Direct Approach: The Lamborghini Lesson

DM needs to stop limiting itself to targeting and measurement and start realising its potential.

Ferruccio Lamborghini was a tractor man through and through. In the wake of World War II, his tractor business was doing a roaring trade and he was fast creating a solid reputation. But when Lamborghini wasn't running his tractor empire, his secret sideline passion was fast cars.

His rapidly expanding business had opened the door to the finer things in life and, after adding a Ferrari to his collection of Mercs, Jags and Maseratis, he began to think bigger. Berating his only complaint with the Ferrari, the clutch, Lamborghini realised the solution was in front of him. The rest is history. His tractor clutch was used as the basis for the first production Lamborghini as we know it, the 350GT.

Lamborghini's secret? Realising that a simple element he was selling as functional, effective and reliable could expand outwards into something that was beautiful, awe-inspiring and world famous. Now, of course, Lamborghini could have stuck to turning out his tractor clutch for tractors. But he didn't. He realised he was only selling a percentage of what his product was actually worth and went after the remaining potential.

It's a lesson direct marketers must learn, or risk finding themselves staring into the abyss. For too long, we have marched into pitches talking about data, targeting, response, measurement - all that solid, commercial stuff that we know budget-conscious clients want to hear. "Don't spend your cash on those beautiful but intangible brand awareness ads," we urged. "Go for DM. It works, and here are some cold, hard (if boring) stats to prove it."

And, for the most part, that approach has worked. Who wouldn't want to engage with consumers in an intimate way and be able to track where every penny is spent? But the landscape has changed. The consumer has changed. And if direct marketers don't learn to sell everything else they can deliver, then they can kiss a share of tomorrow's marketing spend goodbye.

So why now? What's changed?

Well, the DM industry has been focusing on the clutch - the cornerstone of its heritage. We've been selling our targeting and measurement. Which is great. Only now, everyone else is starting to walk the walk - or they are at least talking the talk. We all know that with a long history of understanding customer data, direct marketers are those best placed to navigate the new digital landscape for clients, but it's unquestionable that other disciplines are staking a claim on cross-channel targeting and measurement.

Add to that the lightning speed at which consumer channels have fragmented and multiplied and the ensuing land-grab this has created. Where direct was once a one-to-one channel, it has fast become a one-to-many channel, and this has fundamentally changed the way we must operate. We predict that we won't see disciplines drop off but continue to multiply.

Taking this new landscape into account forces us to reassess the way we view disciplines and channels within it. Contrary to what some may think, DM is not just a tactical tool, it is a strategic approach. It can build brands and it can create an intimacy that no other approach can.

Believe it, because if you don't, you can't sell it. And if you can't sell it, you might be left to turn the lights out as everyone else embraces a new era somewhere in the future.

This is an approach we had to adopt when launching a US campaign for the agricultural and construction equipment giant John Deere (if only these essays were themed "DM ... and tractors"). The challenge was clear: it wanted to enter a new digger category. The audience was contractors, landscapers, farmers and dealers. So a simple offline DM piece, targeted and tracked, might have done the job.

It might have done. But then it might have gone down as another example of the real potential of DM going well and truly unexploited. Instead, we created a campaign that incorporated the stalwarts of DM and used them to create something much, much bigger.

"Smackdown" involved staging a series of head-to-head battles featuring the top machines in a Robot Wars-style duel. The events - the hill climb, visibility test, power lift and serviceability - were based on real-world situations that drivers experience and were staged in front of a live audience.

Initially, the audience was engaged via offline mailers but that was only the start. At the heart of the programme was the SkidSteerSmackdown.com microsite, featuring videos of digger battles. The site was fully interactive, enabling visitors to engage in a number of ways. For example, fans could create e-postcards that could be customised and distributed to friends and co-workers. This simple tool converted dealers and operators into the campaign's strongest advocates. A series of eDMs were distributed to alert both dealers and prospects when new content was available on the site and, finally, traditional elements such as print ads were also incorporated.

Through this activity, John Deere gained a cult following. Since the site launch in April 2008, the microsite has had more than 150,000 visitors with 125,000 unique views and more than 350,000 page views. "Smackdown" videos have garnered more than 100,000 views on YouTube. Offline, the "Smackdown"-themed lead generators yielded a 4 per cent response rate, outpacing many other similar mailers during the year. Drive-to-site banner advertising had click-through rates of approximately 3 per cent and eBlasts promoting the site had response rates of more than 7 per cent.

This campaign had DM at its heart - there was an identifiable audience, a clear proposition and a measurable response. But to encapsulate it in this way does no justice to the true reach of the activity. We could have sent out the mailers and waited to track the sales. But we didn't. We took the brand to a new market and created a following populated by genuine advocates. We drove awareness, created buzz and instigated word of mouth. And if I'm starting to sound like a traditional adman, then I make no apologies.

And neither should DM as a discipline. It is perfectly poised to tell complete brand stories through this brave new media landscape. But if DM professionals hide behind data and measurement without talking about the inspiring creative, groundbreaking online innovation and power to build genuine brand experiences, then they will be selling themselves short. They will be moaning about their Ferrari clutch, while never looking beyond to the potential of their own product. Go forth and sell it all, sell it now. The alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

- Christoph Becker is the chief creative officer of GyroHSR.