How the World of Publishing Can Create a Winning Fashion Brand
Today I’m bringing you a guest from outside the industry. Because just as sometimes a great new category can be created by combining two product categories, sometimes great ideas from one industry can work well in another.
In this interview, we’re talking with Brian Kurtz, leader of one of the most successful information publishers in recent years. What I really like about Brian is that, while he managed publishing company Boardroom Inc., he and his partner Marty did exceptionally well at selling “air.”
Specifically, information where the value is derived not by the product itself, but what the product can do. Information is not the easiest sale to make.
And although fashion is entirely a physical business, in a world of commoditization, the lessons learned from selling something that you can’t physically touch or feel offers something to all of us in the fashion business.
Brian Kurtz has been a serial direct marketer for over 35 years and never met a medium he didn’t like. And while he’s had much success, he also must admit that trying to sell subscriptions and books on the back of ATM receipts and under yogurt lids was only “a good idea at the time…”
Brian spent 34 years helping build Boardroom Inc. into one of the most successful and respected direct marketers ever.
During his tenure at Boardroom, Brian was responsible for the mailing of close to 2 billion pieces of direct mail (and he did NOT lick every stamp!); he was also responsible for the distribution of millions of other impressions and promotions in a wide variety of alternate media, both offline and online. He was committed to working with the most innovative direct marketing techniques, is known for working with some of the greatest direct marketing consultants and copywriters who have ever lived and considers himself a lifelong student.
Under Brian’s marketing leadership, Boardroom sold millions of subscriptions and tens of millions of consumer, health and business-related books; during his career at Boardroom, revenues went from approximately $5 million (in 1981) to a high of over $150 million (in 2006).
His mission for the next 35 years (as the founder of Titans Marketing LLC) is to be the bridge between the eternal truths of direct response marketing and all that is considered state-of-the-art direct response marketing today.
And he will do that as both a student and teacher.
In September of 2014, to kick off that mission, Brian hosted what has been called the event of the decade, the “Titans of Direct Response.”
“Titans” brought together the greatest minds in direct response marketing from the last 50 years as both speakers and participants.
Information on the epic conference is available at www.TitansOfDirectResponse.com.
Brian continues this mission today as “the bridge” by co-authoring The Advertising Solution, creating mastermind groups consisting of the world’s leading direct response companies committed to multi-channel marketing and consulting closely with (and advising) bleeding edge companies to create best-in-class marketing programs and messaging.
He also writes and speaks regularly. Recent content can be found at www.briankurtz.me.
But truth be told, Brian is really just a Little League Baseball Umpire and does this direct marketing stuff on the side…his ultimate goal is to umpire in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA while he is still upright. He hopes it happens soon…
How the World of Publishing Can Create a Winning Fashion Brand
Brandon: Today I am bringing you a different sort of guest from outside the industry. Because, just as sometimes a great new category can be created by combining two categories, sometimes great ideas that work in one industry can work well in another. In this interview, we are talking with Brian Kurtz, leader of one of the most successful information publishers in recent years. What I really like about Brian is that while he managed the company, he and his partner Marty did exceptionally well at selling information, where the value is derived not from the product itself but from what the product can do. Information is not exactly the easiest sale to make. And although fashion is entirely a physical business, in a world of commoditization, the lessons learned from selling something that you can’t physically touch or feel has lessons for all of us in the fashion business. So we’re going to discuss how results-based marketing can help fashion brands win at the cash flow game; the single most important asset a brand can have (and no, it’s not influencers); the huge advantage of a compelling story (and one brand that’s mastered it); and the quirky shoe brand that totally gets how to properly communicate with their audience.
Brandon: So Brian, to kick things off today, what are the most common misconceptions out there about the direct marketing business?
Brian: Direct marketing in the 1980s, when I was growing up in the business, was all media in terms of measurable advertising. And so it wasn’t a media; it was the idea that you wanted to have results-based marketing. A misconception is that people who are more online than offline are saying things like, “direct marketing is the same as direct mail.” That’s one misconception. And so what I do is I talk about direct-response marketing. So it doesn’t use the term. But a lot of people who are brand-based marketing and who are looking at ways to build a brand, they don’t see the point. They say, “well, yeah, we have to build a brand.”
