Commerce blog | Direct marketing
5 Things I Learned from Herschell Gordon Lewis
September 28, 2016
If you're a movie buff, you might know Herschell Gordon Lewis as "the Godfather of Gore" and the auteur of "splatter" films such as Blood Feast. If you worked in direct marketing, though, you'd know him as a copywriter and marketer extraordinaire.
Herschell died this week at the age of 87. I was lucky enough to have worked with him: He contributed columns to two industry magazines I edited, and we used to present the Annual Catalog Awards together. You'd never have known from his demeanor, a curious blend of the courtly and the flirtatious, that he was a favorite director of John Waters. In fact, I didn't at first; I just thought he was a font of copy wisdom who was also a wicked raconteur and could always be relied on for an ego boost, a bit of gossip, and a chuckle.
I learned a lot from Herschell, his columns, and his numerous books. In his honour, here are my top takeaways:
The best marketing copy includes both features and benefits.
I've written about this before, but it's probably the single-most important insight I gleaned from Herschell and one that guides me in just about all copy I write. Here's a short product description from lifestyle brand Lands' End that shows how effective this one-two punch can be:
image: Lands’ End screen grab
"Boots made for exploration. A mesh upper and fabric lining help keep your feet comfy, while a dual-density, super lightweight EVA midsole with rubber outsole keeps you virtually slip-free."
The "mesh upper and fabric lining" are features—certainly important info to know. But explaining the benefit of those features (they keep your feet comfortable) is what makes the features relevant to the reader. Likewise, simply telling readers that "these shoes keep your feet comfy" is an empty boast (is a copywriter ever going to write "Damn, these shoes hurt worse than walking on coals"?), but detailing the features responsible for the comfort adds credibility.
"You" is the most important word in the marketer's vocabulary.
As content marketing, especially blogs and other forms that rely largely on the use of first person, becomes more entwined with sales, "I" and "we" are appearing more frequently in copy. The judicious use of the first person can help give a brand personality and provide a degree of credibility. But in the end, the consumer cares less about what you and your company think and more about what's in it for them. (And the need to tell consumers "what's in it for them" is why you need to discuss benefits as well as features.)
So "We love these widgets" will probably be a less-effective headline than "You'll love these widgets." (Note the "probably"; your mileage may vary, which is why A/B testing exists.)
image: Lakeland screen grab
For a message that masterfully combines "we" and "you," it's tough to beat this one from housewares merchant Lakeland: "We're only happy when you're happy. If you're not delighted with your purchase or our service, or find the same product elsewhere for less, please tell us so that we can put it right." Granted, the syntax is off; "or find" should be "or if you find." But the photos of the smiling cookies alongside this blurb on Lakeland's home page just about makes up for it.
Every target audience contains multitudes.
Even if you're marketing to a fairly specific niche, individuals within that niche have different needs, different preferences, different budgets. One way to address that is with "good, better, best" offerings. As a childhood aficionado of the old Sears catalogues, I'd of course seen examples of this, but it was Herschell who introduced the concept to me as a strategy. You might offer 30 models of washing machines, but each will have some features or benefits that are more likely to appeal to one type of shopper over another—and it's your job as a marketer to communicate those differences to the optimal customers.
One of my freelance clients rents out vacation homes. Many of these properties are very similar: same number of bedrooms, same amenities, same general location. Before I write copy for each one, I imagine a specific type of holiday-goer. If one home includes a shelf full of board games, for instance, I'll write for a family, noting how the dining table is large enough to accommodate not only family dinners but also family game nights and calling out amusement parks when discussing nearby attractions. If another home is identical except for the lack of board games and the addition of a jetted hot tub in the master bathroom, I might play up the potential for romance and emphasise the proximity to restaurants and nightlife (or that the setting is so beautiful and private, the lovebirds might want to spend their evenings in). That sort of individualisation is something I learned from Herschell.
Be precise, and get to the point.
Herschell hated weak and weaselly words. Don't say a dress is "beautiful"; describe it as "form-fitting" or "daring" or "something Coco Chanel would have been proud to wear." He also loathed language that detoured: "We'd like to offer you the chance to try our new so-and-so..." as opposed to "Try our new so-and-so today!" or "Want to try our new so-and-so?" (Here's a great column he wrote for an alma mater of mine, Multichannel Merchant.) As for using "utilise" instead of "use" or "however" instead of "but"... well, you can guess.
Live and learn.
When ecommerce and email and social media disrupted the industry, it could have been tempting to simply apply the tried-and-truisms of traditional direct marketing to these new channels or to ignore them and focus exclusively on print. But Herschell kept up, kept testing, kept tweaking his techniques for the changing media and audiences.
I also recall him discussing a trip to Costa Rica he made when he was in his 70s, during which he went zip-lining in the rainforest. That continual curiosity and eagerness to learn more, try more, see more can't help but be reflected in one's work—and in the rest of one's life. Several years after that conversation, I agreed to go zip-lining with my family. I was several decades younger than Herschell had been, we were in Vermont rather than Costa Rica, and I'm pretty certain I enjoyed the experience far less than he did. But I did it, I lived to tell the tale, and I learned, if nothing else, that I can rappel down a tree without a loss of bodily functions. I'm just sorry I never got to tell Herschell about it.