Sunday, November 24, 2013

Whoever Said "Never Judge a Book By Its Cover" Never Tried to Sell One

I didn't make up the title of this post. It was a favorite saying of the CEO of a publishing house at which I used to work.

It is a statement whose truth is not limited to books, but applies equally to almost every item presented for sale to the public.

We can't help it. We human beings are shallow and superficial and we tend to judge things by their outward appearances. Even really important things whose appearance has nothing whatever to do with their value or function.

So while a book's cover may seem to be of no intrinsic value, it is the first point of contact between the public and what's contained in the book. And in that respect it is extremely valuable.

A book cover, like the outside of a box of cereal or packaging for an iPhone, should give customers an idea of what to expect when they open the cover.

But it can (and perhaps should) do more than that. The book cover or product package can help shape a customer's perception of the product.

Think of it this way. An average guy is at a party and there are two unmarked shots of scotch on the tray. One is from a $200 bottle and one is from a $30 bottle. Certainly he can tell that they taste different.

But, without visual cues like bottles and labels, can he tell which is which?

In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy gives this exact example. He posits the question of whether the average person, in a blind test could determine which is the expensive liquor and which is not. His answer? “Don’t make me laugh.”

And that was from a man who made a fortune advertising premium brands like Rolls Royce, Schweppes, Hathaway, Viyella and many more.

In other words, people desire the more expensive bottle because they believe it to be better. It's irrelevant if there's any factual basis for their belief. What matters is that the perception exists. And, more than that, the conditions fostering this belief were likely manufactured by design.

There's nothing inherently 'better' or 'superior' about the more expensive bottle. It's a product whose value is completely built on a perception created by years of marketing.

You Can Fool Some of the People Some of the Time...

This doesn’t work for every product group. For some items, there’s a level of objectivity to the user experience that simply cannot be overcome with sheer marketing bluster. Samsung can trumpet its smartphones as the greatest and best, but when people compare them side by side with iPhones, Samsung’s claims become tough to back up.

And then there are areas that, on the surface, seem to be clearly objective. But because of the particular product, and the skillful marketing of interested parties, they have been thrown into the fog of public opinion.

For example, nowadays, there is a burgeoning industry in the sale of wine glasses - different types of glasses for red or white wine or champagne. Purveyors of these goods insist that wine actually tastes better when imbibed from the proper vessel. They even have all kinds of pseudoscientific explanations of why their particular glasses work to enhance the flavor. (Look for lots of references to oxygenation, tannic balance and similar phrases.)

And people who are invited to sample wines from these glasses tend to agree that, yes, they do enhance the flavor. I’ve read articles in which the authors were originally skeptics, but later were convinced that there was “something” to these glasses.

So is there, or isn’t there?

Consider the following true story from January 2007.

“A man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.”

This was part of an experiment organized by the Washington Post.

In a concert hall he attracted sell-out crowds. And yet the same talent and skill that won Mr. Bell a Grammy award and using a 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin, when transplanted into a Metro Station was completely ignored by the masses.

The same ‘wine,’ but the public perceived it differently because it was served in a different ‘glass.’

So getting back to the original question, does the wine taste different in a special glass? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the wine drinking experience is enhanced with the glass. It may not really taste different, but you enjoy it more. You perceive it to be better.

And yes, people will insist that it actually tastes better, because that is how they process the enhanced experience.

In the Eye of the Beholder

As I stated above, this can be applied to many different types of products. If something is presented as upscale, it will be received that way. Dress someone in rags with scraggly hair and an unshaven face, and people will think he’s a vagabond. Put him in a Brooks Brothers suit with a nice haircut and a shave, and he could pass for a lawyer.

Similarly, you can take a snack food, put it in a 1oz snack-size bag and sell it in a vending machine for .50¢. But you can also take the same snack, wrap it in a fancy holiday “gift pack” and sell a 4oz package for $3.99 in a store like TJ Maxx or Marshalls. That’s twice the price of the vending machine version just because you changed it from a snack food into a gift. It’s all about perception.

