Joe Sugarman

7 Figure Secrets of a Marketing Legend

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Joe Sugarman is one of the all time greats of marketing and advertising. Once named the “Mail Order Maverick” by The New York Times, Joe is the owner of JS&A Group, Inc which is behind some of the biggest marketing campaigns in recent history.

He is also the author of many best selling books on the topic of direct marketing including Triggers, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook & Advertising Secrets of the Written Word.


Joey Bushnell:  Hello everyone, this is Joey Bushnell. I have with me today an absolutely fantastic special guest, Joe Sugarman. Joe, thank you very much for being with me today.

Joe Sugarman:  Well, it’s wonderful being with you Joey, thank you.

Joey Bushnell:  Joe, can you just let us know how you first got into marketing and advertising?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, when I was in high school, I was a photographer. I was a school photographer and I had my own column and people would enjoy the column but it was a very conservative school and so I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say.

Finally, I decided, you know what? I’m going to come up with my own newspaper, my own magazine. So that’s what I did, but I had to sell advertising and I had to recruit writers, so it was my first experience and it was eye-opening, just to get people to advertise in your publication.

But it was very successful, we made national news for doing it and we did well. We only had one issue, but it was a great issue and everybody enjoyed it and I went on to college to enter journalism. I was going to be a journalist, didn’t turn out that way, but that’s what I intended to be.

Joey Bushnell:  OK. And you have had quite a long, celebrated career since then, Joe. What would you say would be just the highlights of your career?

I know you have a few books that you published, which I’ve read, which is what prompted me to get in touch with you so what would you say are some of the best bits of your career?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, we were the first company to introduce the pocket calculator, the integrated circuit. We were the first company to introduce digital watches, and this is back in the early 70s. We were also the first company in the world actually to take credit card orders over the phone.

Joey Bushnell:  Wow!

Joe Sugarman:  As a matter of fact, it was illegal at the time, you had to have your customer’s signature but I’d get calls from customers that say “I need that calculator right away, please could you send it?” I’d say, “Well, I need your signature.” He says, “Well, just sign my name,” so I would, and I noticed that after several months that nobody ever took advantage of it and it was kind of confidential.

I said, “You know what? What if I put in my coupon, credit card buyers, call toll free,” which I did. What happened was we were deluged with phone calls because Bell Systems had just come out with their toll free customer service lines and so we took advantage of it to sell product. We did this for like six months and nobody, you know, the credit card companies, instead of preventing us from doing this, just were quiet.

Then we get a call from Bell Systems here in the US and they said “Hey, we know what you’re doing, we’ve been following your success and we want to publicize what you’re doing in the Wall Street Journal in a full-page ad”.

So they did and that really helped direct marketing tremendously because catalogs proliferated during that time, call centers opened up, I mean, it was just a whole revolution and it was funny, it was just the one little thing, that serendipitous opportunity that I took advantage of and it turned out to be a great money maker for me and of course it brought the entire direct marketing industry one level higher.

Joey Bushnell:  Brilliant.

Joe Sugarman:  Yeah, so the toll free number, I’d say that was probably among my best successes.

But also we were one of the first to do infomercials, one of the early home shopping people that sold products on home shopping. As a matter of fact, I’ve been in London so many times on QVC there in London, several years, and really enjoyed London. I enjoyed the people and it was just great fun and I continued to innovate in different areas.

Joey Bushnell:  Fantastic and if you don’t mind me saying Joe, you’ve been decades in the industry and the type of ads that you write, they are million-dollar kind of ads, aren’t they? You know, we’re talking pretty big league here, aren’t we?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, you forgot probably one of the most important things and that was that I started a company called BluBlocker Corporation, selling a pair of sunglasses called BluBlocker and that product, we sold 20 million pairs and we used infomercials and print and we used home shopping and we used just about every conceivable marketing method and some months selling as many as 300,000 pairs. This is all over the world, including of course, England and the common market, the Euro.

