The Brochure Legend Lives On
Ever wonder who started the Legend of the Brochure, also known as the weak little cousin in a direct-mail package?
I just read a version in a recent edition of John Forde’s newsletter, Copywriter’s Roundtable. He told the legend under the title of “Ted’s Accidental Discovery.” The story was very contemporary, and Forde related it as if it were true. Well, maybe he thought it was true.
Of course, I didn’t believe a word of it. It’s a fable, a teaching anecdote, a morality story. And the aim is to discredit the apparent effectiveness of brochures in direct-response marketing, whether you’re selling products or soliciting donations.
I first heard the brochure legend back in 1962 when I attended a seminar taught by a gentleman whose name I’ve long forgotten.
The brochure legend he related, I’ll never forget. He quoted someone who told him the story, straight faced, back in the 1940s. It all happened in New York City, when a highly respected graphic designer was retained to create a brochure for a company that was selling men’s steel-toed work shoes by mail.
The graphic designer tackled the job with his usual degree of diligence, stunning creativity and lifelike illustrations. When he finished, he was certain that his brochure would win him awards, notoriety and a more lucrative contract when the client wanted his next brochure.
Several weeks went by, and the illustrator received a call from the client that went something like this:
“Hi, John. Something very interesting happened with your brochure.”
“Oh, what was that?” John asked, certain that he was about to be the recipient of great news.
“Well,” the client replied, “all was on schedule when the mailing went out on time. But then we discovered that one section of the mail drop inadvertently failed to enclose your brochure — and the results were rather amazing.”
“I see,” John replied. “That section failed, right?”
“Well,” the client said gingerly, since John was rather famous in the business, “what happened was that the section without the brochure did 30 percent better than the sections with the brochure.”
“I assume that you will re-test!” John replied.
“I’ll keep you informed,” the client cut him off.
Later, the mistake turned into a series of legitimate tests, and in every instance where the brochure was tested against the letter with no brochure, the brochure lost. The designer never again worked in the direct-mail industry — or so the story goes.
Making it to the couch
All legends start somewhere, and the veracity of the origin is less important than the moral of the story.
In all the times I’ve seen a brochure tested, I would guess that it lost about 80 percent of the time. And other people I’ve known through the years say about the same thing.
But there are some underlying dynamics here about what makes a mail package successful, all related to the weakness of the classic brochure and, in essence, what works and what doesn’t.
For example, usually when a seminar leader or instructor tells the brochure legend, he does so in order to get into the motivational dynamics of a mail package.
Are brochures weak because they’re colorful and graphic and pull the reader away from the letter? Could be.
Does the brochure call for a decision too quickly? Maybe.
To illustrate, let me go back to a summer during my college days when I sold Airolite storm windows in suburban Cincinnati. My first day on the job I was coached by a successful old geezer who smoked a pipe and never wore a necktie.
He took me with him on a sales call and said: “Shut up and just watch. If we knock on the door and they open it, that’s a good beginning. If they open the door wide and stand in front of the screen door, that’s even better. If they let us measure one of their windows, then we have a chance to make a sale.
“If they let us in the house, we’re just about 50 percent there. But if they let us sit down on their couch and pet their mangy dog, and if the conversation goes on for more than 10 minutes or so, and if they say it’s OK for me to light up my pipe, the only thing that could prevent a sale is their personal lack of credit.”
I didn’t sell many storm windows that summer, but on several occasions I made it to the living-room couch and petted the mangy dog.
Isn’t that the way it works with direct-mail fundraising letters? The longer a person continues to read the letter, the more involved she becomes.
If a prospect reads the brochure and not the letter, then your mail piece becomes an advertisement, not a one-to-one message from you to her.
Prospects who read your letter suspend disbelief and fail to apply any rational reasoning. They know in the back of their minds that the same letter is going out to thousands of other people.
But the reader can’t suspend disbelief when the brochure screams: “I’m advertising!” In direct-mail fundraising, we tend to forget that real, live, breathing individuals are reading and reacting — or not reacting — to our mail.
The Internet effect
The Internet has been successful for fundraisers only when there is a massive disaster of some kind and they need a quick, reliable way for donors to express their charitable impulses and give to a highly publicized bad event.
But when it comes to developing a revenue stream, month in and month out, I don’t see that happening — yet. (Do you know anyone who is renewing monthly donors by e-mail?)
However, what I do see is a lot of organizations spending megabucks on their Web sites, both for design and content. And so, what are some astute letter writers doing these days?
They’re doing their research by copying that wonderful stuff on the client’s Web site and putting it in their letter — and it works, fabulously.
But you can’t hold a Web site in your two hands. You can’t get any real feel for the person who wrote those words on the Web site. You can’t get that warm feeling that the Web site was written for you and for you alone. Just like when you read a brochure, you don’t move toward a personal relationship with the author of the captions under the photographs.
The legend grows …
Okay, back to my original brochure legend. After the famous designer suffered his humiliating defeat, the shoe company hired a new writer with a mandate to “enhance” the control letter.
This young man, fresh from writing subscription-letter copy for Harper’s magazine, studied the situation for five minutes. Then he took the two-page control letter and, in the middle, stuffed in the four pages of copy that the famous illustrator had put in the brochure — and ended up with a six-pager. (This tale could also be told as the historical moment when longer letters were discovered to work well, too.)
As you might guess, his revised letter became the new control and lasted for 20 years, and he became famous and went on to lecture and write “how-to” books on direct-mail advertising. Hmmm.
Jerry Huntsinger is a freelance copywriter and a senior creative consultant at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.