What would one of the most disruptive and flamboyant entrepreneurs of the 60’s make of our new digital age… how would he exploit it… and what does this tell us about modern marketing?
Due west of Palma, at the far end of a majestic golden-sanded bay, there used to be a famous beach bar. It’s long gone now – buried under some hideous concrete and chrome luxury apartments. But, in the 1980s, this was a watering-hole of choice for the great and the good – and, to be brutally honest, the not so good. Indeed, it was this heady mix of high and low life that gave the place its edgy fascination. I loved it.
One afternoon whilst idling over a late lunch with friends, my attention was drawn to a boat inching its way into shore. In truth, the arrival of a new boat was nothing special – there was always a flotilla of small ski boats and modest cruisers moored in the bay. But this was no ordinary dayboat. This was an extremely sleek, expensive Italian craft. And it was manoeuvring into dangerously shallow waters.
Fearing that I was about to witness a very costly insurance claim, I was relieved to hear the sudden rattle of an anchor chain. Simultaneously, there was a barely audible hum of electric motors as the entire stern section began folding outwards to form a wide flight of steps that slid gracefully into the sea…
And at this point, the owner emerged.
To say that I was mildly surprised, is an understatement. Instead of the expected playboy clutching his latest squeeze, I was looking at a nervous 50-something, wearing a large life-jacket and clinging to the hand-rail with deep apprehension. But as I watched him negotiate the steps, there was an instant flash of recognition. This timid mariner was, in fact, one of the most audacious entrepreneurs of his era. A disruptive marketing genius who reinvented retailing, killed the iniquities of retail price maintenance and, as the Economist observed, made the ‘customer king of price as well as design’.
His name was John Bloom.
On the knocker
Bloom grew up in London’s East End at the height of the Blitz. He survived as a battle-hardened opportunist and, after National Service, went ‘on the knocker’ – becoming a door-to-door salesman for a washing machine company.
It was a formative experience. Rigid price maintenance controlled by a cartel of powerful manufacturers kept retail prices artificially high and way beyond the reach of the average consumer. An absence of bank loans and accessible credit only added to the misery of post-war Britain. A nation of aspirations – most of them empty.
Inequality is a rich and fertile ground for entrepreneurs. Bloom seized his opportunity and persuaded a Dutch manufacturer to supply a ‘twin tub’ – washer and spin-drier – model for his discount marketing venture. His proposition was simple and beguiling… a brand-new ‘twin tub’ for just £40.95 – half the price of massively inflated, shop-bought machines.
With a gambler’s instinct, Bloom put every last penny (and all that he could beg or borrow), on one risky roll of the dice. He placed a huge advertisement in the Daily Mirror – if it failed, he would be bankrupt.
The next morning, in his rented fourth-floor office, Bloom waited anxiously for the morning’s post. It never arrived. Not a single letter dropped through the door. As he looked out of the rain-smeared window, his future looked as bleak as the weather. So, he never noticed the red van pulling out of a side street. Never saw it cruise to halt outside his building. Never saw the driver walk to the back and fling open the doors. But he was woken by a sharp rap at the door.
The sight of that sweating postie, holding two bulging mailsacks, was a vision of pure beauty. “Here’s your post… and there’s another five sacks down in the foyer. Do us all a favour guv – next time, get an office on the ground floor!”
That single advertisement generated over 7,000 coupons – each one requesting an in-home product demonstration. The gamble had paid off. Bloom’s vision of affordable white goods and accessible hire purchase… his savvy understanding of consumers… his unorthodox approach to marketing… his mastery of direct response advertising… and his sheer courage in challenging the established players earned him an instant 10% slice of the market. And the successes just kept coming…
He started manufacturing his own white goods. He added dishwashers and refrigerators to his product range. By the end of 1963, he was selling 200,000 machines a year and was the UK’s largest press advertiser. Bloom was living the dream – but then came the nightmare.
The establishment fought back. They waged a vicious price war aimed solely at destroying him. The retail trade association also launched a £100,000 campaign to combat direct selling. As a consequence, Bloom was forced to spend more on advertising just as his sales were slipping. And the coup de grace came when an 11-week postal strike strangled all coupon deliveries and the banks called in their loans. In July 1964, Bloom had no option but to throw in the towel and the business went into voluntary liquidation.
It was a sad day for the people’s champion. But it wasn’t the final chapter…
The Financial Times reported that: ‘If the British economy is not sufficiently competitive, if established industry is too solidly wedded to price maintenance, we need more John Blooms not fewer of them.’
And, in The Times, Ralph Harris – Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs – wrote: ‘Mr. Bloom has already done more for economic growth in Britain than many of its verbal champions in the National Economic Development Council and elsewhere.’
And this brings me neatly to a fascinating question: what would this disruptive, flamboyant force for free enterprise make of today’s digital marketplace?
Well, my answer is unequivocal. He would devour it.
- He would be dicing and slicing data to define and target new markets… to better understand buyer needs and motivations… to test and tune selling messages for sector audiences… and to make every penny of advertising deliver ever more profit.
- He would be milking every last drop of potential from the new digital routes to market and exploiting social media in every known (and very often unknown) way.
- He would be experimenting with remarketing, affiliate marketing and the exponential power of viral marketing.
- He would be embracing advocacy marketing – using his maverick, buccaneering status (in much the same way as Branson) to harness loyalty and enhance referral marketing.
- He would be bending his innovative mind to creating new digital selling ‘hooks’ that turn curious consumers into committed customers. Remember, this was the man who offered customers 2-for-1 deals (such as a free refrigerator with every washing machine) forty years before BOGOF.
