How my direct-response campaign made so many sales that it upset a lot of people and had to be closed down...fast!
What You Will Learn
Now that we live in a world where Apple Stores are present in just about every major city, it’s hard to imagine a time without them. But before 2001, all Apple’s sales were made via Apple dealers.
That was true in the UK, as everywhere else - except for one brief period when Apple experimented with a direct response campaign. The project was a huge success. In fact, it was such a success that it caused a lawsuit and had to be closed down double quick. Here’s the strange story of how that happened…
One day, I got a call from the Creative Director of a major marketing agency. The agency had an impossible name formed from the surnames of six different partners, and sounded more like a law firm than a creative shop. But it was actually the hippest agency in London, with hi-tech offices in the redeveloped area south of Chelsea.
The Creative Director and I had worked together on various projects, and he was excited to tell me about a ‘big fish client’ the agency had just landed.
When we met up in a Chelsea pub the next day, he revealed that the client in question was Apple UK. The Managing Director was fed up of dealers taking a big slice of revenues and slicing Apple’s margins to the bone.
His plan was to launch a direct marketing campaign and sell Apple products direct to the public. The Creative Director needed a copywriter he could trust, so he asked me if I would take on the entire project.
The meeting happened in August, the slowest month of the year, so I was able to free up some time and keep my calendar free for the fall. Just as well, because this project turned into a monster that consumed all my time for the next few months.
Working with Apple was an intense but exciting experience. My time was split between a series of frantic activities. There were meetings with top execs at Apple’s ‘Silicon Valley UK’ HQ in the Thames Valley, and more meetings with creatives and account directors at the agency.
In between the meetings and endless phone calls, I found time to write copy for the entire project. The initial plan had been for a group of junior writers to work with me on the product copy. But when the Marketing Director at Apple rejected the work of writer after writer, I ended up doing the whole job myself.
I wrote everything from the Managing Director’s welcome letter to the customer support information on the back page.
I didn’t see a whole lot of my young family over the next few months. We worked through the night on many occasions, fueled by black coffee, regular pizza deliveries and the occasional trip to the pub. But it was an exciting project to work on.
The Power of A/B Testing
The opening spread of the direct mail package (pages 2-3) was going to be a ‘hero offer’ that represented an amazing deal. The prospect could buy an entire Apple system, including printer, software, telephone support and more for a heavily discounted price.
Compared to what you would pay for all these items separately at an Apple dealership, this was a steal. I knew instantly that this offer was ‘make or break’ for the whole direct mail package.
If we could get a great response on this offer, we would make a lot of money. But if the take-up was lukewarm, the whole project was doomed. And I had an idea how we could guarantee success.
I had learned the power of A/B testing on campaigns undertaken for other enterprise companies. In particular, I knew that testing our hero offer was critical to success. However, testing was not easy in those days. The only way to split-test was to do test mailings to small audiences before scaling up.
Both the agency and Apple resisted because it slowed the project down, and we were already pushing against deadlines. But I persisted in making my case, and finally Apple were convinced.
Shortly before Christmas, we sent a small mailing to three test groups. The package was identical in each case, except for how the hero offer was presented. And the difference in response was amazing.
Offer #1 got a tepid response - too low for the offer to be profitable. Offer #2 fared better, and we could have made a small profit using that one. But Offer #3 went gangbusters - the response rate was just off the charts!
The difference was that Offer #3 was a case study that showed the Apple system in action. In those days, many people were still unsure what a computer system could do for them, and why they might want to spend money on it.
So I created a case study built around a fictional graphic designer - Joe Bensam. The fact that my three sons are named Joe, Ben and Sam may not have been a coincidence.
The two-page spread told the story of how Joe used Apple products to help him get more done, faster. And it struck a chord with prospects, because the orders came in thick and fast - just from the test mailing!
Truckloads of Orders
We could see the campaign was going to be a big success, so Apple brought in extra inventory ready for the big launch. We started the main mailing (using Offer #3) in January, and sales went crazy.
Apple were so delighted with the response that we scaled up. In February, we mailed three different packages - targeting the business, education and consumer markets respectively. And now sales really took off.
Products were selling so fast that inventory became a huge problem. Extra product had to be air-freighted in Europe to keep up with demand.
Apple were delighted with the results, and so was the agency. Everything looked rosy, and we were predicting a very profitable year for Apple UK.
Then the storm clouds started gathering.
Apple was happy, the agency was happy and buyers were happy. When I got paid, I was very happy, too.
But there was one group of people who didn’t love the direct-response campaign quite so much. In fact, they hated it. This group was…
There had been some grumblings among the dealers when they first heard about the project. But Apple assured them it would help dealership sales, too. All these new Apple customers would visit their local dealer to buy accessories, upgrades and all kinds of other goodies. That was the theory...
In practice, what happened was that the direct-response campaign sucked all the air out of the market. Apple was making a fortune selling direct, while dealers sat in empty stores. They had nothing to do but twiddle their thumbs, staring hopefully out the window for customers.
The backlash began in January, and grew to a firestorm with the second, bigger mailing. Meetings between Apple and representatives of the dealer network became heated, almost turning into fist fights.
Before long, lawyers became involved. The Apple legal team faced off against lawyers representing the dealer network, and the atmosphere became very sour. Faced with an expensive legal action and lots of bad publicity, Apple backed down.
The direct response campaign was canceled, and all inquiries were referred to dealers. Harmony was restored, and business continued in the usual way.
The Big Takeaways
So that’s the story of my Apple campaign that was so successful it had to be canceled. Although it ended abruptly, it was a fun project to work on, and I learned a lot along the way.
Most importantly, it was a reminder of just how important testing is. Without testing, we would have proceeded with a weak offer and sales would have been lukewarm at best. But going with a tested offer allowed us to take sales through the roof.
Secondly, the successful hero offer is a great reminder of how powerful case studies can be. They bring a product to life, allowing people to imagine the difference it will make to their lives. And making sales is all about focusing on the outcomes the product delivers.
How many sales are you losing because of a poorly-converting offer? How much revenue is that costing you - year after year? The answer may easily run into millions of dollars.
Don’t let all that money get away from you. Let's talk and turn things around.
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