Advertising, on the other hand, can add to the bottom line and therefore you can get rich via profit sharing.
When selling carpet sweepers he wants to add interesting woods (they are made of wood) to the sweepers in order to increase sales. The other salesmen laugh at him and implore him to talk about the broom action or smooth bearings of the sweeper.
“I am talking to women” I replied. “They are not mechanics. I want to talk the things which they will understand and appreciate”
He uses the appeal of a limited offer to convince stockists to buy the sweepers. He is adding urgency to increase the likelihood of the sale.
They will never be offered again.
Going for a new job in a big company, Claude found himself last on a long list of applicants for the job. To influence the hiring manager, he encouraged business people he knew to write letters explaining how great an ad man he was. He also offered to write articles in the local newspaper explaining how to advertise. All of this was to generate hype to ensure he got the job. It worked.
6 weeks into the job, he was being pressured to increase sales. He decided to perform a stunt. He had the largest cake in the world made and placed in the window. It was made with the butter replacement that the company produced. He advertised the cake in the local newspapers. Many people showed up to see the cake and started buying the butter.
That, many say, was not advertising. Advertising to them is placing some dignified phrases in print. But commonplace dignity doesn’t get far. Study salesmen, canvassers, and fakers if you want to know how to sell goods. No argument in the world can ever compare with one dramatic demonstration.
This was the invention of stunt marketing.
They can’t get bakers to buy their butter because it’s more expensive than competitors. He goes to the biggest baker in the area and promises to advertise on the baker’s behalf. However, the advertisement would say it was produced in conjunction with their brand of butter.
In this way, he gives the baker what he wants, advertisement, and in return, he gets the baker to buy his butter and he gets his own advertisement.
The average salesman openly seeks favors, seeks profits for himself. His plea is, “Buy my goods, not the other fellow’s” He makes a selfish appeal to selfish people, and of course he meets resistance.
I was selling service. The whole basis of my talk was to help the baker get more business. The advantage to myself was covered up in my efforts to please him.
I have always applied that same principal to advertising. I never ask people to buy. I rarely even say that my goods are sold by dealers. I seldom quote a price. The ads all offer service, perhaps a free sample or a free package. They sound altruistic. But they get a reading and they get action from people seeing to serve themselves. No selfish appeal can do that.
To reach people with advertising you have to get down to the individual level. He tells the story about how one firm wanted to devise a generic catalog to send to everyone, regardless of whether they were inquiring about sewing machines or typewriters. He thought this was a terrible idea.
In a wide-reaching campaign we are too apt to regard people in the mass. We try to broadcast our seed in the hope that some part will take root. That is too wasteful to ever bring a profit.
We must treat people in advertising as we treat them in person. Center on their desires.
When advertising for a brewer who was creating very “pure” beer, he devised advertisements to explain why the beer was pure and how much work went into making it that way. This was in contrast to the brewer’s previous efforts which basically involved plastering “PURE” across two pages in a newspaper. He wanted to get to the story behind why it was pure and tell that.
That situation occurs in many, many lines [industries]. The maker is too close to his product. He sees in his methods only the ordinary. He does not realize that the world at large might marvel at these methods, and the facts which seem commonplace to him might give him vast distinction.
That is a situation which occurs in most advertisement problems. The article is not unique. It embodies no great advantages. Perhaps countless people can make similar products. But tell the pains you take to excel. Tell factors and features which others deem too commonplace to claim. Your product will come to typify these excellencies. If others claim them afterward, it will only serve to advertise you.
Much of this chapter is about the power of guarantees and his experience with his Liquozone company (the product was apparently no more than water).
When advertising cough medicine he ran an add which basically said: “try it out, nothing bad can happen, if it works you get your cough cured, if not you can have your money back”. Sure there were ways that people could take advantage of this and try to cheat the company but he has found that you can
remove all restrictions and say “we trust you” and human nature likes to justify that trust. All my experience in advertising has shown that people, in general, are honest.
On dealing with haters he says
The average man is not successful. We meet few who attain their goal, few who are happy or content. Then why should we let the majority rule in matters affecting our lives?
Here is an example of the type of ad Claude wrote:
When trying to sell canned beans he
told of the 16 hours required to make beans at home. I told why home baking could never make beans digestible. I pictured home baked beans with the crisped beans on top, the mushy beans below. I told how we selected our beans, of the soft water we used, of our steam ovens where we baked beans for hours at 245 degrees.
This is all familiar from the previous chapters. He’s simply showing the problems of the home baking method and then talking about the simple methods his company used to make beans. The methods many other advertisers would have considered too commonplace to use.
He is advertising a product that the consumer could make at home if they wished. He trying to replace common household items with manufactured ones.
In the case of the baked beans, he
offered a free sample for comparison. The result was an enormous success.
The modern equivalent of this is simply a freemium model.
