Madison Avenue & Fido

Don Draper (Mad Men). He could take any product and craft an advertisement in print or on screen that really hooked people and made them buy. Cigarettes, floor wax, cars, burgers, shoes, mundane things were magically transformed by the ad men from “meh” to “I need that” or “I love that”.

Who can forget the iconic Coke commercial with all the young people singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony…”? (You have to be a certain age to have seen that one when it first came out, but it’s been recycled a few times over the years.) I will probably remember it, with very positive emotions, for the rest of my life. In the TV show, Don is ostensibly the creative genius behind that commercial. He’s the consummate ad man, who puts a face on a faceless megacorp and makes you love it, maybe despite yourself.

6cyoz7qxiNow imagine that Don, who has never done anything with his life but come up with marketing and advertising campaigns, decides he wants to manufacture dog food. Why? Because he looks at the numbers and knows that there are millions, maybe hundreds of millions, to be made in that segment. It’s a growing area, and he’s got the perfect marketing campaign to start to move in on it. It’s a financial decision.

He knows squat about pet food but that doesn’t matter, because the product itself isn’t relevant. It could have been any emerging product or industry, it doesn’t matter. The fact that he knows he can market it is the key. And Don is the ad man. So he invests some of the millions he made over the years (convincing everyone else to buy stuff they don’t need) and starts a manufacturing plant. The quality of the product isn’t important, except maybe that it doesn’t totally suck. Anyone can start a pet food company with no medical or nutritional oversight. It’s the Wild West, and Don knows it because he’s researched the segment.

Before the first kibble comes off the line Don is marketing hard. He has a brilliant strategy to carve out his piece of the pet industry pie. He has a multi-pronged attack on the existing players in the market, calling them names that he knows will resonate negatively with consumers and casting his company as the opposite, the good guys.

Big business“We’re not like the big corporations.” This is a great slur, even when his goal is to become the biggest of them all and dominate the market. But he knows that consumers these days don’t trust “big business” and that most are also just stupid enough to overlook the fact that it’s his business saying this. He is, after all, Don Draper. He’s been doing this all his life and knows how we think.

Don knows that one of the best campaign strategies of all is fear-based. If he can make people afraid of some aspect of the other pet foods, preferably one that they all have in common, and use that one trait as the basis for a marketing campaign, the consumers will come flocking to him. Again, the truth doesn’t matter. All Don Draper has to do is make up a good lie about some aspect of the competition’s product.

A good lie is good for a reason; it can be crafted to anticipate objections and appear unassailable. The truth is often complicated and messy and hard to package into a sound bite. Good lies that aren’t too specific work better in marketing. The real ad man knows that once people are afraid of something it’s very hard to convince them later that their fears were baseless. (We just need to look at the issue of autism and vaccines to see how well this works.)

fear-clipart-0511-1008-1201-0052_Bearded_Man_His_Eyes_Big_with_Fear_clipart_imageSo Don uses fear a lot. Fear of ingredients (grain, corn), or how the food is handled (“processed”), or where it comes from in the food handling chain (byproducts), or how healthy it is (“chemicals” are magical at inducing fear), or a pet owner’s worry that they aren’t being diligent or caring enough, or have missed the “next great thing”.

He wants his food to be comforting and socially acceptable.No scary ingredients (that he made scary in the first place). No scary chemicals (so he says; he knows everything in creation is made of chemicals, including all the “natural stuff”, but this sure sounds good). No shame when you tell your friends at the dog park what you feed. Guilt-free spending of your hard-earned money. Don Draper makes you happy to shell out 10-25% more money for his food than another, because he knows how to sell it to you.

Notice that the food itself has nothing to do with the success of his business. He doesn’t care about animals, or people (aside from the fact that they love their pets and have to spend their money somewhere). The quality of the food is irrelevant. In fact, if the quality is too good it’s actually bad for Don, because he owns the business and knows that top end ingredients cost more, which will cut into his bottom line. Don Draper is all about the sales, so he just needs something that won’t garner negative press by killing the animals eating it. That’s it. The bar is really that low.

And so Don goes on to more and more success. After a decade his now-huge corporation has cut a big chunk of the pet food market. Once again he’s proven he’s the consummate ad man, convincing millions of people that his very average offering is the best thing since Coke, and making hundreds of millions of dollars doing it.

We like Don Draper on Mad Men. For all his flaws, we like to see how his brain works and how he manipulates opinion and massages egos and plays to all of our wants and desires. He’s an entertaining character. But would you buy his dog food?

Apparently, yes. His real life counterpart is William “Bill” Bishop of Blue Buffalo, who is an ad man much like Don. His story appears to be much like Don’s. He’s not a veterinarian, or a farmer, or an animal advocate, or any of the other things we think people should “be” if they are making pet food. He didn’t start making dog food in his basement because he wanted a better way to feed his own pets. He was (and is) a marketing force, and started Blue Buffalo with the aim of marketing it to mega-corp status, not with some lofty goal of improving animal health or happiness.

I’m OK with that; I just don’t buy into it. It just goes to show that there are no new stories, and that truth is at least as entertaining as fiction.

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