We can’t worry about response rates and measurability because we have to just get the brand and we have to splatter everything out there. And that’s just not true. If you can get into a results-based marketing operation at least partially, even in a brand-based business, it adds so much. Now I don’t think that brand marketing is off-base in any way. But I do think that you have to know how well-known your brand is and how far you can go. And I think that there a lot of misconceptions about that. You can build a brand through measurable and direct marketing.
Brandon: Now you’ve mentioned the term already, results-based marketing. Can you expand a little bit on what that means in daily business?
Brian: Yeah. So, direct marketing is a lot of things, but all it is is measurable marketing. It’s that you pay a dollar for media and you get a dollar back or you get less than a dollar back and eventually make more than a dollar over time. Or you buy a dollar of media and you make more than a dollar. Either short-term or long-term, everything that you spend you get back. And I think that it’s just getting an ROI on anything you spend. That is the crux of what we’re talking about here.
With so much media available online and offline today, it’s easy to get too spread out and not pay attention to the money going out and the money coming in. And I think that there’s room for doing some brand advertising that doesn’t have a measurable response. But I think ultimately having media with a measurable response is going to change the game for most people. The other thing is attribution. You could have a company, let’s say in the fashion industry, that does TV or radio or print ads and some direct mail and email, and you don’t know sometimes where the response came from (you might know eventually). But you don’t know where, because it’s a combo. You can’t attribute it to any one media. But I think having an attribution system that at least makes sure that all the money going out is not being wasted is critical.
Brandon: So on that point, why isn’t brand-based advertising as a dedicated strategy a good idea for the smaller brands that have to be quite considerate of cash flow requirements?
Brian: Well, I always say that I wish I had a Nike swoosh and then I don’t have to worry about it. But most brands don’t have that. And I think building a brand slow and steady through all media that’s measurable, is the safer way to go. And again, a lot of it has to do with the lists that you’re going after and the audiences that you’re going after. Because sometimes you can decide what your brand is going to be but your audience tells you differently. And the idea of being able to move with your audience is critical. And that’s one of the premises of direct marketing, that the list and the audience is the most important thing. Your offers are important and your copy is important, of course.
But if you don’t have the list, then know where your audience is…because that makes all the other things easier. I remember when our business had a newsletter called “Boardroom Reports.” It was the initial newsletter and it was a business newsletter. But when we launched the newsletter called, “Bottom Line Personal,” it really took off because the list was executives at home. And even though the business information was very valuable, the consumer information for the executive was even more valuable.
Brandon: That’s actually a very interesting insight. And a good point. A few weeks ago I interviewed Elissa Bloom of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator, and they take in people who have an established business but now want to scale it. She said that one of the biggest surprises that most of their people get when they start working through the incubator is that who they think is their market, who they think is their audience, is very different than who their audience actually is. And once they understand that, they can customize their marketing to fit exactly who that target customer is and connect with them on an emotional level. And that actually leads me perfectly to my next question, which is all about storytelling. Obviously, it’s a very important part of many different markets. What is the power of storytelling as it relates to effective advertising in general?
Brian: Yeah, I think that not just in the fashion industry, it’s really the ultimate differentiator. So many situations in my direct marketing career I could take a look at two brands or two offers or to whatever, and they’re identical or they’re close to the same. And you find it in the fashion industry. You look at J. Peterman doesn’t have necessarily a superior clothing line to Orvis or to L.L. Bean.
But the catalog becomes almost a storybook. And so if there are two fashion brands and one has a founder who’s got an amazing story that captures the imagination of the audience, that could be the one people will buy, even though the product line might be a little bit more commoditized.
Brandon: You mentioned J. Peterman. They mastered the art and science of storytelling, so much so that for a very long time they didn’t even show real pictures of their products. It was all illustrations and story. And, obviously, for us that comes from the direct marketing world. Almost every great copywriter has examples of J. Peterman catalogs floating around somewhere in their library.
Brian: Yeah. They’re not as big as some of the other brands, but I think pound for pound, they’ve carved out a niche.
That’s another thing, too, that when you tell stories – I always say that I’d rather own a niche than own the world, and some brands can own the world – you know the Nikes. And there are just so many brands that can just own it. But I think that when you’re starting out and you have an unknown brand, if your brand gets known in a very narrow area, there’s still a lot of money to be made and a lot of goodwill to be earned in a targeted niche. And you can inch out in that niche through the relatability of the story. When you look at J. Peterman, if people relate to that kind of story, the barrier to leave is high. It’s like they want to stay in because they can’t wait till the next catalog. They can’t wait for the next story. And that is really beneficial.
