Part 3: How can you squeeze the most out of every ad dollar now that our industry isn’t booming?
Advertising Strategies by Larry Mullins
Imagine an industry that spends millions of dollars every day of the year on advertising, and most of that money is wasted. You may think I am exaggerating. No, this is no time to exaggerate. Recently it was the giant screen TV fad that greatly cut into home furnishings sales.
Then the housing market tsunami followed. Many big players have tanked, or are tanking. Man has never built an unsinkable ship — nor an invincible furniture chain. You may be looking around and wondering: “Who is going to survive?”
The answer is: two kinds of furniture stores will survive — and prosper. The “stack ‘em up and blow ‘em out stores, and the stores that adopt new marketing techniques to tell their story. If you are the former, this article will not be of much help. However, if you are service oriented, open-minded, and hungry, I will suggest some techniques you can use to take advantage of the most exciting opportunity in home furnishings history.
Did I write “opportunity?” Isn’t the world falling apart? No, regardless of the negative press, the world is not falling apart. TRENDS E MAGAZINE (www.crucialtrends.com ) observes in their latest issue: “Whether it’s the S&L crisis of 1989, the Asian debt crisis of 1998, the “tech wreck” crisis of 2000, or the American subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 … the problem, the solution, and the outcome are fundamentally the same in every case …”
The article goes on to point out that in times of crisis the market always sorts out the winners from the losers, sometimes in spite of government or private intervention. First, the winners strive to figure out the big picture. Then they look for new tools to adapt to the situation. What are these new tools for today’s home furnishings dealers? How will they work? In this article I will explain a few — and how you can profit from understanding and using them.
“Well, OK,” you may counter, “But isn’t the United States economy falling apart?” No again. History tells us that a free economy system has ups and downs. And that is precisely why smart entrepreneurs use tough times to look for the new opportunities that are sure to come, and prepare to take advantage of them before their competitors wise up. TRENDS reports that employment continues at record highs. Average hourly earnings are up 8.4 percent verses September of 2005, the fastest pace of wage gains for any two year period since 1990.
Incomes are growing rapidly and consumer net worth is at a record high. TRENDS suggests that we forget about any short term recession. They expect a mild recession in 2011, but another explosive run-up until then.
So why isn’t the home furnishings industry booming? Where are all the consumer dollars going? Don’t people know that they are getting more for their money than ever when they buy furniture? Why don’t they respond to our slick advertising messages any more?
In my judgment there are three reasons the furniture industry is foundering. First, creating selling messages in print is a lost art in the furniture industry. Promotional flyers, ROP newspaper ads and direct mail all look alike and fail to tell a story. Is “No Payments Until 2012” really the only message we have for the consumer? Don’t we have anything to say about the things our fabulous products, dedicated service and unparalleled expertise can do for their home? At first, gorgeous computer generated color images and dramatic graphics, were effective traffic builders. But now everyone can do about the same thing and so beautiful pics and flashy graphics are table stakes. They can no longer distinguish a store and sell by themselves. They need to be complemented by a compelling message. Without persuasive, creative copy, computers only enable graphic artists to create bad advertising more rapidly.
Second, new techniques must be developed by smaller, middle of the road independents to deliver their message to the communities they serve. The big furniture boxes succeed in drowning out the independent by sheer volume of weak, look-alike advertising. But there is an empty Blue Ocean of opportunity out there waiting for tomorrow’s winners — those who are willing to commit the time, resources and energy — to take the plunge.
Third, those who would be tomorrow’s leaders in the furniture industry must learn to plan strategically with vision and execute tactically with precision and flexibility. No professional football team enters a game without a strategic game plan … a plan that every player understands and buys into. Moreover, a successful game plan must embrace a large number of complex plays (or tactics) that every player knows how to execute. In other words, the team enters the game prepared. Every wise athlete knows the game or the match is won or lost before it’s played. And, there is more.
A professional football team has a crew of expert coaches. Their job is twofold — keep the game plan on target and make adjustments when things go wrong. No one can predict if or when the quarterback will be injured, the left tackle will break a rib, or when the weather will weaken the passing game. Coaches inspire and lead. When the coaches give up the game is over. They don’t have to say anything. But, if they lose heart they may as well wave a white flag.
Everything you will read in this article boils down to these conclusions: You need to learn to tell your story effectively and persuasively. It must be orchestrated to your prospects’ personal interests and needs. You need new, inexpensive, uncluttered, media to reach the public and tell your story. And you need to craft a dynamic new game plan that your entire team understands and buys into.
Let’s take a look at these three complex issues in turn and see if we can hammer out an action plan for selling lots more furniture in 2008.