- He would also be inventing new ways to motivate and incentivise his own sales staff. Back in the 60s, Bloom rented the fabulous Villa La Fiorentina on Cap Ferrat. He offered it as a coveted prize for outstanding performance – a sumptuous holiday destination for top sales people.
But – and this is the big proviso – everything in Bloom’s business mantra was driven by one, all-important imperative. And the clue to that unbending priority is to be found in the title to his 1971 memoirs: ‘It’s no sin to make a profit’.
Whether you are running a small start-up or a global corporation, no business can survive without profit. Bloom measured everything against this blunt, bottom-line reality. And anything that didn’t measure up and deliver was rejected.
For this reason, I think he would be very suspicious of the performance stats and acronym-strewn ‘science’ that has grown up around digital marketing. And I share some of that disquiet – let me explain why…
‘Bounce’ and ‘Click-Through-Rates’, ‘Quality Scores’, ‘Share-of-Voice’ rankings and a host of other statistical measures are all useful tools. They certainly help to benchmark the strength of a company’s messaging, the stickiness of its content and the competitive appeal of its core marketing collateral. But in some companies, these tools have assumed an importance far beyond their statistical merits. They have become the key measure for judging a company’s marketing performance – and this is a dangerous aberration.
Bloom, I strongly suspect, would have seen this logic as insane. As a hardened retailer and direct-response expert he knew the basic truth: window-shoppers are NOT customers. Equally, ‘Eyeballs’ are not buyers. Some can be converted into profitable customers – they are definitely worth cultivating. Many more are casual browsers, retail grazers or, worse still, time-wasting tyre-kickers.
Equally I think he would view ‘Hit’ rates with the same healthy contempt. Companies that judge marketing performance on ‘Hit’ rates – and many do – are badly misguided. A ‘hit’ is merely a file request to a Web server. A request for a webpage counts as a ‘hit’ – so does a simple request for a webpage graphic. Most ‘hits’ are mere enquiries and to award them greater commercial significance is, to say the least, unwise.
But Bloom’s greatest scorn would probably be directed at the squandering of time, money and resources on very questionable marketing pursuits
The 60s were an age of aspiration; today we live in an era of expectation and self-gratification. The digital age has spawned a demand society. Thanks to smartphones and digital devices, consumers have become freeloaders – demanding more free apps and ever more free products and services to feed their ego-centric lifestyles. And companies openly compete to satisfy this insatiable appetite.
In the B2B service sector alone, the amount of free material – blogs, articles, videos, newsletters, hosted forums, sponsored chatrooms, webinars, podcasts, white papers, case studies, surveys, you name it – is staggering. Much of it is of a very high quality and created by people who are genuine subject experts. Sadly, a lot of it delivers limited – sometimes very minimal – bottom-line value. Here’s why…
Sharing knowledge is a noble principle. But how do you turn principles into profit?
Fluxx is a brilliant answer and exemplar. Fluxx, a member of the Clustre community, is an innovation firm that unlocks the hidden potential of companies. Not only is the pedigree of its client list impressive, but so also is the breadth and quality of its marketing. ‘The Plan Sucks’ is just one in a series of books which this team self-publishes. Packed with information and insights, it is also witty, off-beat, highly entertaining, challenging and hugely thought-provoking. No wonder, it is heading for a third re-print!
For many companies, such popularity and acclaim would be good enough. But not for Fluxx. Every piece of marketing has to earn its keep. It must have multiple ‘hooks’ or action lines to convert delighted readers into dedicated clients.
‘The Plan Sucks’ has ten of them – more hooks than a mackerel line. You can talk to the managing director… check out and chat to clients…stalk the company on LinkedIn… follow Fluxx on Twitter or Instagram… attend an Experimentation Studio… access case studies… catch more innovation insights on medium.com… you are truly spoilt for choice. Here is a company that really understands marketing and the absolute need to capitalise on and convert ‘warm’ followers. Fast.
Unfortunately, this discipline is not practised by all companies. Many – possibly as many as 40% – do not have any hooks in their marketing material. And those that do, often have such feeble hooks – ‘to learn more, please get in touch’ – that they fail to snare any interest. People just read, listen, watch and then move on to the next free offering.
Bloom understood the need to trap interest and turn curiosity into action. Every one of his marketing initiatives was driven by this imperative… and predicated by a simple but beautifully elegant logic. ‘Bloom’s Law’ is as valid today as it was in the 60s:
- Identify Needs & Frustrations. Listen to and understand your market. Target the customers/clients with real needs and deep frustrations. Define what’s keeping them awake at night… and what would make them sleep easy.
- Focus on the Sweet-spot. Package your product or service to precisely meet those needs and frustrations. Then distil it into the most concise, appealing and compelling proposition.
- Find the Right Hooks. Catch interest and seduce people into taking action – without hooks, most articles, blogs and videos are just an intellectual vanity.
- Choose the right Channels. Constantly test and trial new channels – online and offline, digital and analogue, above and below the line – to keep enriching the media mix but…
- Monitor Performance Ruthlessly. Put in metrics to measure every channel and be quick to axe any that don’t perform. A swift execution is always preferable to a prolonged and costly loss.
- Beware of One-trick Ponies. Many of today’s most successful marketing campaigns exploit a trans-media strategy – adopting the very best of digital and traditional marketing solutions. Unfortunately, a growing number of ‘marketing experts’ have little or no experience outside the digital arena. Remember… to someone with just a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I last saw John Bloom as he waded nervously back to his boat. He died earlier this year and we are all the poorer. Bloom was a true innovator who possessed a shrewd understanding of people, a steely grasp of marketing plus the courage to challenge the oppression of price maintenance and the retail establishment. He was both flamboyant and flawed, but business needs more entrepreneurs with his audacity and disruptive genius.