Bullet 20

Controversy! Gunfire Erupts Over “9 Most Important Words in Marketing History”

Dear Marketing Top Gun,

My last Bullet revealed what I firmly believe is the most important sentence in marketing history.

That nine-word sentence is…

A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen.

As I explained, this principle has built more fortunes than any other marketing insight and is the surest road to riches in business.


Because, as the great Bill Bernbach said, “The magic is in the product,” not in the copywriter’s pen. “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it…No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist.”

The better your product, the more persuasive your ad can be, and the bigger your marketing success. Clever copywriting technique is no substitute for a brilliant product. Consumers are too smart.

But soon after I fired off this Bullet, I heard sniper fire…and suddenly bullets were zinging around me! Pow! There went my flowerpot! Smash!There went my lamp! I had to duck for cover under my desk!

To some readers, especially a few copywriters, my Bullet had not only missed its target, but had gravely wounded a sacred cow. The part of my message that these readers took exception to was this advice to copywriters…

    “Our 9-word rule means that the star of your ad should always be your product and how it uniquely benefits your prospects. It means that your job is to research the product thoroughly to uncover its unique advantages. Research—deep research—is the launchpad of copywriting breakthroughs.”

The friendly fire triggered by this statement could be summed up this way…

Gary, you say that the product should be the star of the ad? No way! The prospect should always be the star of the ad! Making your product the centerpiece can be deadly dull, especially if you leave out the prospect and his or her wants!

Top Guns, Hold Your Fire!!!

Let me come out from under my desk (it’s uncomfortable down here), and you’ll see we’re still on the same side. No need for an armed insurrection!

The question of whether the product or the prospect should be the centerpiece of the ad is a needless choice and a common misunderstanding of what was preached by Rosser Reeves, the copywriting genius who created the Unique Selling Proposition, or “USP” strategy. The “USP” is probably the most successful and reliable mass marketing strategy ever created, and it’s based squarely upon the nine-word sentence, A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen.

It teaches that, just as in a military campaign, when you create an advertising campaign, you must think about two separate issues—yourstrategy and your tactics.

By strategy, I mean the main message to be communicated—the unique benefit, or combination of benefits, you want to emphasize, regardless of the execution.

By tactics, I mean the ad’s execution, or the way you want to present your message.

First you figure out your strategy (your message), and then you figure out your tactics (your execution). Approach your assignments this way, and you’ll see that this makes copywriting a whole lot easier, and a lot more successful.

Sound tactics—putting the consumer front and center in the picture—are always necessary to win any advertising battle, and this includes all the proven techniques for capturing your prospect’s attention, getting him or her interested, building desire, proving your case, making an irresistible offer, closing the sale, etc. And, sure, in all such instances—on the level of execution—the prospect should be front and center every step of the way: his or her problems, wants, desires, needs, objections, concerns, questions, etc.

But what Reeves teaches us is that you first need a strategy—a unique and powerful message—to win the war. Always, always, always decide on your ad’s strategy first—what message do you want to convey as you put the prospect in the picture? What unique benefit(s) can this product accomplish in your prospect’s life?

Or to say it another way, putting the prospect front and center means answering his most obvious question as he encounters your ad: how will this benefit me in a superior way compared with every other product making pitches for my business?

If you have a gifted product—one that fills the consumer’s wants better than other options—the answer will be much more persuasive than if you have only a gifted pen pouring out puffery about the prospect and his wants.

A Classic Example

While working in Europe during the 1930s, it occurred to candy maker Forrest Mars to give chocolate a protective candy coating to stop it from melting. The idea became M&Ms candies. Because they didn’t melt, they were adopted as a staple ration for U.S. forces during World War II.

After the war, Mars wanted to sell his candies via TV, the hottest new mass-marketing medium ever to come along. He hired Rosser Reeves.

If Reeves had been just a journeyman copywriter, he might well have taken the tired, traditional approach of selling M&Ms based on their wonderful chocolate taste. After all, that’s what prospects want in chocolate, isn’t it? And if you think of only your prospect, that’s what you’re going to focus on by default—the obvious wants that every other product talks about, and which the consumer has heard countless times and just screens out. This is why a message that focuses only on what the prospect wants almost never seems fresh, new, interesting, or compelling. The cruel fate of such ads is death by boredom, because their message is all too familiar and not unique.