1. HOW TO DOUBLE OR TRIPLE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF YOUR PRINT MEDIA
Oprah Winfrey publishes a remarkably successful magazine dedicated to the home environment. It is titled O AT HOME. It’s successful because women have a passion for creating a beautiful home. They do not have a passion for sofas, loveseats and mattress sets. No payments until 2011 does not set their hearts aflutter. Label headlines and copy, and print ads that have confusing, glaring graphics won’t hold their attention. Oprah succeeds because she hires top writers and art directors who do not destroy the story with graphics that make the copy unreadable. Invest a few bucks on a copy of Oprah’s magazine and get a lesson in how to use print messages to attract and sell readers.
First of all, study the cover of Oprah’s O AT HOME magazine. The writers and the editors know that the cover must work or they will soon be out of a job. So every cover is loaded with benefit headlines. The benefit headlines have one primary purpose: to get the reader to open the magazine and keep reading. This is close to what a headline and the subheads on a home furnishings direct mail piece, flyer or ROP ad must accomplish: get the reader to want to read more. Here are a few samples from Oprah’s recent issues:
•“No Hassle Makeovers …
•BLAH to WOW! In One Hour, One Day, One Weekend”
•“FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR OWN HOME”
•“YES YOU CAN! Do it Yourself, Get Exactly What You Want, (AND SAVE BIG)”
•“How to Live Large in a Small Space”
The reader or subscriber who opens the magazine will not be disappointed. They will be treated to a rich array of ideas, carefully crafted spreads that are easy to read and embroidered with beautiful illustrations. This is the stuff that women crave, and will not find in the clutter and glut of print advertising produced for retail furniture stores. I have a stack of ads and flyers in front of me from the best and brightest of the big box advertisers. What kind of headlines is the lady greeted with when she picks one up? Here are some samples.
Message From Big Box #1:
•“YOU CAN’T BEAT THIS CREDIT OFFER! INTEREST FREE FOR FIVE YEARS! NO … NO… NO... In the corner I read: “There is a difference.” [Oh yeah? Then why don’t you tell me what the difference is?] This is one of those throw-away slogans that any business could use.
Message From Big Box #2:
•“NO INTEREST – NO PAYMENTS – NO DOWN PAYMENTS ‘TIL NOVEMBER 2008!” [What do I care? You haven’t sold me anything yet. Imagine a sales person greeting a customer with this tired phrase.]
Message From Big Box #3:
•“New designs. Fresh new look.” Not a bad start. But where are these new designs and fresh new looks? Why are you showing me a huge illustration of a woman on a mattress? Wait a minute! This is a mattress ad! The illustration takes up the entire full page. The only other information on the ad are label headlines on three Simmons Beautyrest king sets with prices. And of course: “ONLY $1 DOWN. TAKE 5 YEARS TO PAY!” No benefits or product features. Hey, do you guys sell only king size sets? Do you have a selection of mattress sets in different sizes and firmnesses? Are your sales consultants trained to sell me the right mattresses? This big box has a great story to tell, but you would never know it. Ads like this can be slapped together in twenty minutes and are a colossal waste of co-op and the store’s advertising dollars. Finally, there is a total absence of interesting, informative selling body copy in all these pieces.
A long-standing mantra for one-on-one selling is: Never point out a product point without tying it to a benefit. For example, don’t talk price without talking value. Don’t make comments about merchandise that can be responded to with “So what? What’s in it for me?” Label headlines and nuts and bolts copy put people to sleep. Here is a sample label headline and nuts and bolts description for the front page feature item for one of the big box flyers:
•“THE GREGORY SECTIONAL” “Rich brown leather-like fabric with beige Microfiber super plush cushions.” [What does leather-like mean? What is Microfiber? What does it do for me?] “Loose pillow backs.” [I can’t see this?] “Matching chair available. Left arm facing sofa & right arm facing chaise.” [But there is no right arm facing the chaise. There is no right arm at all.]
Compare the lazy big box efforts with the “Perfect Chair” ad in the Sharper Image flyer exhibit. Compare it to the benefit headlines and compelling copy in the Sky Mall catalogue exhibit. Why do the copywriters for Sharper Image and Sky Mall work so hard on small space ads? Because the cost-effectiveness of their efforts are constantly measured. If they don’t get response and sell merchandise in the expensive space allotted to them, they will not have a job for the next issue.
Millions and millions of dollars of research have established a core of basic advertising principles that make advertising effective. These foundational principles are not a matter of opinion. They have been distilled and tested over and over again by men like Bedell, Ogilvy, Caples, and modern marketers like Gerber, Abraham and a dozen others. It is appalling that so much wasteful furniture advertising is created today by people who are unaware of this body of knowledge. The top pros in the best ad agencies apply proven principles to double or triple the effectiveness of their print media or they would not have jobs. I adopt these principles for modern readers and use them faithfully in the national marketplace almost daily, and I know they still work.
