Hit enter to search or ESC to close

The Beauty of Ugly

ugly duckling in black and white

A while back (as in almost 15+ years ago) a job landed on my desk. It was for a potential new client. They were a local window installer. A family owned company. Their marketing efforts for years had been nothing but discount offerings. The same way a local car dealer always seems to be having some kind of sale. Their product wasn’t cheap, they installed national brands, but it was always “Get three for the price of two!” or some such offer that dominated their messaging. And like a car dealer, their ads would also sometimes feature family members whose acting skills were fairly questionable.

I think you get the point.

The job we were given was kind of a test for the agency. It was a test to see if this client wanted to work with us full-time. We were to update a direct mail campaign they had been running, for which they had had a fair amount of success.

As one would expect, it was a discount offer. But this offer was only sent to people who had done business with this company before. It was a better deal than they offered to the general public, but because the offer was only for previous customers, they had already gotten some of these people’s money, so they could be a little more generous with their offer. In the end, it was a pretty good deal and maybe that’s why they’d had some good response from their previous efforts.

For reference, the client had sent us their previous direct mail piece, which was an oversized postcard. Creatively, it wasn’t much to speak of. No concept. No clever headline. Just big type with this special offer.

Applying the Makeup

My art director and I took one look at the piece and felt that it probably wouldn’t be too hard to improve upon. It looked like it had probably been done in-house and heavily influenced by the hand of the Ugly Fairy, who repeatedly beat it about with her ugly wand and then kicked it a few times with her ugly feet just for fun.

Based on the kind of work this client had done for years, it seemed like they really weren’t looking for anything too crazy and the agency didn’t want us spending a lot of time on work the client wasn’t interested in investing in. Again, this was just a “test.” The idea was to simply update the mailer with new dates, legal disclaimer and perhaps some new type faces. Maybe, if we had the time, slap a little lipstick on this pig.

We did that, and then went a little beyond to also offer up a “nicer” version. This way they’d have several options to choose from. The second option was a very tasteful design that still had everything the client had in their ugly design, but this one didn’t scream quite so much, and actually had a concept behind it. We didn’t change the offer, just how it was presented.

The work was then presented to the client and they decided that they wanted to go with the “fancier” design. They were actually intrigued by it. They had never worked with a “big” agency like ours before and had probably never had a seasoned designer and writer work on a project together.

Now believe it or not, most creatives like to know how sales go. Yes, we like to win awards for our work (and for the record, research shows that ads that win awards are shown to be 11 times more effective at delivering business success than those that don’t) but we also like to think that people are paying attention to all of our hard work. It gives us some comfort in knowing that all our efforts to improve haven’t been for naught.

So when the results came in, and sales were down (remarkably so) we were not only distraught, but confused. How is it that a tastefully designed piece had just gotten its butt kicked by a design that looked like it had been put together with dull scissors and duct tape by a colorblind six-year old?

Even the client was confused. In the end the only conclusion that anyone could come to was that in the case of this window company, ugly sells. The thinking was that it sells because when people who are in the market for windows (which can be expensive) see a “nice” looking mailer, they instantly believe that the windows will be expensive and they’ll be something that they won’t be able to afford. And the window installation business is littered with plenty of cheap options.

Needless to say, the agency didn’t get this particular client’s money and based on what this client’s current web site looks like, they have continued to embrace the concept that ugly sells. Can’t really argue with success though, can you? But then not every window company out there does ugly work.

So what really went wrong?

I personally think that one of the things led to the failure of this direct mail campaign was that in an effort to do “higher-quality” work for this client, we went where we, as marketers, always warn our clients never to go. We went “off-brand.”

All this client had ever done was low-brow, scream-at-the-audience creative. We decided to give them something “better.” We upped the sophistication factor to the point where it looked like a “new” window company was knocking on their client’s doors. Someone they hadn’t dealt with before. Maybe their customers were even thinking this offer was coming from the high-end line of windows that this client sold.

Like in the movie My Fair Lady, we tried to take an Eliza Doolittle and turn her into something she wasn’t. Then we paraded her in front of her old friends and no wonder they acted like they had no idea who she was.

So is it true that only ugly sells? Well, obviously in this case that was the conclusion that people came to. But, that said, I’ve also experienced the case where expensive-looking can also be an asset. Even if you’re the cheap offering in the category.

An example would be a client I worked for early on in my career. This client was a national brewery with numerous brands. I just so happened to be working on what was referred to in the business as the “popular-priced” brand of theirs. It was their cheap beer. But did they do cheap advertising for it? No sir.

The plan of attack was to do advertising that was on par with their premium brands, but then when customers got to the store and had to choose between the other cheap beers that did cheap advertising, and their cheap beer, that did high-quality advertising, the majority would go for the latter. Perhaps even confused why this beer, whose advertising looked to be so high-quality, was actually so inexpensively priced.

The strategy worked like a dream. We were the cheap beer that looked like a top-shelf brand, while our competition were the cheap beers that looked like, well, cheap beers. And sales were going up, every quarter, year after year.

Lesson learned? Well, the fact is, ugly can sell. Like I said, this window client is still in business today. I’m not aware of what their sales are as compared to back when we worked with them, but they made it through the recession, while many companies didn’t.

And just take a look at your local car dealer’s marketing efforts. Ugly as hell in most, if not all, cases. And probably if you took those ugly-as-hell ads and tried to turn them into Lexus commercials I’m betting the results would be the same as the results we got with our highfalutin direct mail campaign. Lowfalutin sales.

Then again the “cheap” beer I worked on can still be found on the shelves today and in 2015 occupied two of the top 8 categories for beer sales in the U.S., which gave them close to 520 million dollars in sales.

In the end, a few questions you might want to ask of yourself (and your company) before releasing any marketing piece to the wild, would probably include these:

  1. Is the work “On brand?”  Unless you’re looking to change who you are (which is another post altogether) look at in the context of the other work your audience has seen and compare it accordingly.
  2. Have we considered the target?If previous customers were first drawn to you by the “frugality” of your offerings, what makes you think they’ve changed overnight?
  3. Are we true to ourselves?There’s a saying in theater about the clowns always wanting to perform Shakespeare. It means wanting to be more than you are, when really your strength lies in your true self.

My advice. Be true to yourself. Marketing can be confusing enough.

indianapolis pyramids in front of lake

Element Three is a modern marketing agency for discernable brands. We build trusting, long-term relationships with clients whose destination is market leadership, fusing traditional, digital and inbound tactics to tell bold stories audiences can’t resist. We don’t rely on single tactics, stay loyal to any one medium, or favor one discipline over another. Instead, we go beyond the tried to find the truth about your customers. Using research and participation to deliver seamless brand experiences.