Or here’s another example. Is a baseball game better when it’s viewed from a good seat in the park with a hot dog and a soda? You could watch it at home for a lot less money! But, as any fan knows, the experience is far better when you’re in the park.

So too with the products we are promoting, it’s all about the experience. It begins with the package (or possibly before) and continues when the product is opened and used.

And that experience can be shaped and refined to alter people’s perceptions in how they see your product and your brand.

I hope to go into this in more detail in future posts.

What do you think? I’d love to hear!

Danny Kay is a marketing and advertising professional as well as a designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. He's worked with businesses and organizations of all sizes, up to Fortune 500.
He can be reached through his website,, or at

PS - This blog is now featured on, your source for all the top stories!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

You Can’t Make It to the Peak of Success 
If You’re Afraid of Heights
 Which of These Things is 
Not Like the Other Ones?

It’s a funny thing. In close-knit communities you’ll often find many people driving the same kind of car. It could be a Town Car, or a Taurus or an Escalade. One person gets it, then another and another.

Earlier this year I needed to buy a car. My old one was kaput, and I needed to commute to my then-job, and I simply had to have a reliable car.

In my neighborhood, everyone I knew seemed to be buying Hondas. The Honda Odyssey was THE minivan and the CRVs and Pilots were THE SUVs to get. If you wanted a regular car then it was the Civic or the Accord.

So me being, well, me, when I saw that everyone around me was getting a Honda, I decided that I absolutely positively had to get a car that was any brand other than a Honda.

Well, that’s a little too strong. I guess what I mean is, once I realized that a lot of people were buying Hondas simply because other people were buying them, I resolved not to do that.

I did a lot of research, and test drove several cars. Ultimately, I decided on a Toyota Prius V as the best choice for my needs, and I’m happy with my purchase.

But every leasing place I spoke to tried to push me into a Honda. The reasons were numerous. Honda offered the best deals. Hondas were the most reliable. Hondas held their value better. And, of course, I had only to look around me and see how many happy, smiling Honda drivers there were to see what a good choice it was.

And that last argument was all I needed to steer me in another direction. I can’t help it. When I see a large group of people doing something - particularly if it’s for no good reason - I just can’t bring myself to join in.

It also didn’t help that I spoke to people who were already a year or two into their Hondas and not only couldn’t stand them, but couldn’t remember (or wouldn’t admit) why they had gotten them in the first place.

So as I so often do, I struck out on my own and made my own decision. And from this an idea was born.

Cruise Control - Here, There, Everywhere

Something I’ve touched on before continues to astound me. I look at job postings on the various sites - LinkedIn, Monster, etc - and also some higher end executive recruiting sites. The same companies always seem to be searching for the same positions. How is this possible? In recent memory there has never been such a huge glut of talented yet unemployed people? Companies should be able to fill literally any staffing needs in a matter of weeks, if not days! Yet clearly this isn’t the case.

As I’ve said before, at a time when they should be in the position to get the very best people, many employers are making little practical effort to do so. 

I believe there are a few reasons. First is simply overworked HR departments. They are so inundated with applicants that finding faster and easier ways of plowing through the piles of resumes takes precedence over the caliber of hires.

Second, there is a lack of vision in how employers search for workers. Writing poetic, esoteric job descriptions, or descriptions so crammed with requirements that a 20 year veteran wouldn’t qualify for the position doesn’t help anyone.

Some years ago, I needed to recruit staff for the art department at the company in which I was Creative Director. What I DID NOT do was make a “wish list” demanding years of experience in multiple disciplines and expertise in an alphabet soup of software programs, along with a BFA (Masters preferred). What I DID do was draft a straightforward list of practical skills that I wanted candidates to have, along with the responsibilities they would have to fill. Within a couple of weeks I found a fantastic guy.

The difference is I wasn’t looking to impress anyone. I didn’t care whether the candidate had a BFA because in my experience that credential hadn’t made other workers any better at their jobs. I focused on the person - how he presented himself and his work; how he related to me and to the company, and what benefits we could realize by adding his skills to our team. 

