Four marketing lessons from pharmaceutical companies.

All prescription commercials seem to follow the same, apparently lucrative, warning-filled format. Yet, they likely figure, “Since 80 percent of our prospects will be ‘turned off’ by the little, tiny, insignificantly debilitating side effects, let’s mark up our price to 812 times what it costs us to make it.”

Then all the three-eyed board members laugh manically and go to lunch at the nuclear power plant.

Yet - legally required warnings aside - the pharmaceutical companies have several zillion dollars to spend on research, including demographics/psychographics on the most likely hour we’ll arise in the middle of the night to deal with that little “going and going” problem.

That’s part of why you don’t see ED drug ads during the “Tyra Banks Show,” but you do see anti-depressants during the nightly newscasts. The frequency of ED drug ads rise (make your own joke) before Valentine’s Day, but allergy medicine ads fall after allergy season. None of this is coincidental, and the results are staggeringly profitable.

You think predicting a plumbing problem is difficult? Try combing through 2 billion people who all claim individuality and would like to keep their medical problems to themselves.

Four marketing lessons emerge from these models that are worthy of emulation. If, in a still-hesitating economy, you’d prefer to copy rather than to re-invent with your own wallet, I offer …

$660 Million Of Marketing Research You Can Copy Now!

1. Direction or call-to-action.Drug companies always give specific “call to,” “ask” or “get a free DVD” advice. Tell your prospectswhat you want them to do. Especially in a downward economy, leaving them to “guess” is a bad idea, a waste of your ad space, time and money.

This has been my advice for eight years in a row; significantly more important now. No guessing allowed.

2. Damaging admission.Drug companies are law-bound to mention anything that occurs in a certain percentage of cases, laughably frightening or not. Yet in marketing - and here’s the lesson - there is an “automatic filter” that we all employ when an offer sounds too good, too perfect, the be-all, end-all of our misery. Thus, a “damaging admission” is an honesty-inducer, effectively opening the filter toward credibility.

“We have the most popular colors and the biggest selection in town!” is typical ad schlock, filter set to high. Then read, “We have virtually all colors, but navy blue sells out the fastest.” This one is far more specific, interesting, urgent and allows the customer to accept other statements more readily. The trick is to make your admission positive.

What is worthy of admitting? Tell your audience the percentage of calls you handle on the same day; how often you are late; what’s your customer retention rate; what’s the warranty claim rate. Any of those exacting numbers are far more believable than just “We have the No. 1 Best Service Department in Town!!!!” Far better to say, “Voted No. 1 in with a 96.6 Percent Excellent Rating!” Transparency beats fluff, specifics beat vagueness.

3. Targeting. This is actually the most important one, but put here on purpose. The “who” you want to attract must match the audience for the media. What is your targeted audience watching, reading or listening to? If you’re aiming for a target, it’s a near certainty it’s findable.

The best target is your current customer base. Immediately after is a shocker: former customers. Then referrals, then those “like” your customers, then those in proximity to customers. This is the most efficient method of contact, with the highest probability of sale. Leaving your customer base to chance is financially suicidal. Your competitors will gladly invite them to dinner, serving you as the main course.

4. Benefits over price. In a weakened economy, cutting prices up front is common, but often interpreted as “desperate, quivering, weak,” negating any real gain. Consumers don’t know how much a water heater tune-up should cost; discounting up front is pointless. Make sure your price cuts are positioned powerfully after benefits are spelled out. The drug ads speak initially of “improvement, health, increased energy, no soreness” and other benefits, then offer a free one-month trial, making it irresistible.

Offering a free plumbing “freeze-free” inspection had better come after value points are made. Also, it’s better to bundle services as a discount once in the home, such as: “I’ve invoiced you for the water heater today, but since you’ve already paid for the trip charge, we’re reaching out to customers who’d rather not pay it again on a small repair. So, with your permission I’d be glad to take care of any other smaller repairs while I’m here, or could I ask you a few questions about your plumbing system?”

See, this way, you’re adding to the transaction size, getting closer to an agreement sale, locking in the customer, filling up a tech’s time with billable hours and gaining valuable future sales information simultaneously. Not bad for two sentences.

Case Study Access

OK, now the access to a free rewrite. This was for a plumbing and heating company’s Web site, which looked fairly stupid anyway. Worse, no one could find it. (Not my specialty, so I sent the company to

The home page copy was rotten. Clearly it was taken right out of the company’s oversized, junked-up Yellow Pages ad. (A failure from the start, but they told me, “But we already had it!” as if that was a bonus. Like saying, “No need forSalmonella; I already haveE coli!”)

Then, if youdidcall the company, the CSR hadno cluehow to convert a call into a sale, upsell or make an appointment for that matter. Very pleasant, but largely ineffective. (Get this fixed. See your free marketing tools at the end of this column.)

I was hired to do the copy rewrite. Several pages and lots of good money invested. Here’s the opening paragraph only, rewritten using the lessons you’ve just read:  

Typical Company A Opener:“Our Plumbing and Heating company is always available, 24/7, to serve the needs of our many customers. We’re No. 1 in the service area in quality and dependability. We know plumbing and heating. We have a great selection and best prices too! So, for ALL your plumbing or heating needs, call on us today! XXX-XXXX”

OK, even though I’m about to throw up after writing that schlog, which is painfully reminiscent of virtually every amateur with a braggy but low-performing ad, here’s the rewrite.

Atypical Company B Opener:“Your plumbing and heating system doesn’t always work perfectly. (Nothing in my house does!) But your call is welcome here - 24 hours a day - and routed to one of five stocked trucks, with a skilled tech that can solve your problem in ONE visit, 94 percent of the time! (We’re working on the other 6 percent!) Company B doesn’t waste your time hunting parts or guessing. Give us a call at XXX-XXXX.”

Be specific. Target your message. Give “admissions” to raise credibility. Position yourself powerfully, not negatively. And finally:

“Ask your marketing doctor about advertising. Should you experience pain or lack of customers in this economy, stop taking the advice of your whiny competitors and contact someone who’s actually solved the problem in real life, not just seen it on TV.”

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