So anyway, it was a huge success and that was probably my biggest success. But I’ve had a lot of others and probably the biggest thing about me is I’ve probably failed more times than anybody can possibly imagine and it’s through failure that you learn and you grow and eventually you’ll be successful. Just the key is never to give up.

Joey Bushnell:  Sure. Thank you for that. Alright Joe, so the questions that I wanted to ask you today, they are inspired by the books that you’ve written and I just wanted to go through some of my favorite bits and if you could just sort of let us know a little bit about them and maybe at the end we’ll discuss some of your books as well, if that’s okay.

My first question for you, in your book Triggers, you talk about product nature and I was just wondering if you could just let us know what product nature is and why it’s so important to understand it well, for creating an advert.

Joe Sugarman:  Well, product nature. Let’s say I was selling a burglar alarm and what I’ve learned about selling burglar alarms, because we did, actually we were one of the top companies selling burglar alarms through the mail. What I learned was that people would tear out the ad and not respond, they would just keep the ad. Then when their neighbor got robbed or if there was some bad experience in the neighborhood, then they’d take out that old ad and they’d read it and then they’d give us a call.

So the nature of that product was that it was something that when people felt a real need, when it was something where circumstances created the need, they would then respond. Well, you have to know the nature of your prospect.

Another good example is I was sitting in my bedroom upstairs in my home, all of a sudden I see an ambulance pulling next door to my neighbor’s house and out goes my neighbor who had a heart attack and died.

Now prior to that, I had this insurance agent constantly calling me, telling me I should have insurance and he’d come to my house and buy a few pocket calculators, so he became a friend. Then when my neighbor died next door, and he was a young guy, I was really shocked, I called up my insurance guy, the guy that had been badgering me, and I said, “Hey, you know that insurance you were talking about? I think it might be a good idea.” So that’s product nature.

Joey Bushnell:  OK. You talk about prospect nature as well Joe, is that linked with product nature?

Joe Sugarman:  Yeah, you’ve got to understand your customer. You’ve got to learn everything you could possibly find out about, what is that customer about. In my books I talk about some beautiful examples of that, where if you discover the nature of your prospect, and again, that comes through in learning about that, you really have a powerful, what we call a psychological trigger.

I think a real good example that I learned this from was, there was this guy that was the best salesperson in this store that sold television sets and washing machines and everything like that. He was the most successful salesperson they’d ever had. He was retiring and he was going to give his speech and he decided he would tell everybody what he did.

What he did was he would look at the people that would walk in the store, he would just be standing on the sidelines and then when he saw somebody turning the knobs of a television, he knew that that person was a good prospect.

I hope that answers your question but I’ve got a lot of examples of the nature of prospects and how you can determine how to deal with them and how to interact.

Joey Bushnell: OK. One of the things you talk about in your books as well, you basically say that you can, when someone is reading a written ad, that you control the buying environment, similar to when someone is in the shop, they’re in a buying environment but when I first read this, I thought, “Well, how can you possibly control it where someone is reading your ad, how do you control the buying environment?” So I was just wondering, how do you do that in your adverts? How do you control the buying environment?

Joe Sugarman:  Yeah. I mean, if you’re going to sell an expensive product you want your ad to reflect the quality of that product. You want to create a buying environment where people will feel comfortable.

A good example is I went to an art gallery where the paintings were on the floor and it was kind of slacky looking and I didn’t expect to pay much for any painting that I’d buy there but I went to another gallery and they had carpeting and they had pictures where they hung on the wall and there was real comfortable chairs where you can sit and discuss things, so I expected to pay more for that as well.

So buying environment often is reflected in different ways and you can reflect that also in copy.

Joey Bushnell: What do you mean by the “slippery slide” when it comes to copywriting?

Joe Sugarman:  When people see your advertisement, the first thing that attracts them is the headline and maybe the sub-headline and maybe the captions for the pictures and maybe the paragraph headings—in other words…

The whole idea of the slippery slide is to get you to read one of the elements and that element is so persuasive or so curiosity building that you want to read the second thing, like the sub-heading. That would be so curiosity building that you’d want to read the first sentence. When you read the first sentence you might be so curious, “well, what is it?” and then you read the second sentence and the third sentence.