I looked at how “everyone else” was doing it, and chose a different path - just as with my car. And just as with cars, the problem in many companies, and with many individuals, is that they look at what everyone else is driving - er, doing, and then they just, well, go along for the ride. 
In fact you find this everywhere, in every department in every industry. Employees, either from apathy or insecurity simply look at what “everyone else” does and so things stumble along on cruise control.

And those Hondas keep driving on.

Do It the Same… But Different

My point in all this is that you’ll never find real success or happiness by following someone else. I’ve seen businesses try it - mimicking the strategies and tactics of larger more successful competitors. And all it made them were pale shadows of the originals. The only real success they had was when they had the courage to differentiate themselves and stand out from the pack.

And, likewise, employers need to show some vision and forethought to seek out exceptional people. Don’t be afraid of being different! Don’t back away from hiring someone who is incredibly creative and innovative just because he or she doesn’t fit the “mold.”

People with talent, imagination, vision and passion should’t be passed over, held back, or brushed off just because it’s what everyone else does. 

Take a stand. Get that Prius.

What do you think? I’d love to hear!

Danny Kay is a marketing and advertising professional as well as a designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. He's worked with businesses and organizations of all sizes, up to Fortune 500.
He can be reached through his website,, or at

PS - This blog is now featured on, your source for all the top stories!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

7 Red Chairs
What Most People Wish They Knew About Vision, Imagination and Success 

There’s a lot to be said for mediocrity. Lots of companies make lots of money by catering to the broadest possible group of people. Think Walmart or Costco. They spend big money figuring out what the average customer wants and needs, and they make sure they have lots of it in stock.

But in that business model there’s an inherent flaw. When you base your business decisions on statistics, there will always be people - often lots of people - left out.   

For example, I have a large family so I sometimes shop at Costco. They happen to sell a certain shirt which I like. I’m a big tall guy and I wear the largest size they make. But I can almost never find shirts in that size. I used to think there must be lots of people my size buying up all the big shirts, since they had plenty of smaller ones. 

Then one day I happened to notice one of the shipping cases that the shirts come in. Right there, printed on the box, were the quantities of each size that were included in the shipment. The closer a size was to “average,” the more shirts of that size were shipped in each case. So how many of my size (18-36) were in every case? Only one. And I can tell you that I’ve met a number of people at Costco hunting around for larger sizes just like me. 

In some office somewhere the bean counters at Costco have gotten so inexorably bound to their statistics that the actual reality on the ground is irrelevant. The fact that there are piles of unsold “average” size shirts, and untold numbers of larger size customers who can’t find shirts in their sizes is simply ignored. They look at what size the average American is, and sell shirts to fit that person.

They’ve become slaves to mediocrity.

Sorry, Elvis Has Left the Building

Ever since the economy crashed, the job market has been horrible. And these days, more than ever, the power is in the hands of the employers. But have you ever looked at the job descriptions they put out? With an unprecedented amount of power in their hands, you’d honestly think they would look to hire only the very best candidates for every position. Instead, HR departments are looking more and more to automate their procedures - using OCR scanning to search out keywords, and other high-tech tricks to winnow down the big piles of applicants. They pile on silly and irrelevant requirements which are no help whatsoever in finding qualified people. It’s simply a means for the HR people to raise the barrier of entry and to cover themselves. 

A Masters Degree needed for what is basically an entry level job? A BFA to become a low level graphic designer? An MBA required for a sales and marketing position? I’ve seen job postings with all of these requirements. Sure they sound reasonable if you don’t know much about the jobs themselves. These companies claim they want “rock star” employees but their rigid bureaucracies only allow them to find and retain people with the most bland backgrounds and tepid abilities. 

They can’t look at individuals, and so at a time when they should have the greatest choice and therefore the greatest success at finding good people, the exact opposite is true. The process has become more dehumanized, and candidates are not judged on their own skills, personalities or achievements but rather what they can feed into an OCR system or an overworked HR recruiter who is more interested in finding people that will draw the least amount of attention, than with finding truly outstanding talent. 