When there was competition he came out with headlines which urged people to try other brands and compare them with his. The appeal won others over because the implication was that they were so certain of their product that people wouldn’t leave it.
That’s another big point to consider. Argue anything for your own advantage and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires and they will naturally flock to you.
Always think of what the customer wants. Not what you need. The natural instinct of a successful man is to tell you what he has accomplished. He may be able to do that at a dinner party where you can’t escape but he cannot do that in print.
He talks about using newspaper coupons to convince housewives to try his dehydrated milk. They were already buying dehydrated milk as a common product and he needed them to switch.
He put a coupon in the newspaper for the RRP of the milk. Housewives could cut out the coupon, bring it to the shop and get the milk for free. The grocer still got his profit.
One important thing about this was that it forced grocers to stock the brand. Otherwise, they would miss the profit when a woman came in with the coupon.
Another is that
The woman to get a sample had to make an effort. She could not know of the sample without reading the facts about this milk.
Since there was copy on the coupon, she kinda had to read it and learn about the brand.
If she presented the coupon, it was because the ads had led her to desire the product.
Later they invented the strategy to collect the labels and get a gift. I personally first noticed this performed by Coca-Cola when I was a kid. This was all about brand familiarity.
The anecdotes at the start of this chapter about what it was like to own a car in 1900 are pretty interesting. Not particularly useful for marketing but interesting nonetheless.
The first advertising wisdom comes when he talks about how he featured the chief engineer from the car company he was advertising in one of the ads.
You will note that where ever possible I inject some personality into an advertising campaign. This has always proved itself an impressive idea. People like to deal with men whose names are connected with certain accomplishments. They would rather do that, I have found, than deal with soulless corporations.
Next, in this chapter, he talks about the advantage of being specific in adverts. Basically, even back in 1900, people disregarded claims like “Best in the world”, “Fastest…” or whatever.
They are not classified as falsehoods, but mere exaggerations. They probably do more harm than good, because they indicate a looseness of expression and cause people to discount whatever you say.
But when we make specific and definite claims, when we state actual figures or facts, we indicate weighted and measured expressions. We are telling either the truth or a lie.
In further car ads, he talked about how sales had grown strongly in the company. This was an early application of what we now call Social Proof.
People are like sheep. They cannot judge values, nor can you and I. We judge things largely by others’ impressions, by popular favor. We go with the crowd. So the most effective thing I have ever found in advertising is the trend of the crowd.
When we see the crowd taking any particular direction we are much more inclined to go with them.
He talks about how they realized at some point that they could make more money buy upselling their existing customers to buy more ads instead of getting new companies on their books.
One day it occurred to us that we could increase our advertising business by increasing accounts on our books.
When Goodyear came to them looking to start advertising he found they had a new product which delivered better results than other tires. He found some performance results about the new tire and made them the focus of the advertising.
By calling it the “No-Rim-Cut” tire, he used the name of the tire to emphasize its benefit.
We figured out what claim could count most and made the name imply it. So the name told our main story.
There is great advantage in a name that tells a story. The name is usually displayed. Thus the name can form a reasonably complete ad.
Once this worked and sales took off other tire companies started copying them so they switched to using the fact that sales were good as the basis of the advertising.
By that time, however, we had another talking point more impressive. That was the sensational growth in demand.
This forms a repeatable 2 phase advertising strategy.
- Advertise a benefit of the product
- When that starts working, advertise the growth in demand.
When they needed to get dealers to stock their tires they prepared a large newspaper campaign and offered to name every stockist in the ad. This would effectively be free advertising for the dealers. This was highly persuasive.
This naming of dealers in local advertising is an almost irresistible inducement to stock. Few plans are more effective. No dealer likes to see his rivals named in a big campaign and his own name omitted. The more who join in the plan the easier it is to get others. I have often secured on new products almost universal distribution in this way.
This chapter has a thorough explanation of a repeatable couponing scheme which causes a jump in sales and causes more distributors to stock your product. The case study is in Palmolive soap.
- Leading ads in papers telling readers they will have coupons in the papers in the coming days.
- Coupons appear in papers.
- The women exchange the coupons for soap in the store (Palmolive)
- The company pays the store for the soap.
The key thing is that consumers need to read the coupon and go to the store. This is different than simply handing out free samples.
I have never found that it paid to give either a sample or a full-size package to people who do not request it. We must arouse interest in our product before it has value to anybody.
It is important to scale and extract all the value you can from a strategy once you prove that it works.
Quick volume is more profitable than slowly-developed volume. When one proves that a plan is right and safe, the great object is great development. Attain the maximum as soon as you can.
The whole adventure, however, is predicated on having a good product. Before any of this, he did spend time verifying that Palmolive was a good product.