So you create like a slippery slide, you create something where you can’t get off, you keep on reading because you’re so compelled through curiosity and through a bunch of other techniques that you read the whole ad.

They say that if you can get the person to read the first two paragraphs and you’re doing a good job of copywriting, that person will read the entire ad. I’ve proven that. I’ve written an entire ad where the payoff of course was at the very, very end and sometimes these ads are extremely, they’re extremely wordy.

Joey Bushnell: Sure. I guess that means that there’s no room for boring or redundant paragraphs, every single paragraph has to really own its place in that case?

Joe Sugarman:  That’s correct.

Joey Bushnell:  OK. In your books you also talk about how emotion is all important in copywriting. There are three emotions that you specifically mention as well that I’d like to ask you about, Joe. So how does guilt come into play in marketing?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, you know, it’s making a person feel a little guilty. Ever get these mailings and they have address labels in there? They say please respond and please send us $20 and you feel kind of guilty because they sent you this gift. Sometimes they’ll send you a dollar bill and they’ll ask you to fill out a survey and you feel kind of guilty because they sent you a dollar bill but you spend about a half hour filling out a survey and your time is pretty valuable, so that’s a kind of guilt.

Guilt is used in a lot of different ways. I talk about several different ways that you can use guilt in causing somebody to taken an action and purchase your product simply by feeling, “Gee whiz, I really feel guilty unless I buy this product or I buy this service.” It works for products and services.

Joey Bushnell:  OK, how about hope? How does that help us with with our ads?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, some products, like for example vitamins, you buy it on the hope that the vitamins you’re buying are going to help you and are going to make you feel better and are going to make you healthier and prevent disease or whatever.

It’s hope, you’re selling hope, you’re selling opportunity —and in my books I explained how to use the power of hope to sell things that typically would be very difficult to sell.

Joey Bushnell:  Sure. OK. So we covered guilt and hope, and then last of all, greed. Why should we remember greed when we’re writing an advert?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, because people respond to strong price points, or low prices. We had, for example, a product we started selling for $59.95, and the manufacturer got really upset because he said everybody is selling it for $69.95 and you’re undercutting everybody, so what we did is we ran an ad and we said in the ad that look…

“We’ve got the wrong price point, but for the next two weeks we’ll let you purchase it at this lower price point,” and it turned out that little ad that we placed worked so much better than the original ad.

The bottom line is people are attracted to bargains, even if you’re a wealthy individual, you will be attracted to value and that’s basically what greed relates to.

Joey Bushnell:  Sure, yeah. I totally get what you mean. If you can get it for less than what you’d expect to pay and of course you’d much rather do that than pay more than you have to, of course.

Okay. My next question Joe, was you talk a lot in your books about satisfaction conviction and that’s not a term that I’ve really heard anywhere else, so what does that mean?

Joe Sugarman:  You’ve heard of the 30-day trial period, the 60-day trial period and basically it says, “If you’re not happy, return the product within 30 or 60 days and we’ll give you your money back.” Well, a satisfaction conviction goes way beyond that.

A good example is when we were selling BluBlockers on television, we said, “When you get your BluBlockers, if you’re not happy, even if you’ve waited, two, three years, you can return it and get all your money back. Well, that was a satisfaction conviction, basically it was saying that you’ve got to be satisfied or you’re going to get your money back.

Another example of satisfaction conviction is we were selling a digital watch and at the time, digital watches sometimes had problems with them. We addressed that head on, we said, “Hey, if you have a problem with your digital watch, call us up, we’ll send you a loaner watch and we’ll send you a box to put your defective one and send it back to us.”

Well, that was a good satisfaction conviction because we were saying basically if you have any problems at all, we want you to be very satisfied and we’ll replace that and it won’t cost you a penny and as a matter of fact, we’ll send you a loaner watch in the process and that promotion did exceptionally well.