Within this big box incompetence lies your opportunity. I don’t want to belabor the need for advertising knowledge and expertise in the furniture industry. If you want to know more, check out the marketing article archives on FURNITURE WORLD Magazine’s website www.furninfo.com and search for “Advertising Principles - Parts 1 &2”. These articles will enlarge upon the issues of advertising professionalism, and how to acquire it. If you think that you don’t have time to research this, consider the football coach. He also has a large number of hats to wear. He must be an astute psychologist and motivator, trainer, strategic planner and so on. He must find time to study his competition and create new tactics. It would be unthinkable for a professional football coach to go into a game without knowing the basic principles that drive great teams.
2. MAKE YOUR COMPETITION IRRELEVANT
The principles of Blue Ocean marketing have been covered in previous issues. See FURNITURE WORLD articles, “Blue Ocean Marketing Can Make Your Competitors Irrelevant” - Parts 1&2 posted to the marketing article archives on www.furninfo.com. There are two Blue Ocean programs that you simply must launch before the big boxes in your marketplace do. These are free Decorator Clinics for the public, and a Shop at Home program. The clinics will exponentially increase your market share, and the Shop at Home program can be an important new profit center for you. Ethan Allen has long employed this program, and sooner or later the more middle-of-the-road big boxes will come up with their own versions. Beat them to it in your market.
The key to making these programs successful is to train several of your best sales associates to become leaders and trainers for the rest of the staff. You may already have decorators on staff, but it is important to have several people who are qualified to train the entire staff and new associates in the basics of decorating. Both Cathy Finney, a feature editor for FURNITURE WORLD Magazine, and Margarett DeGange, another FURNITURE WORLD contributor, have programs to “train the trainers” so you can independently sustain your programs. DeGange has produced an excellent running series of articles, “Decorator School Crash Course”, that gives you step by step instructions for staging a public decorating clinic. Check furninfo.com for earlier installments.
USE BLUE OCEAN & PEOPLE MEDIA MAGIC
A Blue Ocean game plan can revolutionize your store in 2008. While you cannot outgun the big boxes, you can run better, more appealing ads. But more is needed. Media is becoming prohibitively costly. It is harder and harder to reach the public. The public is simply getting too many messages, there is too much repetitive and boring advertising clutter, too many look-alike flyers, too many intrusive TV and radio commercials.
You need to learn to tell your story effectively and persuasively. It must be orchestrated to your prospects’ personal interests and needs. You need to begin to use new, inexpensive, uncluttered, media to reach the public and tell your story. And you need to craft a dynamic new game plan that your entire team understands and buys into.
The three concepts above are interrelated. It is hard to grasp a whole new strategic paradigm of marketing furniture, but new gimmicks won’t suffice anymore. A professional football team would not consider entering into a game with the New England Patriots by just adding a few trick plays to their tactics. They would develop an overall strategy, a game plan that embraces all three factors above. And finally, you need a secret weapon that the big boxes cannot copy in their massive central advertising departments.
The secret weapon that can change everything is People Media. Word of mouth advertising. Some intellectual giant once came up with a saying: The medium IS the message. In the case of PEOPLE, this is a truth. People communicating with other people... saying good things about your store and about your merchandise... People Media may be the best-kept and most powerful secret in marketing! The quality of your People Media depends upon the quality of the messages you send to your associates, executives and managers, the messages that your staff sends to each other—and the messages that your company, as a whole, sends out to your customers and the general community.
People Media work much faster and more effectively than all the other media put together, and it is more effective. People Media is essential because traditional media suffers from a growing glut and a general lack of credibility.
Here is an example of the power of People Media. A while back I wanted to buy a new digital camera. I went on line and was totally overwhelmed. After a few hours of confusion I happened to ask a friend his opinion of digital cameras. He immediately responded that he had researched them carefully, and decided to buy a particular brand and he loves it. Bingo! I was sold and bought the one he recommended. I love it and have told several people about it.
Lack of space compels me to continue this discussion in the next FURNITURE WORLD issue.
We will examine the power of People Media in depth, and how you can harness them with programs like Shop at Home to make 2008 a banner year of profit and fun. We will also discuss how to create a world-class game plan to set all of these ideas into motion. It will be a great ride and I hope you will join me.
Contributing Editor Larry Mullins has 30+ years experience in the front lines of furniture marketing. Over the past ten years he has developed a Visionary Management program that can impact the culture of an entire organization and bring it to life. He also produces state-of- the-art promotional advertising packages for everything from quick cash flow to complete exit strategies and store closings. Larry is the President of UltraSales, Inc.. Questions about this article can be sent to Larry care of FURNITURE WORLD to firstname.lastname@example.org. See more articles by Larry in the marketing management archives on furninfo.com.