As much as they say they want the exceptional, they can’t rise above the mediocre.

He Who Laughs Last

Some of the greatest products, businesses and services in the modern era were scoffed at for being silly and impractical. Fred Smith, the founder of Fedex, famously wrote a paper in college in which he outlined his concept for what would one day become Federal Express. The professor gave him a C, criticizing him for coming up with something so impractical.

Steve Jobs was kicked out of his own company for being too brash, dynamic and forward thinking by the dusty old fellows on the Apple board.

Over a century ago, there was a company that came up with a new formula for soap. Can you think of anything more mundane then soap? But they had something which they though was unique. They had developed a formula made from two tropical plants, which they found had truly unique cleansing properties. They met with a number of advertising professionals who discouraged them, telling them things like the product was not marketable, they didn’t have enough capital, there were already enough brands of soap, and so on. 

At the end of their rope, they met with a new ad agency that had a very creative team, and who felt there was some promise here. They did a test promotion in a small town called Benton Harbor, MI, which was a great success. That led to further promotions and then to a nationwide rollout, the success of which is still being felt to this day. The soap that was made of the oil from two tropical plants - the palm and the olive - Palmolive - and almost wasn’t, because most people - even most professionals - couldn’t see beyond the mediocre.

7 Red Chairs

So what’s the deal with the 7 Red Chairs?

It’s a well known fact that if you ask a bunch of people to choose a number from 1 to 10, most of them will say 7. If asked to name a color, the majority of people will say red. Likewise, if they are asked to name a piece of furniture, most people say a chair. Hence, “7 Red Chairs.”

It’s my personal metaphor for the ultimate in mediocrity. 

Except that it’s not. When viewed by themselves, 7 red chairs are unique; something that attract attention, and not at all mediocre.

The point is that by looking at common elements among people -  common ideas, common tastes, common feelings, common needs - it is possible to come up with ideas that are fresh, different and new.

But you have to be open to these ideas and ready for them when they come.

What do you think? I’d love to hear!

Danny Kay is a marketing and advertising professional as well as a designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. He's worked with businesses and organizations of all sizes, up to Fortune 500.
He can be reached through his website,, or at

PS - This blog is now featured on, your source for all the top stories!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Secret Ingredient 
Every Good Ad Must Have
Everything I Need to Know 
I Learned From My 2 Year Old

I was running an errand one day, and I had my very active 2-year-old daughter Miri strapped into her car seat keeping me company. I flipped to the classical music station (really!) and turned up the volume, hoping the soothing tones would keep her quiet. 

“What’s that music?” she asked. 

“It’s some nice music for you to listen to,” I answered.

“But what is it?” she persisted.

“Just nice music, sweetie. Why don’t you quiet down and listen.”

We went through a few more rounds before I zoned out, letting the lilting melodies carry me away from that perky, demanding little voice. And I distinctly remember thinking how silly it was to think that a 2-year-old could actually relate in any way to this beautiful sophisticated music.

All of a sudden, Miri’s voice broke into my thoughts. “It’s ‘Twinkle Twinkle!”’


“Twinkle Twinkle!”

I directed my attention back to the radio and, sure enough, it was playing “Twinkle Twinkle.” Well actually, it was playing a piece by Mozart, “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman,” also known as, “Variations on Twinkle Twinkle.”

I burst out laughing. Here I was, the big sophisticate. I had thought this music so far above the level of my young daughter, and yet within a couple of minutes she was able to find something in it to relate to. They were playing her song!
The fact that it was a piece by a great composer was irrelevant. All the subtleties and nuances and harmonies of the variations went right over her head but it didn’t matter. She only had ears for “Twinkle Twinkle.”

The Secret

Although it took me a while to realize it, I learned a powerful lesson that day. No matter what you’re promoting, you absolutely, positively have to find a way to make it interesting and engaging to your audience.

