This old farming story will teach you something about marketing

Sometimes, all it takes is a “howdy.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a “howdy.”

It was the 1960s, in Midwestern America. The landscape was blanketed in miles of golden wheat and corn. Each day, the farmers worked their land and managed their farms. They’d have their issues, as every farmer does—not enough rain, rising prices, and trying to get the most yield from a crop. But there was another problem that kept turning up for a lot of them—pests. The silos where they stored their grain was a haven for mice and other vermin. If you weren’t on top of it, you could be overrun pretty quickly.

Needless to say, the market was saturated with every kind of trap or killer you could imagine. Some worked, some didn’t. And it was often a source of frustration for the farmers at that time.

Then, along came a chemical company. It was a Midwestern business, too, and already made products for farming, so it knew the pest issue and set to work on making a mouse killer to end all mouse killers.

They came up with a really good product. It tested perfectly, both in the lab and the real world. It was close to launch, so they secured their ad agency to sell it to the farming community.

Now, farmers are up early, often driving to the farther reaches of their farms, or to market. So radio was an important part of the media mix. They’d create a compelling spot, touting all the benefits of the pesticide, along with a solid offer if they called and ordered today. The product would be shipped right to their door.

The chemical company was ready to ship. The radio spots played across the airwaves, just as they planned. Operators at the chemical company were trained to answer questions and readied themselves for what would surely be an onslaught of orders.

But nothing happened. The orders were a trickle, at best.

Everyone was stumped. The product worked. It was priced right. They advertised it in the right channels, and the message was certainly compelling and attention-grabbing. It was all carefully thought out, researched and crafted. Why weren’t they drowning in orders?

The mystery lasted for weeks. The agency chalked up this apparent failure to a host of excuses and changes. They tried airing the spot at different times and tweaking the ad copy. Nothing worked. Execs at the chemical company were getting impatient, and it was rumored they were starting to look for another agency.

In a last ditch effort, the account executive from the agency took a drive out to some farms, hoping just to talk to someone who could shed some light.

Alongside a dirt road on a hot August afternoon, he happened to see a farmer working on a tractor. He pulled over and struck up a conversation with him, finally getting around to explaining why he was there.

“Did you hear the radio commercials?” the account executive asked, wiping some sweat from his brow in the blazing heat.

“Oh, I heard it,” said the farmer. “But I wouldn’t order it.”

“Why?”

“Because they deliver the pesticide to my house,” said the farmer, as if the answer were obvious. “I don’t need the postman or anyone else knowing I have a pest problem. It’s embarrassing.”

Finally, the account executive had the answer. He directed the agency to add just one line of copy to the end of every radio spot: We’ll send your order to you in an unmarked package for your privacy.

That’s all it took. A week or so later, sales went through the roof.

What does this old story teach us? There’s nothing like talking to a potential customer directly.

We all sit in our cubicles, imagining what our potential customers are thinking or wanting. And often, we’re right. But sometimes, there are little issues you can only pick up by connecting with them directly—via social media, at tradeshows, or even roadside on a hot summer day—that could drastically change your perceptions and reality. Sometimes, the littlest thing can make an astonishing difference.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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