Norm MacDonald – Marketing Genius

An odd little quirk on my resume that not many people know about is that I spent eight years as a stand-up comedian. I guess “stand-up” is kind of superfluous, because there aren’t many people out there calling themselves “sit-down comedians”, but that’s a different discussion. In those eight years, I probably did two or three hundred shows with Norm MacDonald. We shared an agent and we’d often get paired on the road together. As a result, I knew Norm’s act like the back of my hand. He used to have a bit about getting engaged to his girlfriend, and the impractical nature of a diamond ring.

Here you go — nothing! Just a useless hunk of rock they dug up out of the ground. If you ask me, a better gift would be… like… an engagement stereo.

Norm MacDonald

Norm was on to something that most marketers would be well-served to pay attention to.

I was at a client’s office the other day when I noticed that all the computers in the office had these blue cables hanging out of the front of the computer. Upon closer examination, I discovered that they were the coolest USB chargers I think I’ve ever seen. There’s the regular USB plug that connects to the computer, but then attached to that are a Lightning adapter for newer-model Apple devices, a USB-C adapter for Android phones and iPads, and a Micro-USB adapter for older phones, too. All connected to a little piece of plastic that contains a pretty powerful little flashlight. “What a cool little device,” I thought to myself. Then came the really cool part.

I flipped over the flashlight, and there was my client’s name, website and phone number.

My client’s ridiculously cool freebie (bad Photoshopping to remove their details courtesy of Me).

They were handing these out as freebies. And, much like Norm’s engagement stereo, it’s a freebie that people actually need, and would actually use.

Contrast that with one of the prized trinkets still handed out by some radio stations and other businesses: The Dreaded Key Fob.

I remember working with one station where the Marketing Director was especially proud of the key fobs he had ordered – they were pewter, and die-cut in the shape of the station logo. These were billed as “Limited Edition” key fobs which, not surprisingly, met with limited interest.

Why? Let’s dig into that a little.

Key fobs, themselves, are really handy little gadgets. All your keys, held together in one cohesive bundle, with the ability to add or remove keys at will as your needs – or, as may be the case, as your locks – change. It’s hard to imagine a pocket or purse with more than one or two keys where there wasn’t a key fob put in charge of the wrangling. Chaos would almost certainly ensue otherwise. There are really only two groups of people who don’t have a need for a key fob: People who don’t have anything that locks, and people in movies like Deliverance who keep their keys on a chain that’s attached to their pants. So there’s no question that key fobs are incredibly useful, and in North America, practically everyone over the age of sixteen needs one.

Then why am I quibbling with using them as freebies?

It was – according to the Internet it was – around 1983 when keyless entry systems started to become common in North American cars. You’d push a button, and you could lock or unlock the doors from a few feet away. The 1993 Corvette would even lock or unlock the doors by detecting that the fob was close by. You didn’t even have to go through the exhausting work anymore of… you know… pushing the button. Ten years later, cars started popping up that had factory-installed remote starters. So never mind locking and unlocking the doors, you could even start your car while it was in your driveway – perfect for those cold winter mornings when you needed the heater to get a head start. In 2016, BMW even had one that would allow you to change the car thermostat remotely from up to a thousand feet away.

The point of this history lesson is this: If your car was built after 1983, chances are it came with its own key fob. And chances are it’s critical that you have that key fob on your person at all times. Because in some models, the car won’t even let you use the fancy push-button starter in the dashboard unless it detects that the key fob is within a few feet of the button.

So who needs a radio station key fob? Almost nobody. When you go to the radio station event, and you meet your favorite host – an experience that is almost universally underwhelming for both the listener and the host – you get The Dreaded Key Fob, and it goes straight into that household Black Hole, the residential Purgatory known as The Junk Drawer.

Congratulations, Marketer! You gave your customer something that they not only don’t need and won’t use, it’s going straight into a collection of other crap they have no use for. After all, who doesn’t want their business to be associated with junk?

It’s like – forgive my friends who still do this – the real estate agents and car service centers who, every September, send me a glossy photo calendar for the upcoming year. Does anyone really still use a wall calendar? Or, more specifically, do enough of your target consumers use a wall calendar that it justifies the expense? Or are they just providing a soft place to land for the ridiculous, impractical and just plain heavy pewter key fob? I have a calendar on my smart watch, my phone and my desktop computer. They’re all synchronized, and they all remind me of appointments and events I have coming up, often with entries that are often created by the calendar itself when it detects the details of an appointment in an email. Wall calendars sit on one place, don’t sync with anything, and they only remind me of things if I happen to glance for the 74th time at this month’s photo of cuddly puppies.

Before you forever tie yourself to the cheapest tchotchke you can find on, ask this very important question: For whom is the benefit in this “gift”? Is it for your customer? Or is it for you? Because there’s a ton of difference between a gift that the recipient will love, and a gift that allows you to check off a box on your marketing task list. If you’re a radio station, for example, why not give me Bluetooth earbuds in a branded charging case? Are they more expensive than a keychain? You bet. Will every pair end up going to someone who will actually use them? Without question. Would you rather give away 100 sets of earbuds that get used? Or 10,000 key fobs that wind up in a junk drawer?And before we leave this example… what a cool, yet subtle tie-in to your business, with the implied message, “Hey, since you’re going to be listening to something anyway…”

If you really have it on your Marketing calendar to send me a trinket in September, here’s a suggestion: Cut your mailing list by 75% and instead, with the money you saved, send me an ice scraper with your name on it. Not one of those crappy ones that you see for seven dollars at Wal-Mart – the ones that crack and fall apart the first time you have any real scraping to do, leaving you longing for the good old days with the plastic boxes cassette tapes used to come in. No, send me one that will last me through the winter. Yes, they cost more than a photo calendar. But every time I have to go out and scrape the windows (because I forgot to leave the defroster on last night to trigger with my key fob), I’ll see your logo and maybe, just maybe be grateful for the connection to you.

Maybe even grateful enough that I’ll offer you that engagement stereo you’ve been hoping for.

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