Relevancy or Novelty: which is more effective?

IBM small business ad from the mid-1960’sThis headline from PW World’s Business Center caught my eye and made me chuckle.

IBM Targets Small Businesses.

Why? Because over forty years ago I worked on the IBM Data Processing Division account while at Marstellar Advertising.

What goes around comes around.

We were charged with promoting IBM’s then-unique idea of appealing to smaller businesses. Their plan then, as now I suspect, was to capture data processing customers at the very beginning and then grow with them. As the IBM systems helped them grow, the systems themselves would also grow.

The problem was, IBM didn’t have much to offer then. They were still reconditioning and re-leasing unit record equipment (a printer, sorter and keypunch), and they had a large-sized “accounting machine” that never did compete well with Bourroughs or NCR.

But that’s what they sold and we promoted through a series of ads in Business Week, Nation’s Business and Newsweek magazines. Each ad referenced a customer using either system to help run business. Each headline began “(customer first and last name) used to think his (type of business) was too small for an IBM system”. There was a candid photo of the boss and his four to eight employees standing round the real system they were using. The copy was crammed with specific results concerning the applications they had implemented, along with IBM’s help. And each ad had a coupon for more info.

This was powerful advertising. It got results and ultimately put IBM in a position to compete with NCR, Honeywell and others with eyes on the small business market. Several years later, IBM had a field force in place selling to smaller businesses. So with the introduction of the System 3 computer, they hit the ground running.

Overcoming the perception that IBM was only for big companies was huge. It was accomplished with real-life people testifying to IBM’s care of their smaller customers and helping them, too, succeed in data processing.

Later, when IBM introduced their first PC, they adopted a Charlie Chaplin-like figure as spokes-icon. I don’t think anyone ever related to the character even though most folks liked him.

But our approach to real-life success stories was effective, introducing the “Little Tramp” was not.
Al Ries, also a Marstellar alum, and his daughter Laura wrote a book entitled The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR in 2002. They stated that advertising had lost its credibility. I agree.

It appears that most advertising “creatives” have lost their compasses. Novelty and hi-tech special effects rule today. The goal seems to be awards, not conversions. Not even persuasions.

I’ve stated this before, and I’ll continue until I lose my voice: stating benefits in a way people can relate makes for effective and productive advertising.

Martin Jelsema

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