Later when faced with improving the prospects of a company selling business books, all they did was suggest the announcement
“Your name will be printed in gilt on each book”
This gave the books some distinction and personality and turned sales around. This is a good example of how successful a campaign can have nothing to do with the content of the product.
When selling Palmolive shaving cremes he used the old trick of being specific. They tested the shaving cremes and then distributed the results of the tests. It didn’t matter that most other shaving cremes on the market would attain the same scores if tested.
Probably other shaving creams could meet the same specifications. I have no idea that one man far excels some others in this line. But we were the first to give figures on results. And one actual figure counts for more than countless platitudes.
This chapter is pure gold in terms of the density of the information in it. It’s about cereal advertising. He agrees to advertise two kinds of cereal, Puffed Rice and Wheat Berries.
The first thing he does is get them to rename Wheat Berries to Puffed Wheat. This means he can advertise the puffiness in one shot and have it apply to both products. Doubling the bang for the buck. He also gets them to increase prices in order to support the more expensive cost of customer acquisition.
After this, he did his usual trick of learning the specifics of how the product is made. In doing that he learned that the grain is shot from a gun somehow and he coined the phrase “Foods shot from guns”.
He was ridiculed for this but it turned out to work simply because it was so weird. It arose curiosity.
But that theory proved attractive. It aroused curiosity. And that is one of the greatest incentives we know in dealing with human nature.
He talked about the reason for the puffing and how it made the food taste so good. Like with other products, taking something that other makers might think is a common fact and letting the people know about it.
I told the reason for the puffing. In every grain, we created 125,000,000 steam explosions - one for every food cell.
Next, he employed his trick of taking one of the makers of the product and turning them into a celebrity by putting them into the ads. The man chosen was Professor A. P. Anderson. I think it’s important that the celebrity is a Professor.
Personalities appeal, while soulless corporations do not.
This all worked really well and turned them into a huge success. But it wasn’t all plain sailing and the next stories in this chapter show how important test-driven advertising is.
We spent large sums in newspaper advertising, which on that line could not pay. Newspapers reach all the people. This expensive food line appealed only to the classes. Nine in ten whom we reached with newspapers could not afford puffed grains. So we finally proved that magazine advertising was our only possibility.
He’s talking about targeting your advertising as specifically as you can here. It’s no good blasting your message to a wide audience, most of whom cannot afford it. Better to specifically target it at the rich people (who, in those days, read magazines) even if you get wider readership in newspapers.
They tried free samples too but it didn’t work for the same reasons he has discussed in other chapters. It is much better to
give samples only to people who take some action to acquire them because of interest created.
They also tried offering Puffed Wheat free to anyone who bought Puffed Rice. A kind of two-for-one offer.
The offer was ineffective, as all such offers are. It meant simply a price reduction. It’s just as hard to sell at half price as at full price to people who are not converted.
Once he had shown success in the puffed cereals, he moved onto selling porridge oats. Porridge oats back then took a long time to cook and that was the main weakness with the product. It was widely seen as a health food though and very good for the body.
One of the effects of the fact that this was well understood was that there was little point trying to convert people who didn’t already eat porridge into new porridge eaters. Anyone who wasn’t already a porridge eater had a very good reason for not eating it. They maybe didn’t like it or couldn’t be bothered making it or whatever.
I ran an educational campaign on a new and appealing line. But it did not pay. We found that converting new users was a very expensive proposal. No user would pay him in his lifetime the cost of his conversion.
This is the first time by the way that I’ve seen the concept of customer lifetime value expressed in this book. Probably some early use of it.
It is possible to generate new habits (such as eating porridge) in people but it is a very expensive tactic. The best way to do it is to get access to a really low advertising cost. For example, he feels writers who write newspaper columns have a chance because they’re actually being paid to fill column space rather than paying for it.
New habits are created by general education. They are created largely by writers who occupy free space. I have never known a line where individual advertisers could profitably change habits.
So he switches to converting people who already eat oatmeal (aka. porridge). They had success by showing the caloric density of oatmeal was really high compared to meat. This was important during the war because people were interested in getting enough calories. That wasn’t necessarily a given like it is now.
This shows the importance of picking up on trends in the world. Getting calories becomes important so advertising switches to exploiting that.
Next, they come up with a technological breakthrough.
We called them Two-minute Oats. All they required was heating.
People thought this was a fantastic idea and just wanted to roll them out nationwide but he urged experiments.
We offered a package free. Then we wrote to the users and asked their opinion. The verdict was against us.
It was a simple taste problem. They didn’t taste as people expect. This shows the value of a simple experiment. No matter how excited you are about your prospects.
Facing this they went back to the drawing board and produced oats which could be heated in 3 to 5 mins. They tested again and the public was overwhelmingly in favor.
All of this teaches us a lesson of vast importance. Our success depends on pleasing people. By an inexpensive test, we can learn if we please them or not. We can guide our endeavors accordingly.
You don’t even need to succeed that often.