Joey Bushnell:  So it’s kind of going really that extra mile to make sure that the customer is going to be satisfied, yeah?

Joe Sugarman:  Yeah, absolutely. All these things could be grouped into 3. We have 31 psychological triggers and all of them could be actually grouped into 3 different categories.

The first category is to create an environment, a buying environment.

The second one is to create trust in your prospect, in other words, where there prospect trusts you.

The third is something that will trigger a sale.

Satisfaction conviction is a very powerful tool to trigger a sale. We have had examples where we’ve had 1,000 word ads, 2,000 word ads, and we changed just 1 word at the end of an ad, changing the satisfaction conviction slightly, and response will double. I give a lot of examples of that where you can double response simply by a strong satisfaction conviction.

Joey Bushnell:  OK. You also talk in your book about linking and again, that’s not really a term that I had heard up until I read your book. So what is that and why does it help us?

Joe Sugarman:  It’s very difficult to sell a miracle, a miracle product. You have nothing to compare it to, it’s usually a major breakthrough or whatever.

What linking does, is it links what you already know with the slight advanced improvement that your product has.

For example, I go back to the early days of the calculator when Cannon came out with a calculator that you could program the memory and it will hold all your telephone numbers. Now, of course today that seems almost too simple, right? But back then, that was a major breakthrough, but how do you sell that?

What we did was we related it to a pocket, we called it the pocket Yellow Pages and we linked it to something that people understood, Yellow Pages, a directory, and we explained of course, how that worked. So that’s what I meant by linking. You link it to something that people already understand and can take the next step in terms of being convinced that your product is really a special product.

Joey Bushnell:  Brilliant. OK. You also talk about exclusivity and why is that a powerful factor? What is it about exclusivity that really attracts people to a certain product?

Joe Sugarman:  I use an example where I had snowmobiles at my estate, I had an estate up in northern Wisconsin, snow country, and I had several snowmobiles because I would be giving seminars up there and I’d have my seminar participants using the snowmobiles.

Then I went to the snowmobile dealer just to see what was new and he showed me the new model that went 100 miles an hour on the lake. I said, “Who would care about that? That’s kind of ridiculous.” He says, “Oh, no, no, you don’t understand, this is real popular, in fact we only have two of them and that’s all we’re going to get for the whole year.” I said, “Gee whiz, let me get one then.” In other words, because it was exclusive, it attracted me because I wanted something that was really different.

When do you use that? You use that when you’re selling art or collectibles or things that are very exclusive and very few people will have. It’s kind of satisfying your ego really because you’re getting something that very few people have. If you can convince people—and I show several ways of doing it—if you can convince people of its exclusivity and its rarity, you could trigger a sale.

Joey Bushnell:  OK. You also talk about mental engagement, which is kind of leading the prospects to reach the conclusion that you want them to but you make them feel as if they reached that conclusion on their own. That sounds quite difficult to me, how would you go around doing something like that Joe?

Joe Sugarman:  I use one example in the book, talking about a digital watch that was produced by Seiko that was so much less expensive than another particular model that was very popular and I explained — “Jewelry stores love this because they sell the product for $300 and it only costs them $150”.

Now what I don’t say is those jewelry stores are making a fortune and it’s the mark-up that’s causing that but people perceived, people came to basically that conclusion.

So it’s letting the customer reach a certain conclusion without you having to be very obvious about that conclusion, and that is a very effective thing.

People, believe it or not, when they exercise their brain, they’ve done brain scans where the brain just becomes alive as opposed to hand feeding and giving people what information that they need. Causing them to think activates the mental mechanism and people tend to respond to that.

Joey Bushnell:  And of course it’s much more powerful if someone believes that they’ve convinced themselves. No one likes to feel that someone else convinced them or changed their mind but if they feel that that’s their own conviction, then of course it’s much easier to make a sale, surely?

