Keen-eyed pharma blogger Maxine Vaccine makes her Pf debut with a look at a classic instance of creative branding.
One of the classic literary studies of marketing is ‘The Lame and the Halt’, written by American journalist Ellis Parker Butler just over a century ago. His character ‘Perkins the Great’ is a brilliant entrepreneur from whose methods we can still learn much about the commercial side of pharma innovation.
The story begins with Perkins and the narrator, his business partner, discussing the possibilities of spring water from an obscure rural district known to the locals as ‘Skunk Swamp’. Perkins describes the product as “sulphur water with a touch of garlic”. His first idea is to sell it as an oral medication for rheumatism.
With the economy of the born marketer, he explains why rheumatism is the ideal target market: “It is prevalent.” He already has the core idea for his marketing campaign: the product will be sold through advertisements across the USA with the catch-phrase Perkins pays the freight.
The real breakthrough comes with his realisation that the product will meet with too much customer resistance as an oral medication. But if customers are advised to bathe in it, not only will they not have to taste it, but they will need to buy more of it. With this application of customer insight, a winning brand is born.
Perkins and the narrator set up a factory on the edge of Skunk Swamp, and are going into business when Perkins has another idea. To add value to the customer service, they can invite customers to save the labels from the massive bottles of spring water – and for every six labels they send back, they will receive the deeds to an acre of the land the water came from.
They target ‘rheumatism districts’ across the USA with a poster and magazine ad campaign – to great effect.
Things get complicated when the Grand Rapids Rheumatic Club of Chicago turn up outside the factory to inspect their “real estate holdings”. Perkins and his business partner make a strategic exit from the market by catching the first train out of town.
Needless to say, this story is a gentle satire on advertising in the days before the FDA. Nothing like that could happen now. Imaginative branding has to be built on the solid foundation of a product whose efficacy is beyond doubt.
But the way in which Perkins innovates his commercial offering – first by introducing a brand-defining procurement concept, then by modifying the product’s application to improve customer targeting, and finally by rewarding customer loyalty with a unique extra benefit – deserves our admiration.
And so does his nerve.