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Redesign: I Read It in the Funny Papers

Marketing innovation doesn't have to come at a high price. Sometimes all it takes is understanding who your customers are -- and what will make them laugh.
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Re: Design

Just who, exactly, is Dr. Direct, and why is Tim Scott, vice-president of business development for Brooks Instrument, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturing company, his biggest booster? The unlikely pairing of Scott, a real-life engineer, and Dr. Direct, a whimsical comic-strip superhero, is at the heart of a grassroots marketing campaign that's garnering a lot of attention in a traditionally low-profile industry.

The fictitious character -- who is always accompanied by his trusty sidekicks, an edgy parrot and a brainy dog -- is being used by Brooks Instrument to publicize the Quantim precision mass flow controller, a product the company considers the most innovative in its 56-year history. The surprising campaign -- as well as the process Brooks used to create it -- sheds light on how small businesses with little marketing background can produce innovative, low-cost strategies that work. The experience has taught Brooks that the company's best marketers are found inside the business, people who really know their products and their customers.

Since its founding, Brooks Instrument has been producing devices that measure and control the flow rate of fluids used in manufacturing processes. And for all those years the company has relied on the standard marketing package for its sector: earnest, information-crammed manuals and brochures. But its totally innovative product -- one that used unlikely scientific principles to add precision and adaptability to the manufacturing process in a completely new way -- demanded a radically different marketing approach, Scott figured.

To come up with ideas for that approach, Scott enlisted the help of two Brooks employees who were intimately familiar with the technology and the quirky scientists and engineers who were Quantim's target market. Though Scott participated in each of the team's meetings, he gave its members autonomy to come up with any approach they wished. His position as a senior executive of the company ensured that ideas could be green-lighted immediately. On hand to help bring the pair's ideas to life were Alan Gladish, president of Praxis Communications, which is Brooks's marketing firm, and freelance copywriter Art Levy. "We had no preconceived ideas going in," says Eric Heilveil, a Brooks product-marketing manager who was on the team. "We were free to make mistakes."

When Scott's team members came out of their first Quantim brainstorming session, in February 2001, their startling strategy involved a cartoon, a superhero, and loads of insider "geek" humor. By all accounts, a comic strip would be a marketing first in the industrial-instrumentation space, where dull and dense is the leitmotiv of most promotional literature. Dr. Direct was silly, unorthodox, even risky -- and 15 months later, is a resounding success.

Dr. Direct debuted as an online comic strip in May 2001. Each strip cost close to $1,000, split between fees for an illustrator and a writer. The superhero could be found saving the processing day at places like "Acme Megachem" and "Acme Biotech." The first series included 16 weekly episodes that potential customers could access by logging on to the Quantim site. There they could follow the exploits of Dr. Direct as he wielded Quantim to conquer real-world manufacturing problems.

Dovetailing with the online offering, the team came up with a 14-page color comic book to serve as the centerpiece of Brooks's sales push at Semicon West, a key semiconductor-industry trade show that introduced Quantim to the sector's major players in July 2001. In honor of Dr. Direct, Brooks employees donned lab coats and passed out stuffed parrots as a way of luring customers to the company's booth. The effort accomplished its goal. Every few minutes the same scenario would take place at the booth, says Heilveil: gawky engineers would read the comic book and begin to laugh. As the engineers filed out of the booth Heilveil overheard comments like "Neat" and "Cool idea," accompanied by knowing chuckles.

The Quantim team unknowingly accomplished something that all companies will have to do in their marketing efforts, says Sam Hill, president of Helios Consulting Group and coauthor of Radical Marketing. In a brand-busy world, Hill says, companies will be forced to learn how to fuse the medium and the message. "Consumers have gotten very good at chewing the advertisement but spitting out the commercial," he says. "Brooks created an advertising message that was inherently interesting in its own right but one where the consumer can't have Dr. Direct without Quantim."

Heilveil admits it isn't hard right now for Brooks to stand out in its market. Still, the comic book didn't cost any more than traditional brochures do, totaling $12,000 for design and printing. After Dr. Direct debuted at Semicon West, Brooks saw a 50% increase in sales leads, says Scott. The comic book also pushed people to the weekly episodes on Quantim's site, which experienced a 30% spike in traffic.

The experiment didn't come without hazards, however. "If these things cause the target market to have a bad perception of the company or its product, they can backfire," says Leonard Lodish, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of Entrepreneurial Marketing. Heilveil personally knows of one potential customer who "thought the comic book was silly," he says.

And that's the conundrum in making something like this work -- ensuring that the irreverence will attract rather than alienate core customers. Hill thinks that the key to success is marketing what you know to people you know. "The idea that a 32-year-old male Wharton M.B.A. can effectively market incontinence products to a 97-year-old Hispanic woman in Miami is insane," he says. "But it happens all the time."

Which means that Scott's decision to involve Brooks employees familiar with its customers in its marketing campaign turned out to have been even savvier than he first thought. The team knew how engineers think -- and laugh. "Show the strip to traditional marketing guys and they think we're whack," says Scott. "But show it to some of our customers and they're laughing their socks off."

Brooks is planning to run another series of the comic strip, thanks to Dr. Direct's success so far. Though Scott declines to give out exact sales figures, he says that "we met our objectives for our first year, and we're projecting sales in year two to be between three and four times our results in year one." The marketing people at Brooks have gotten a bit attached to Dr. Direct. Will his shadow cloud their vision for the future? Probably, and that sort of sentimentality isn't necessarily bad, according to Hill. "Marketing is a little bit like romance," he says. "Professionalism is no substitute for passion."


Tahl Raz is a reporter at Inc.


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Related link:
Guide to Grassroots Marketing




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