Friday, February 17, 2012

The Little Ad That Could, Did, and Still Does

Not long after I started at the factory, the line was manufacturing a unit with an unusual added component, a bypass screen. Only engineers fathom the purpose of this strange plastic basket, shaped like a Chinese lantern and absurdly difficult to force into the other components. But work is work, and I dutifully took to forcing these sticky plastic annoyances into their slot on the filtration elements.

Fifteen minutes into my turn with the screens, a paper rectangle drifted down from the recesses of my part bin and dropped onto the line before me. I could see two business cards stapled together, with something folded between them. I couldn’t afford to examine it with the line running, so I stuck it in a corner of the bin and kept working. But when a machine went cockeyed a few minutes later, I picked the item up to take a gander.

The front business card announced Arlo and Nancy Stark, owners of A&N Plastic Molding, Inc., of Hastings, Nebraska—presumably a company with whom my employer holds a contract. Though the card gave an address and business phone, it included no e-mail or website, and a Google search later revealed only third-party sites.  The back read: “Thank you! Have coffee on A&N, 7-1-11.”

Folded between the two cards was a dollar bill.

Brief discussion with management led to the agreement that the dollar belonged to me. But much longer discussion among workers, after the line resumed running, led to the agreement that this company is smarter than quite a few better-funded and more aggressive companies. This small regional parts manufacturer did something most large corporations could not do: it got workers talking.

Boxes surrounded us on all sides, branded with supplier logos and websites. Sheaves of paperwork emblazoned with catchy mottoes fall out of every package and pamphlet. Workers have their hands in branded components every day. But none got us talking. This single pair of business cards, worth maybe a dime, with the folded bill between them, jumped out of that mess and made a real impression.

Mark Hughes, in his marketing textbook Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, advocates finding techniques to produce exactly this result. He recounts his own exploits finding ways to make people talk about his products, like getting a town to rename itself in honor of his dot-com start-up. Yet I have a hard time imagining he would have thought up this small, simple gesture, or the results it generated.

Hughes discusses finding new advertising media in today’s cluttered market. But he mentions, for instance, labelling his brand on urinal mats for the men’s room, or slapping his URL on the back of fortune cookie fortunes. Considering my adverse reaction when I see ads in public restrooms, I can’t imagine what Hughes thought when he selected urinal mats. Did he want me to angrily reject his product in advance?

By contrast, I can imagine what A&N thought as they tossed that folded dollar into a box of product, destined for a worker they would never meet. I suppose, in doing this, they must have asked themselves two questions:

  1. What end user ultimately handles our product?
  2. What does that user need?

Marketing professors might say the end user is whoever purchases the filters we manufacture. But I assert that such consumers will never open our filters to see what goes on inside the stainless steel shells. As long as the filters work, one plastic component will never cross their minds, or meet their eyes. We on the assembly line were the last humans to lay eyes on those bypass screens, probably forever.

The product brand did not intrude upon my time, as it would if it dropped out of my fortune cookie in the middle of family dinner. It was relevant to what I was doing at the time. And, though the company could not have known it would fall into the hands of a graveyard shift worker, the handwritten message offered the one thing most of us want at the end of a tiring shift: a hot cup of joe.

Today’s media landscape is awash in ads, most of which never penetrate our consciousness. Technologies like pop-up blockers and TiVo shield us from unwanted advertising. But by showing customers respect, and giving them something they need, A&N turned ordinary advertising into a meaningful connection. Which is why, six months later, I remember the incident, and still have their simple folded dollar.

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