Brandon: Now, for years, obviously, the value you’ve communicated to the market when you sold products and services has been predominantly intangible. It’s information where the value is not captured within the pieces of paper that you were selling or in digital bits and bytes for any online side of things. Obviously, this is very different than the fashion business, which revolves pretty much exclusively around some sort of product, some sort of physical good. So in your mind, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned from selling these intangibles over the years that can actually be applied to the fashion industry?
Brian: Well, it’s hard to look at the newsletter and book business as intangible because you’re still selling a physical product in the end. But, yes, you’re selling the fascination of what’s in the product, as opposed to the product itself. I have a client who owns a large women’s clothing brand. Most of their catalogs and most of their mailings – they were doing some direct mail – were basically very visual. It was less copy, more visual. And what I encourage them to do is to add a little more copy in. This moves toward telling a story within the ability to sell product. I think that would be the lesson, that there probably are combinations of copy and visuals, that you could add a little more copy and not rely solely on the visuals. To add a little more character, add a little more specialty, make it a lot less commoditized than most fashion and clothing catalogs do. Does it work? I mean, it works for some and not for others.
Brandon: Very good. Now, turning for a moment here to your book Overdeliver, you wrote that you were once – that you’ve been very proud to – have had one of the biggest postage bills in the country. What’s been one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from having that experience as it could relate to the fashion business?
Brian: I think Chapter 3 of the book is called, “How paying postage made me a better marketer.” The word is discipline. Because media has gotten cheaper now. Of course, TV is expensive and direct mail has always been expensive but email and online marketing are a lot less expensive. But I think the discipline of doing direct mail and doing TV enabled me to say, “well I could do this a lot sloppier. I could do this a lot more haphazardly online and I don’t have to worry about it, because it’s no big deal if it’s not perfect.” Now hitting send on something that is cheap to send out and doesn’t work, you would say, “Oh, there’s no harm done.” But I maintain that there is harm done. Because every time you go out to an audience or you go out to a list, you’re going to experience some response, whether it’s a response to the offer or a nonresponse – or that you turn off your audience so that the next time you go out, it doesn’t work.
The discipline that it took to do a direct mail campaign, if you apply that to an online campaign, it could serve you well. And I did notice with some fashion brands I was on their list for – I don’t want to mention names – the idea was you’d get seven emails a week, with the same 20% discount. And to think that the sixth day of that is when I’m going to wake up and say, “Oh yeah, now I’m going to take the 20% discount.” At some point, people are just going to unsubscribe or they’re just going to delete. And that’s where I think if – going back to a brand that has a story to tell – you were emailing every day or four times a week and three of the emails were telling some kind of information or giving some background or telling a story and only one of the emails was a sales email, that could be an interesting test. Because you’re going to develop a relationship first.
It’s not like a barrage of emails and eventually someone’s going to buy something. I always say that everything is not a revenue event, but everything is a relationship event. And I find that, especially online when things are cheaper to send out, everything doesn’t have to be an offer. It can be content; it can be useful information. And the irony is, I couldn’t do that in direct mail because it was too expensive. And yet when I sent out direct mail pieces that were 32-page – what we call magalogs – it was all a sales piece, but we actually gave away some content. And that was the lesson of how paying postage made me a better marketer.
Brandon: That is a fantastic insight. And I think one of the challenges that a lot of marketers have is they tend to undervalue what the customer’s attention is actually worth when they send out emails, especially the same repetitive email day after day. I’m on newsletter lists where I have been exposed to the seven days times 20% discount kind of thing.
And after awhile you tune out, and then you wonder, as the marketer of that brand, you’re wondering why aren’t people paying attention? Well, stop hitting them with stuff they don’t want to hear about anymore and give them that story. There’s a brand in Vancouver– I’m a big fan of – I’ve mentioned many times – called, Fluevog and they sell very quirky shoes and boots for men and woman. And they come up with new very interesting lines every season. Their newsletters are always – they follow the same basic formula, but they always find interesting new things in a very community-driven format. They’re always coming up with new content and new ways to express themselves, and their copywriters are fantastic. That’s how you do it, and you never get the 20% times seven. You get the interesting newsletter every week or a couple times a week that talks about the product in new and interesting ways.
