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What Did We Learn from Mad Men?


What Did We Learn from Mad Men?

About 50 years or so ago, there was an “advertising man” by the name of Rosser Reeves. Back then, advertising was thought of as “salesmanship in print.” Some might say Reeves was a mad man. The son of a preacher, he once drunkenly crashed a friend’s car and was expelled from college for it.

But Reeves was a pioneer of television advertising. He worked on Eisenhower’s political campaign that helped get him elected. He also coined the phrase Unique Selling Proposition, or U.S. P.

The image I have of Reeves (whether true or not) is that he would get down on his hands and knees, finding out how certain cleaning products differed from their competition. “What made them distinctive?” he wondered.


Then, in the late 70s and early 80’s, Al Ries and Jack Trout came out with a “new” term for, more or less, the same concept Reeves was touting: positioning. Their 1981 book, of the same title, Positioning, was subtitled The Battle for Your Mind.

The book mentioned the cola wars. All the soft drink companies were competing for highly coveted market share. There was Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Tab (remember Tab?), Royal Crown (RC) Cola and 7up. Seven-up, because it was a clear beverage, deemed themselves (no doubt with the help of their ad agency) “The Un-Cola,” visually separating them from all the clutter out there. In the minds of the consumer, it stood out.

You might have thought Ries and Trout were mad when they pointed out the reverse marketing of Seven-Up and how it competed with the colas. In retrospect, however, you also might be correct to realize that this strategy may very well have set the tone for a company like Pepsi-Cola to topple Coke from its perch atop the category.  

Purple Cow

Then, in the early 2000’s, a marketer by the name of Seth Godin came along and talked about a purple cow. His hypothesis went something like this: If you are driving down the road and you see a bunch of cows, you might not be all that impressed. However, if you see one that is purple, you will stop the car and get out and take a closer look. The same goes for your product. It should be a purple cow.

I must say that, by the time Godin wrote his book, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable, I was onto the game. Therefore I didn’t read it. Having read Reality in Advertising (Reeves) and Positioning (Ries and Trout), I realized he was introducing the concept to a different generation.

However, Godin is the author of 18 books and many blog posts, including “When Purple Cows Go Mad,” “I’m Mad at Everyone” and “The Handyman, The Genius and the Mad Scientist.” So you might say he is mad, too.

Differentiate or Die

What makes your book or product different? I recently heard that there are 600,000 to 1,000,000 new self-published books that come out every year. Ries and Trout’s follow up book to Positioning was Differentiate or Die. The title says it all.

So, the takeaway is that, not only do you have to be one of a kind, but you have to know the true essence of your uniqueness. If you don’t know what that is, do a focus group study, ask those who know you best or hire a consultant or ad agency. After you identify it, make sure that it is something that people in your market can see clearly.

Why should consumers buy your book in particular – as opposed to all the other ones out there? Is it because of the title? Because of the buzz surrounding it? Because they know your brand and realize that everything you produce is of good quality – quality they can trust (the reason why many people prefer chain stores)?

Not only should your book or product have some kind of special sauce, but it has to be perceived as something people want – or can’t live without. Just because “new” Fab laundry detergent has added “lemon freshened borax” to it, that doesn’t necessarily convince me that I need it.

You might be interested to know that Rosser Reeves was an inspiration for the Don Draper character on television’s hit show Mad Men.

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