One car company found out about the power of good headlines. Unfortunately, they found out too late and a CMO lost his job.
Once upon a time, there were two car sharing companies who were devoted to providing great customer service and cars to people who needed them, by the hour. Sort of like a regular car rental place except you rent by the hour, not by the day. But one company ended up sailing ahead with getting business while the other one folded.
The first company, Philly Car Share, was very specific with their website copy. They didn’t mess around when it came to writing headlines that told their story. Their headlines defined clear benefits. For instance, here is one:
On Demand: PhillyCarShare gives you access to cars by the hour, whenever you need them. We live in your neighborhood, just steps from your home or office.
The headline “On Demand” immediately tells you that you’ll be able to access a car when you need it. It conveys a lack of waiting for a car when you need it. It says that this company is highly responsive to your need and will deliver a fast solution. The rest of the copy clearly describes what this company does.
PCS @ Work: Experience PhillyCarShare for Business: enjoy the convenience of a corporate fleet without the cost and hassle.
Again, a very clear headline that cleverly uses the “@” sign for the word “at.” The ampersand immediately puts people into an business mood because it reminds them of email and website addresses. The rest of the copy again is clear, bringing a strong benefit to the reader. Every purchase manager would love a service that was low-cost and simple.
Now let’s look at their competitor, a car company that was bought by Avis after this failed marketing strategy. Introducing ZipCar.
This is another car sharing service, but it’s not really clear with headlines like these:
ZIP IT OFF THE LIST.
DON’T JUST ZIPPING
ZIP OUT OF THE BORED ROOM.
ZIP OFF THE GRID.
What do those headlines tell you about the service? What benefits are clearly stated?
The answer is nothing. It’s tough to figure out what exactly “zipping” and “zip” would mean to you.
There wasn’t any copy associated with these headlines. Coupled with photos of cool, young hipsters, you were obviously supposed to say to yourself, “Oh! I want to live that life! Zipping around on my mountain bike and having meetings outdoors in cool places!”
Except your customers don’t really think like that.
They have a need. They land on your website. And they want to know in nanoseconds if you have a solution for them.
The other mistake that Zipcar made was in excluding people from their marketing. All of the photos, the design elements, and the “clever headlines” were aimed at only one demographic: People in their twenties and thirties. (Otherwise known as the “Millennials.”)
There were no photos of anyone older than that. No photos of business people in their forties or even of older people in their fifties and sixties. David Ogilvy, the great ad man that inspired the character Don Draper in the TV show “MadMen,” said this: “Do not say anything in your headline which is likely to exclude any readers who might be prospects for your product.”
The CMO who was the creative force behind this campaign ended up losing his six-figure a year job. Is it any wonder? (And astonishingly, this campaign is still running months after they fired him.)
If I have heard one mantra from copywriting giants, it is this:
You are in the selling business. Not the entertainment business.
Boardrooms across America are littered with ad campaigns that sure, made people laugh but… no one bought the product. There wasn’t any increase in revenue from these expensive campaigns but yet, gosh… the company’s ad agency won some award for being clever and witty.
So when you sit down to write your headlines, think of this cautionary tale. Avoid the temptation to be clever and witty. Instead, get to know your target audience. Figure out their problems in relationship to the product or service you’re offering. And then distill that into a benefit that will make sense to them.
If I’m in need of a rental car, I want to find a car company that tells me they’ll deliver a car fast, inexpensive, and without all the hassles usually associated with renting a car.
John Caples, the headline mastermind, said this:
“Avoid the ‘hard-to-grasp’ headline—the headline that requires thought and is not clear at first glance.”
Clarity wins the day. If people can’t figure out what you’re selling at a glance, then your headlines aren’t clear enough. Just put yourself in your prospect’s shoes and you’ll quickly find the benefits to feature in your headline.