Not Your Father’s Direct Response

In the 1990’s, only the most self-assured brand managers possessed the courage to suggest an infomercial or direct response television (DRTV) for a brand marketing campaign. Due to the strong images of hard-sell pitches for questionable products ranging from psychic readings to spray-on hair – images that remain closely associated with the medium to this day – stewards of trusted consumer brands kept their distance and rarely gave it a second thought. But that time is past. Today, emboldened by the extraordinary successes of trusted brands built with DRTV, a growing number of marketers are taking a fresh look at whether the tool should be integrated into their brand development strategies.

In his highly influential book, Crossing the Chasm, high-tech marketing guru Geoffrey Moore proposed that new technologies gain acceptance over time in a series of predictable stages. If we consider Direct Response a “technology” and brand managers as the “consumers” of it, the growth of “the infomercial” and other forms of Direct Response acceptance by brand managers will follow what Moore calls the Technology Adoption Life Cycle – a bell curve pattern of acceptance over time.

The curve yields powerful insight into Direct Response’s future. Chevy, AT&T, Dell and GEICO are among the influential consumers that proved the value proposition of Direct Response through their successful adoption of the infomercial as a means to educate and motivate prospects to act. These companies are at an early stage of Moore’s cycle called Early Adopters. The common thread with these Early Adopters is that some built their companies exclusively via Direct Response while others used it as a way to bring a product or service to market and cut through the traditional manner of doing so.

The “chasm” that Moore refers to in his title is the formidable barrier between the success of the Early Adopters and the ultimate goal, which is mass-market acceptance. The first stage of the mass market – the Early Majority – lies on the other side of the chasm. The chasm exists because the goals of the Early Adopters are very different than the goals of the Early Majority – in our case, that is the brand manager.  Early Adopters seek a tool to facilitate significant change.  In the Direct Response world, Dell, AOL, GEICO and others seek nothing less than a significant, even exclusive, competitive advantage. The Early Majority, on the other hand, seek incremental improvements, or increased efficiencies.  

Here is the exciting part.  

Over the last 20 years direct response tv ads have been appearing on prime-time television showing that Direct Response, as a brand development tool, has bridged the chasm with brand managers.  In 2002, Pfizer a pharmaceutical company with a well-established corporate brand, chose DRTV spots to initiate relationships with potential users of a product called Viagra. Viagra had already established a powerful brand through word-of-mouth and the popular press before the ads ever appeared.  As a result, thanks to DRTV, Viagra is essentially a household word.

Home Depot launched DRTV spots offering consumers three options to purchase featured products – call an 800 number, click on their website, or drive to one of their stores. These brands, like many other present-day examples, are looking to DRTV as a means of improving performance.

Viewing this phenomenon in the context of Moore’s model, I believe we are in the early days of widespread acceptance of Direct Response by a variety of brand managers as a brand development tool. And they are being won over not by well-worn arguments that focus on the measurability of each spot.  Instead, successful Direct Response service providers will demonstrate how their niche marketing expertise can be integrated into brand campaigns to yield incremental improvements. By making our case that “this is not your father’s Direct Response,” Direct Response service providers will have the best opportunity to cross the chasm and gain the acceptance and trust of brand managers with the most prized accounts. 

In addition to that, the most effective Direct Response service providers will be marketing companies first, and media companies second.  Terry Jones, the entrepreneur that brought The Load Handler to market using Direct Response, said that brand managers are looking for a service provider who will align their interests with the client’s. Historically, old school Direct Response firms simply ran through as many clients and their products as possible, and weren’t really concerned if the product fit the medium, as long as the client could pay.  Such media-based Direct Response factories are going to have to adapt if they want to get those prized accounts as well.  A new wave of Direct Response firms are hard at work now that focus on the needs and marketing strategy of the client to see how Direct Response media can be aligned with their plans, rather than the other way around.  


  • Jim Warren

    Jim Warren began his professional career in the television and production industry working in Southern California where he discovered that he had a natural sales talent. Combining this talent with his love of film and video production, he built (and eventually sold) the largest infomercial production company of its day. Jim learned how the direct-response industry is an effective training ground for an analytical thinker who loves measured marketing and business metrics. With today’s focus on accountable marketing and online media, those lessons provided him with the advanced insight and skills needed for today’s online metric-driven business model. Connect with Jim Warren on LinkedIn

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