You may think that’s not possible, but if my daughter Miri could find something to appreciate about classical music, you can find something interesting and engaging about whatever you’re selling.

“But,” you’ll argue, “she wasn’t really interested in classical music. She thought it was kiddie music!”

I say it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to capture people’s interest and get them to let you in to tell your story. I’m not saying to misrepresent what your product is or does. But use some kind of storytelling device to peak people’s interest and draw them into your little artificial world where you can let them know how much their lives would be enriched with your product or service.

It does’t need to be complicated. In fact it’s usually better if it’s not. I once created some ads for a company that sold ready-to-bake muffins. The batter came in a tray, and you just had to pop it in the oven to get fresh baked muffins. One version of the ad had a fresh hot muffin next to a cup of coffee. The headline read, “Mmmmmmmmm.”

It was a great ad with a simple message. Fresh muffins + hot coffee = delicious! The campaign was a terrific success. Stores could not stock the product quickly enough to supply the demand.

Of course not everything is as easy to sell as a muffin. But as I’ve said in other posts, you’re not just selling a product you’re selling a feeling

Give me almost any product or service, and I’ll find an emotional hook. 

Here are some examples of products and the emotions and ideas associated with them that could be used to write effective advertising.

Home alarm system - security, fear, wife, children, possessions, physical safety

Car - comfort, style, envy, technology, eco-friendly

Makeup - vanity, desire to look beautiful and attractive, if there’s a celebrity sponsor then a desire to look like or be like the celebrity, if the product solves a specific problem (dry skin) then it will attract people with that problem

Food or other consumables - Usually presented in way to make you want to eat it. But even more, to make the viewer identity with or even want to be the person in the ad doing the eating (Think Marlboro Man)

Health Care - Product will solve a problem, improve quality of living, make people happier

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Advertising needs to reach your audience in a specific way. But truthfully every communication - every ad, every PR piece, every interaction - between you and your customers has got to reach them in some real and meaningful way. They need to relate to it and feel that your brand or product is relevant to them personally - that there is somehow a two-way relationship between you. Companies like Apple, Disney and Nordstroms are all known for just this sort of branding and relationship building.

I once brought my Apple laptop into one of their stores for a non-warranty repair. I wound up having to wait at the Genius Bar longer that is considered normal, so they did the repair for free. In other words, I was treated like I mattered. And I’ve had other similar experiences with Apple in the past.

To explore Apple a little further, the entire Apple Store experience from the moment a customer crosses the threshold is crafted to bolster positive feelings and proactively manage customers’ expectations, so no one is left feeling slighted. Employees are instructed in how frequently they need to interact with customers - even if only to let them know they haven’t been forgotten - to reset people’s mental clocks so they don’t feel as if they’ve been kept waiting for too long a time. Laptops are displayed with the screens at an angle that requires customers to adjust them in order to try them out. That makes people put their hands on the products, which increases sales. And there are many more tricks of the trade employed to engage and involve customers. It’s no wonder that Apple Stores are among the most profitable per square foot of any retail stores in the world.

Even something as mundane as purchasing a product and opening the package can be transformed from a meaningless “rip the box open” moment to a significant point of contact between you and your customer. With proper design and planning it can become an “unboxing” experience that introduces people to your product and your brand and creates a bond that can ultimately lead to positive feelings and tremendous loyalty.

I’ll end with one last example. I worked on packaging for a product a while ago. It was a teddy bear with Bluetooth speakers built into it. How do you advertise something like that? By trumpeting which version of Bluetooth it uses? How loud the speakers get? Maybe how long it will last on a single battery charge? I humbly suggest that if you use a strategy like that, you won’t sell very many pieces. You need to sell it with love. Show a kid playing with it. hugging it, dancing with it while it plays favorite tunes. It’s the feeling that will sell, not the features.

What do you think? I’d love to hear!

Danny Kay is a marketing and advertising professional as well as a designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. He's worked with businesses and organizations of all sizes, up to Fortune 500.
He can be reached through his website,, or at

PS - This blog is now featured on, your source for all the top stories!