So, yeah, absolutely. Switching gears for a couple of minutes here, you have one section in your book, called “Embrace Competition as Coexistence,” and I really liked that because that’s always been my philosophy as well in business for the last two decades. The fashion business obviously has a reputation as a brutally competitive one. Do you think that that this sentiment of coexistence rather than competition can exist in such an industry?
Brian: Yeah, I think it can, I mean I’m a little idealistic about this. I guess because I came out of the list business, and in the list business and direct mail, when you think about it, if my list works and your lists works, we both stand to make some money from the same mailer. So that was an easy one to share clients and share abilities. But I do think that even in direct mail, to start thinking that one person is going to buy from one catalog and only one catalog or one brand is silly. I think there are times, probably, in every industry where competition is competition and there is no coexistence. But I’m with you. I mean, my philosophy has been share and all boats rise. And again, maybe I’m being idealistic, but I think there are things you can share, like if two fashion brands were doing different kinds of online marketing or Facebook or whatever.
And it was a technique that was working well and you could share some knowledge. I think that all boats rise. I really do. I mean, my experience has been that the brands and the companies that kept it all to themselves and didn’t want to share because they felt it was proprietary, a lot of those businesses aren’t around anymore. Now some are, but many aren’t. And so that’s a little bit of proof, but I do believe that when you’re sharing intelligence, overall, all boats rise.
Brandon: Absolutely. It is a great sentiment and something that really struck me as I was going through the pages. So for our last question: If a magic genie appeared and gave you three wishes so that you could change anything about the state of advertising, what would those three things be?
Brian: Well, one would be if marketers and companies just became one with the concept of multichannel. There are so many marketers today that find something that’s working and they are going after it in a big way, and then they don’t diversify. So I think that’s one that’s a little more subtle, but it’s something. And of course, there are some marketing channels are so inexpensive that you look at it and go “I’m going to just blow this out.” And it becomes like a gravy train. And they don’t have the ability or they don’t have the desire to go into other channels, and you need to go into other channels for diversification. So that would be one.
One thing that I notice a lot in marketing today is that if you have a large list or audience, especially online, that one-size-fits-all copy to that list is a prescription.
I mean it can work, it’s going to work to some degree, but if you could have more emphasis on copy to list segments, that to me is a game changer. And of course, in email it’s much less expensive than it was in direct mail to have different copy approaches to different list segments. I’d like to see a much bigger emphasis on copy approaches and copy platforms to different segments of lists so that it’s more personalized, it’s more specific to the audience. And I think my third would be that – I’ll call it a-la-carte and specialty buying in media versus one-stop shopping – has got to be the way to go. With so many marketing channels, advertising opportunities are now infinite.
That was told to me by an investment banker in New York some years ago. And it’s true. And to anybody who’s saying, “we can handle all of your online advertising,” I would say run away from those people. You want to go to the expert in Facebook and then go to the expert in Youtube and go to the expert in direct mail and go to the expert in broadcast. So the advertising industry, which has become broader, has now had too many people who are generalists who say, “I can do it all for you.” And then we’ll say to a big brand that doesn’t want to buy a-la-carte would want to buy one stop and then make it easier, easier is not better. I think going into specialty and specialized media is where you’re going to make big headway in your marketing.
Brandon: Very good. That’s a great way to end the interview. How can people learn more about your book?
Brian: So my new book is called Overdeliver: Build a Business for a Lifetime Playing the Long Game in Direct Response Marketing.
If you go to www.overdeliverbook.com you will find an incredible resource page. I have a book called Overdeliver, I guess I had to over deliver on the resources, otherwise, I’d be a hypocrite. The bonuses are amazing. I’ve got 11 bonuses: I’ve got two PDFs of classic direct marketing books, I’ve got courses, I’ve got video. I’ve got a swipe file and 400 pages of direct mail packages. So you go to that site and there’s a button to buy the book at Amazon or Barnes&Noble or IndieBound.
You go to the site, you buy the book, you come back to the site and you plug in your order number and you get all these bonuses for buying my book. And the book’s only – I think it’s $17 or less at this point. And I just thought it was a great offer because I do feel like there are so many classic direct marketing books and classic direct marketers. So overdeliverbook.com is the best way to get the resources, get my book and get on my list, and then you can read my blog every Sunday and you’ll only get sold in the PS – and not every week.