Good marketing can be as impossible as trying to read minds

Richard Farleigh
THE blond haired, middle-aged PR guru slouched back in his armchair and confidently announced his “stunning” idea to me. The little girl, Madeleine, had recently disappeared in Portugal and there was massive public sympathy and frenzied press coverage. To my sensitive agent, struggling to justify his hefty monthly fees, this represented a fantastic opportunity. “A major newspaper is looking for 10 wealthy people to each contribute equally towards a £1m reward for information leading to Madeleine’s recovery. I think you, Richard, should just offer the whole £1m. You’ll be a national hero and it will cost you nothing, of course. They’re not going to find her anyway”. Like any normal human being, I was repulsed at the idea of benefitting from others’ misery. My response was to politely terminate his services.

Why had I hired him anyway? From experiences like this, I’ve become sceptical of these expensive experts and found that, like many business skills, you learn most by watching others in action. Marketing is all around us, it’s very hit and miss, and it’s fascinating.

Sometimes, simple ideas are clever, such as Apple’s choice of white, Nike’s swish of a logo, or even a name: “Nikki Beach” (which is a restaurant/bar venue in the south of France that has a pool but no beach). Sometimes there’s controversy. French Connection scored a coup in the UK with the inspired branding “FCUK”, making us all think for a moment that we’re dyslexic. On the other hand, a pest control company in Australia, Flick, shied away from a similar opportunity when it advertised on motorway billboards. For a while they had their name spelt in big capitals before they realised what the word looked like approached from a distance. They quickly changed it to inoffensive lower case lettering.

Sometimes though, it is best to let things be as they may. A while back, a mate of mine, Peter, started a chess shop in central Sydney selling sets and books. He is incredibly untidy and there was stuff everywhere. “This will be a disaster if you don’t tidy it up Pete” we all said, with no impact. To our surprise, people loved his shop and business boomed. I can only think that customers assumed a shop that messy must be the cheapest. They also liked spending time rummaging around the disorganised books, with the joy of discovery being a bit like a garage sale. “Brilliant branding Pete.”

To top it all though, the best marketing stunt I have heard of was a few years back when a clairvoyant made worldwide news. She was suing someone. Nothing unusual about that, except that the alleged infringement hadn’t happened yet: she had “seen” it in the future.

Since the mid-1990s Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the United Kingdom.