At the end of the film The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo diCaprio, is coaching would-be salesmen by asking them to sell him a pen. As he hands the silver pen to each one, they start describing the pen and its benefits: the pen is nice, the pen works, the pen can help you write your thoughts. Each time, Belfort moves on, unsatisfied.
What kind of sales pitch is he looking for? The one he wants was given to him earlier in the film by his drug dealer friend, Brad, who grabs the pen and says to Belfort, “Write your name.” Belfort replies, “I can’t, I don’t have a pen.” Sold!
Use a Cue and Reward Approach to Advertising
The most effective way to sell the pen is to create or tap into a need or desire for it. This is the way Belfort got obscenely rich on Wall Street: by making people feel an urgent need or desire to have the thing he was offering.
And it’s what you will want to do when you advertise your products — just in a much more honest way than Belfort did. How can you create or tap into the need or desire when advertising your products?
Advertising has a few tried-and-true principles. One of them, described by advertising pioneer Claude C. Hopkins, is to encourage regular use of a product by identifying a cue and a reward.
When strategizing how to market your product, think first about the concrete cue that will trigger someone to want to use your product regularly.
If you sell basic pens, this will probably be the need to write. If you sell dental floss, it will be the desire to keep your teeth healthy. If you sell jam, it might be the desire to sweeten up your morning toast.
But it isn’t always as obvious. As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, the cue might be more aspirational than functional.
Appealing to Different Motivations
Duhigg relates the tale of the marketing team in charge of figuring out how to sell Febreze. They first identified the cue as bad smells in people’s homes, like pet odor and musty carpet. But marketing Febreze using that cue didn’t work because people are inured to the smells in their own homes. And even if they could smell them, they probably wouldn’t want to admit that their houses smell bad.
So the team hit on a different cue: the satisfaction of putting a pleasant-smelling finishing touch on a load of laundry. They added some perfume to the product and encouraged people to use Febreze as a freshener. This method worked much better, and now Febreze is a household name.
When determining the cue that will trigger your own audience to buy and regularly use what you sell, think deeply about whether it is the most obvious one or something a little more subtle.
For instance, if you sell decorative candles, you might believe the cue that will motivate your audience is a desire for a soft, warm light. But if you’re selling anything but basic candles, chances are your target audience already has some cheap candles to provide that kind of glow.
The cue for your customers is more likely to be the desire to create a more beautiful home. What you’re selling is actually more about decoration than it is about light, no matter how steadily and brightly your candles burn.
You will also want to identify the unique benefit your product will provide. In the case of the candles, the reward is a beautiful, chic, and creative home that others will admire. If you were selling basic candles, the reward might be basic candlelight for when the power goes out.
Similarly, a plastic ballpoint pen may satisfy a functional need — to write something down — offering the reward of allowing your customer to do so affordably. But a fancy silver pen may satisfy the desire to present oneself as a person of status — serving effectively as an accessory more than a writing implement and offering the reward of feeling important.
How you advertise your product should depend entirely on which cue and reward you have targeted. Think carefully about your customers’ motivations before you design your next ad campaign.
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