The “Law of Polarization” | Narrow is the Gate to Paradise in Direct Marketing

One of my key principles in marketing is that you will never stand alone if you stand for something.

I first discovered how true this principle was when I was a student at Dartmouth College back in the early 1980s. I was one of the very few conservative Republicans on campus at the time.

I knew of maybe five or six other students who were also conservatives.

We got together and started a renegade conservative student newspaper called the Dartmouth Review.

Many of the articles were humor and satire. The paper caused shrieks of outrage across the campus. There were protests outside the Review offices.

The college administration tried to shut down the paper. It would not allow the paper to be distributed in student mailboxes or placed on tables in any Dartmouth facility for people to pick up (or not) as they wished.

When we distributed the paper door-to-door in the dorms, we were chased by campus police. The Dartmouth faculty assembled and voted 113-5 to denounce the paper and recommended that the paper be banned from campus.

Review editors were hauled before the college disciplinary committee on absurd trumped-up charges and recommended for expulsion.

One Review editor was charged with having photocopied a press release that was in plain view on the bulletin board at the college news service. He then used part of it for an article he was writing for the Review. He was charged with theft. He escaped punishment after a full day of Kafkaesque kangaroo court hearings.

But a funny thing happened.

Students came out of the woodwork to join the Review.

We quickly had scores of students writing for the paper, selling advertising (for 20% commission), and helping to distribute the paper in the dorm rooms and across campus, chased every step of the way in Keystone Cops fashion by overweight, huffing-and-puffing campus police.

The paper was controversial. It was also a fun place to hang out.

I wrote a subscription solicitation letter to all Dartmouth alumni.

The college produced a directory of all alumni, so we simply keyed the list into a computer. We knew nothing about direct mail marketing at the time, but I figured this list was valuable.

I wrote a letter describing the paper and what we were trying to do.

I made it very clear that this was a conservative student newspaper with an edge.

Another point I stressed was that the paper would give alumni the truth about what was really happening on campus.

No longer would alumni have to rely on the official Alumni Magazine (written and created by Dartmouth’s fundraising department) for their news about what was happening at Dartmouth.

My letter was four pages, plus there was an order form.

We mailed it at bulk rate since we could not afford first-class postage. We also mailed it in stages because we could not afford to mail all alumni at once.

Without knowing it, we were doing many things right.

I had written a letter because we could not afford a slick four-color brochure (I did not know then that letters are always best and that slick brochures almost always depress returns).

We were also testing and then rolling out as the letter proved successful (again, having no idea that this is the correct procedure in direct mail marketing).

Not only did subscriptions pour in, we received several $1,000 donations, one $5,000 donation, and even one $10,000 contribution.

We soon had more money than we knew what to do with. In fact, we quickly had a yearly budget of about $200,000—not bad for a few students.

The Dartmouth Review soon became a major student enterprise. In fact, it’s still publishing today, 27 years later.

What made the Dartmouth Review such an astonishingly successful student marketing venture was that it stood for something.

The controversy this renegade student paper generated attracted a lot of media attention.
CBS’s 60 Minutes did a story on the paper, as did ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel. The editors, including me, appeared on all the morning TV news programs.

The point is, if you stand for something, especially if it’s controversial and in the minority, you will gain followers.
And your followers will be committed and loyal to you.

This is why Rush Limbaugh has been such a successful radio personality.

The more outrageous he is, the more he is attacked, the better he does, because the more his audience likes him.

Ann Coulter is making a very profitable career out of saying controversial, often outrageous, things. Her books are always bestsellers.

Michael Moore does this on the left.

This is called the “Law of Polarization” in marketing.

And it’s a well-established law. If you kick up controversy—almost no matter what the controversy—you will gain attention and you will attract followers.

The point is, when you stand for something, and when you are attacked for your position, your friends, those who like you, those who agree with you, will rally to your side.

“The enemy of my friend is my enemy too” is the logic here. “If the people I oppose don’t like this guy, he must be doing something right,” is another way to put this principle.

Being controversial and outrageous may be the easiest way there is to make a lot of money.
Howard Stern understands this as well as anyone.

There are few radio personalities more successful and profitable than Howard Stern. He is attacked all the time. I don’t like him much. But there he sits, laughing all the way to the bank.

Every commercial enterprise can apply this principle to improve its marketing and selling.

In all your marketing, tell your prospects why you are different, why you are not at all like your competitors. Often you can do this by going against conventional wisdom.
Here are some headlines that capture this idea:

“What Wall Street Doesn’t Want You to Know About Investing”

“Why Doctors Won’t Tell You About Herbal Remedies”

“Why Most Diet Plans Will Actually Make You Fatter Than if You Had Not Gone on a Diet at All”

Defying conventional wisdom, by definition, differentiates you from the crowd and gets attention for what you are doing. Defying conventional wisdom, by definition, tells everyone you are different.

You will do very well simply by doing the exact opposite of what the conventional wisdom says you should do.
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a terrific example of how this can work for a run-of-the-mill product where there is almost infinite competition.

How do you make ice cream different?

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream became popular at exactly the same time we were being told every day to get rid of all the fat in our diet—that fat was terrible for us, that fat was the leading cause of heart attacks.

Ben & Jerry’s made no secret of the fact that it contains more fat per scoop than any other major ice cream brand. It also tastes a lot better, precisely because it’s so thick and creamy—precisely because it contains so much fat.

In marketing, the more identifiable you are, the better you will do. Never try to be all things to all people. Never worry about controversy.

In fact, controversy can be great for you, your product, and your business.

Controversy will get you noticed, will attract attention. And as long as your position, your stance, has a constituency, your path to profit is a clear one.

Your task then is to find your constituency. More often than not, if you are at all competent, your constituency will find you.
All you have to do is put the bait in the water. Turns out a lot of people did not want low-fat ice cream.
Turns out a lot of people do not care what the Surgeon General thinks. Turns out a lot of people just want ice cream that tastes great, no matter what the fat content.

Turns out people were sick and tired of blandness and sameness in their ice cream.
What they wanted was Cherry Garcia.

So be different. Never be afraid to say exactly who you are and what you stand for. Stake out your role. Never shrink from controversy, as long as it’s defensible controversy.

The “conventional wisdom” is almost always wrong anyway. The great thing about the conventional wisdom almost always being wrong is that you will become automatically controversial simply by clearly stating the truth.

And controversy will cause people to talk about you, and this is good for your business.

So don’t worry about controversy and don’t try to be all things to all people in the vain hope of gaining a greater market share. If you keep these principles in mind, you will attract loyal followers.

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