But Reeves knew better. He understood that before you write a word about your prospect’s wants, you should research your product’s unique strengths… and see if these unique benefits can be the foundation of a unique selling message. Your research might discover that your product satisfies a different prospect desire than you might have guessed at first, and this could give you a fresh, much more compelling message to feature in your advertising, one that makes you stand out from all the clutter andcreates desire to buy the product.

So instead of writing puffery about rich chocolate taste, Reeves did his homework and discovered what’s unique about M&Ms—thanks to their thin candy shell, they melt in your mouth, not in your hand.

Reeves’ digging had uncovered a rich gold strike! It meant that millions of chocolate lovers could now buy a delicious treat and not worry that it would melt in inconvenient places. M&Ms wouldn’t melt on store shelves (important in an era when many stores lacked air conditioning). Neither would they melt in your car’s glove compartment, your kitchen cabinet, or your child’s lunch box. They wouldn’t make your fingers messy and stain your clothes. You could enjoy chocolate anywhere, anytime, without needing a napkin to wipe your fingers.

Aha! He had his core message—”M&M chocolate candies melt in your mouth, not in your hand!”

Then and only then did he start writing his executions—magnificent, utterly compelling TV ads demonstrating this core strategic message. These ads were so powerful that to this day, 50 years later, I can vividly remember one commercial in which the announcer showed two closed fists on the TV screen and asked, “Which hand holds the M&Ms?” Then he’d open one fist showing a melted mess of chocolate. He’d say, “Can’t be this hand! Must be this one!”…and then he opened his other hand, showing prim little unmelted M&Ms. He’d end with a tagline, and I’m doing this from memory but believe it’s accurate, “M&Ms are the only chocolate candies that melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

Reeves delivered his unique message in ads that certainly put the consumer front and center in his executions. Compared to traditional candy advertising, the difference was that his ads were based on a superior strategy, one that dramatized the uniqueness of the product and the unique benefit it made possible for consumers. Based on that unique advantage, dramatized to the hilt from the prospect’s point of view, tens of millions of moms started buying M&Ms to put into baby boomers’ lunch boxes so they wouldn’t mess up their clothes at school.

It’s the most reliable copywriting formula ever discovered: A brilliant strategy (a message based on a product’s unique benefits) + a compelling execution (an ad that shows how this unique benefit improves the prospect’s life) = blockbuster success.

Result: the Mars candy company minted money!

Indeed, when Forrest Mars died in 1999, he was a multibillionaire, one of the richest men in the world. As of this writing, Mars remains a privately owned company and is one of the world’s largest family-owned firms, grossing some $18 billion a year in 65 countries. Several of Mr. Mars’ descendants are each listed among the world’s wealthiest individuals.

If you’re a copywriter, imagine the opportunity, the vast wealth, that would have been lost if Reeves had thought only about putting the prospect in the picture—and didn’t look first at what’s uniquely strong about the product.

If you’re an entrepreneur, imagine the opportunity, the vast wealth, that would have been lost if Mars had aspired only to create another me-too chocolate candy with no clear-cut, built-in, immediately understandable, unique, and highly desirable advantage.

But because both were smart and dreamed big, they teamed up to create the most powerful combination in all of marketing—a gifted product and a gifted pen!

What you say is more important
than how you say it.” —David Ogilvy

In the end, A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen means that a superior message is even more important than the way it is delivered, as most good copywriters can be counted on to do a halfway decent job of putting the prospect in the picture. But if their ads aren’t based on a powerful strategic difference that a gifted product makes possible, prospects are smart enough to see the message for what it is—a weak, me-too product presented skillfully. Result: no sale.

It’s why David Ogilvy counseled forcefully and repeatedly, “What you say in your advertising is more important than how you say it!”

Top Gun, I hope this clears the smoke. Holster your weapon, go back to your keyboard, and start figuring out what unique benefits your product offers. Then and only then commence your execution (and not of me, please!).

Sincere wishes for a good life
and (always!) higher response,
Gary Bencivenga Signature

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