Perhaps one time in fifty a guess might be right. But fifty times in fifty an actual test tells you what to do and what to avoid.
This chapter is about advertising toothpaste. After a long time reading the technical details of how toothpaste helped teeth, Claude decided to sell it for its ability to make people more beautiful instead.
My long experience has taught me that preventative measures are not popular. People will do anything to cure a trouble, but little to prevent it.
There was no point showing what could happen if people neglected their teeth.
Repulsive ideas seldom won readers or converts. People do not want to read of the penalties. They want to be told of the rewards.
This is interesting because advertising seems to have shifted over time. I see many appeals these days which attempt to scare people into using a certain product. Take anti-bacterial soap for example.
He tested every single headline by putting IDs on coupons and testing which were used the most. He found that beauty was the most appealing attraction.
He also found that he couldn’t charge people for a sample of toothpaste, no matter how cheap. He had to give it away for free. In hygiene related matters, it was important to act like a scientist offering a test rather than a trader seeking to sell.
Despite his 30 years experience in advertising, he proposed many toothpaste ads which failed to sell. He was wise however to catch them when they were at small scale, by testing headlines on coupons.
None of us can afford to rely on judgment or experience. We must feel our way.
Mail order advertising sucks for various reasons but it’s a really good test for an ad man because you can test your headlines and copy a lot.
For example, small text is used because thousands of tests have shown that large text makes no difference to sales numbers.
Ads are written to sell at the lowest cost possible. Countless advertisers do not know their costs and waste money liberally. You have to do the math on cost of acquisition and lifetime customer value to know if an ad is working or not.
Despite having three masters in advertising, the publisher, the agency he works for, and the creator of the products being advertised (the customer), Claude only pays attention to one. The customer
I have devoted myself to the advertiser. Through his success must come my success with the others. I forget the rest [of them].
Claude primarily puts his successes down to one thing. He runs many small tests and learns from each one.
I make so many mistakes in a very small way and learned something from each. I made no mistake twice. Every once in a while I developed some great advertising principal. That endured.
He also credits living with simple people. The people who ultimately buy the products he is trying to sell.
I learn what they buy and their reasons for buying. Those reasons would surprise many who gain their impressions from golf-club associates.
People rarely buy things because of economy or efficiency. They want what the “best people” use.
Many people around me, working at small wages, consider cost far less than I do.
This chapter enumerates various bite-size tips that Claude has learned for writing ads.
Scientific Advertising is a term for advertising based on fixed principals and according to fundamental laws. All other methods have too much reliance on luck.
One must recognize that ads are salesmen. One must compare them, one by one, on a salesman’s basis, and hold them responsible for cost and result. To advertise blindly teaches one nothing, and it usually leads to the rocks.
Brilliant writing has no place in advertising because it takes attention away from the subject. Never try to show off. You are selling your product, not yourself.
From start to finish offer service. Do not be crass.
Phrases like “Insist on this brand,” “Avoid imitations,” “Look out for substitution.” Such appeals have no good affect, and they incite a motive with which buyers cannot sympathize.
Forget yourself entirely. Say only things that you would say if you were selling the product to a person standing in front of you. Do not boast.
Aim to get action. A coupon is the usual way. You can also use urgency, like limited time sales, to prompt people to action.
Never seek to amuse or compete with the news columns or cartoons.
Do not waste space in any way. Aim for extreme efficiency.
Big type does not pay. Double your type size and you double your cost. It does not pay.
Do not use all caps. We are accustomed to reading ordinary type. Anything else is more difficult.
Tell the full story in each single ad. People will not read a series of ads, each of which provides part of the message. Be brief.
Superlatives are a waste.
To say that something is “The best in the world” makes no impression whatever. That is an expected claim.
On the other hand, when you state figures they are accepted by the reader.
Take the tungsten lamp as an example. Say that it gives more light than other lamps, and people are but mildly impressed. Say that it gives 3.3 times the light of carbon lamps, and people will realize that you have made actual comparisons.
Never advertise negatively. People are seeking happiness, safety, beauty, and content. Show them the way. People will do little to prevent troubles but do anything to cure them.
Work hard on your headlines. All of us depend on headlines to point out what we desire to read.
This chapter is a fairly personal account of what Claude calls his “great mistake”. Essentially, he spent too long, and cost himself a lot of money, by working in the employment of someone else rather than for himself. Work for yourself if you want to reach your maximum potential.
Claude finishes out the book with a personal account of his life. He talks about the contentment he feels with how his life has turned out. He says that hard work and living close to nature are the secrets to his happiness. He has plenty of money, but he does not derive happiness from it.
So I conclude that this vocation, depending as it does on love and knowledge of the masses, offers many rewards beyond money.
Sounds good to me!
Written by David Tuite who is a product manager at Workday and used to be a software engineer. You should follow him on Twitter