Joe Sugarman:  Joey, that’s exactly right. Absolutely.

Joey Bushnell:  My final question for you, Joe, is about editing. I would imagine that when you’re writing an advert, when you’ve done a first draft, there’s lots that has to be chucked out the window. Any tips for us when we’ve written something, how do we edit it, refine it, make it, bring it to that final version?

Joe Sugarman:  Well, in my opinion, the most powerful thing you can learn is how to edit because everybody can write, people tend to either write too much or too little but it’s in the editing process that you really refine the ad.

Every word has an emotion, you sell on emotion and you justify with logic, is basically what it is. The things I look for in my ads, I look for rhythm, where you start out with a short sentence and then you have a longer sentence, then a shorter, then two shorters, then a longer. In other words, you vary the ad so it creates a certain rhythm, and that’s really important.

The other thing is, always look, for example, for the word “that”. If you say something like, “And it’s very clear that,” you can take out it’s very clear, or “It’s been really known that,” you can take out everything before the word that, so if you see the word that, determine if the words that precede that are really that necessary, see if you can really eliminate those.

You want simplicity in your sentences, you don’t want any complicated words. There are always easier ways to express yourself without having to be too complicated.

The bottom line is, in my book I talk extensively about the editing process, I go through several examples of things that you could do to tighten up your copy and make it very effective.

By the way, if I haven’t mentioned this already, your ability to write copy, your ability to write advertising that sells people, that sells a prospect, that causes a person to buy, is an extremely powerful tool that could build a business literally overnight. I have several examples in my lifetime of building businesses overnight that didn’t exist before I sat down to write the copy. It relates to editing because editing is the key, if you want to be a great copywriter, you want to learn editing. That’s one of the things that I teach in my books.

Joey Bushnell:  Joe, I just want to thank you so much for doing this interview with me, it’s been really fun to do this and the information that you’ve given us today is just absolutely brilliant.

Can you just tell us a little bit about your books because I’m sure the listeners want to get more because like you mentioned, there’s 31 psychological triggers and we’ve only covered maybe a handful of those today, I’m sure they want to know all of them. So please tell us a little bit about your books?

Joe Sugarman:  They're being sold on I have a book called The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, and the sub-heading on it is The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Advertising and Marketing Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters. In it I have all the psychological triggers, I have all the various axioms and techniques and things that people don’t realize.

This goes beyond the original book, Triggers, which is now out of print. This particular book has all the psychological triggers and all the axioms and the techniques. Also a lot of examples of ads and how you can create that slippery slide and how you could link very easily and all those very helpful things. It’s called, again, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook and you can get it through, it’s sold throughout the world.

My biggest thrill is getting letters from people who have read that book and said that they started a business as a result and they owe their success to reading it. I’ll give you a beautiful example of this. My friends over at Google, they ran a promotion and they got a response and then this one guy read my book and he rewrote the ad and they ran it again and they got triple what they normally would have gotten. As a consequence I gave a lecture there, I spent three days at a seminar teaching them how to write really good, great copy.

So these techniques work, they work very effectively and The Adweek Copywriting Handbook is I would say the book to get.

I’ve written several other books. One is called Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, it’s pretty close to The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, although The Adweek Copywriting Handbook is a little bit more recent.

I’ve written a book called Marketing Secrets of a Mail Order Maverick, that’s print advertising and how I used that to build businesses and sell product.

Then the final one is Television Secrets for Marketing Sucess, it’s all about my experiences on television, both in the UK and infomercials all over the place.

That’s about it, I’ve written several books, a couple of them are out of print and I’m considering reprinting them because we still get demand for them.

I just want to thank you Joey, for giving me the opportunity to share some of the ideas with your audience and any way I could help, please feel free to provide them with my information, I’d be happy to respond.

Joey Bushnell:  Thank you Joe. I just really want to thank you for the time that you’ve given me today and for the brilliant information.

Joe Sugarman:  Thank you Joey, I appreciate the opportunity.

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