The Hired Hand – Not just another blah-blah-blog

February 11, 2014

My predictions eerily came true

Filed under: Data,Direct mail — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:54 pm
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Bank of America logo

by Darcy Grabenstein

In my recent post about Office Max sending a direct-mail piece addressed to “Daughter Killed in Car Crash or Current Business,” I posed similar possible scenarios. I pondered the ramifications of a marketing piece addressed to “Overweight mother of three” or a rehab clinic sending an email with the subject line “Fallen off the wagon again?”

Well, my predictions became reality when Bank of America sent a credit card offer addressed to “Lisa Is a Slut McIntire.” The insult didn’t end there; the personalization also was repeated inside the mailer itself.

I can’t help but chuckle. This incident reminds me of the heyday of “Saturday Night Live,” when Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin traded barbs during the Point/Counterpoint skits. His responses to her began with “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

Luckily for Bank of America, McIntyre was somewhat amused as well. Not worried that her reputation would be tarnished, McIntyre promptly posted images of it on Twitter. The bank responded with an apologetic Tweet, and a staff member followed up with a phone call.

The data dilemma apparently is linked to the Golden Key International Honour Society, which was doing a joint promotion with the bank. In any case, it’s Bank of America and the society, not McIntyre, who should be worried about reputation.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Companies need to do due diligence when it comes to data.


February 4, 2014

Tag(line), you’re it – the ultimate mix-‘n’-match game

Filed under: Advertising — Darcy Grabenstein @ 12:11 am
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by Darcy Grabenstein

With the Super Bowl ads only hours behind us, I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to some of advertising’s most memorable – and some perhaps most questionable – taglines.

One of the more questionable that comes to mind is “RAID kills bugs dead.” Isn’t that a bit redundant? As my sons would say when one of us unsuccessfully tried to one-up the other with a joke, “You killed it.”

Let’s take a look at some truly killer ad slogans, but with a twist. I’ve assigned them to brands that I think would be much more appropriate.

After all, industry experts would tell you that a great ad slogan shouldn’t be generic. In other words, you shouldn’t be able to simply insert any company name and the slogan would still be applicable. Of course, Nike turns that theory on its head with its famous “Just Do It” campaign. You could, in fact, substitute just about any other company and the phrase would work equally well. Alka-Seltzer. Just Do It. … Expedia. Just Do It. … XYZ Grad School. Just Do It. I rest my case.

So if you’re ready for some post-Super Bowl fun and games, let’s get started.


Got milk? (California Milk Processor Board) —-> Evenflo® Breast Pump

Don’t leave home without it. (American Express)
—-> Hardware store duplicate keys

Where’s the beef? (Wendy’s) —-> Chippendales Male Revue Las Vegas

You’re in good hands with Allstate. —-> Massage Envy

You’ve come a long way, baby. (Virginia Slims) —-> Hospital Birthing Center

We bring good things to life. (General Electric) —-> Cryogenics facility

The quicker picker-upper. (Bounty) —-> Red Bull

Take it all off. (Noxzema) —-> Nudist colony

Just do it. (Nike) —> Just Dew it. (Mountain Dew)

And my personal favorite:

We try harder. (Avis) —-> (drum roll, please) —-> Viagra.

Can you think of any ad campaigns you think would be better suited for another company? If so, share them here.

Let the games begin..

January 31, 2014

What small businesses can learn from Super Bowl ads

Filed under: Advertising,Branding — Darcy Grabenstein @ 2:35 am
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by Darcy Grabenstein

Small businesses may not be able to foot the $4 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot, but they still can learn a few things from the big guys.

Brand building


Super Bowl ads are often more about branding than selling. Think
back to last year’s Super Bowl spots. Chances are, you may remember the ad but not the company it represented. Or the company but not the product.

Not every marketing effort has to be about selling a product or service. It also can serve to build your brand. While these marketing efforts may be more difficult to tie to the bottom line, over time you’ll realize their value.


Last year’s Super Bowl had over 100 million viewers in America. That’s a lot of exposure. Some viewers, like myself, watch the Super Bowl strictly for the ads (unless, of course, the Eagles miraculously make it to the showdown).

As a small business, you’ve got to know your target audiences – and which advertising channel is best for reaching them. Think quality, not quantity. You could advertise in a medium that reaches thousands, but if none of them are your target audience you could be throwing away your advertising dollars.


A little humor can go a long way in advertising. Of course, many of the Super Bowl ads go heavy on the humor.

Humor can only work if it resonates with your brand. If, for example, a funeral home used humor in its advertising that probably wouldn’t go over too well with the public.

Use humor judiciously. It should be used to give your company/brand a personality; it should not be the focus of the marketing itself.


Many of the most memorable Super Bowl ads are those that tug at the emotions. They capture moments that we all can relate to at some point in our lives.

Storytelling is how you bring emotion into advertising. It’s how you connect on a personal level with members of your target audience.

So, no matter which team you’re rooting for on Sunday, take a good look at the Super Bowl ads. Then see which advertising principles you can apply to your own marketing plan for 2014.

Photo: Flickr – One Way Stock

January 24, 2014

The downfall of data

Filed under: Advertising,Direct mail,Public Relations,Social Media — Darcy Grabenstein @ 3:44 am
Tags: , , ,


by Darcy Grabenstein

Office Max has taken targeted marketing a bit too far.

The company is making headlines after one of its customers received a direct-mail piece addressed to “Daughter Killed in Car Crash or Current Business.” Unfortunately, the data was spot-on.

The recipient, Mike Seay, had lost his daughter in a car accident a year earlier.

So how did Office Max acquire this information and, more importantly, how did it end up on an envelope addressed to Mr. Seay?

Office Max is pointing fingers at a third-party data provider.

No matter how the error occurred or who’s responsible, the incident raises questions about the data industry as a whole. Data sellers – and buyers – need to be held more accountable for the use of customer information, particularly sensitive information.

Privacy has long been a concern among consumers, especially in terms of online marketing. This, however, was a traditional direct-mail promotion.

The point is, it’s not the channel that’s the culprit. It’s the methods of capturing – and using – data that need to be revisited.

Can you imagine a mailer promoting a weight-loss product being addressed to “Overweight mother of three”? Or a rehab clinic sending an email with the subject line “Fallen off the wagon again?”

Office Max (after a manager initially doubted the error when Seay called to report it) followed up with an apology. It issued a formal statement, and a company executive called the Seay family to offer a personal apology.

But an apology is not enough. Office Max needs to take the lead and ensure that this type of incident won’t occur again.

What turned out to be a nightmare for the Seay family doesn’t have to be a PR nightmare for Office Max. It simply needs to revamp its data collection procedures, and encourage other marketers to do so as well.

January 1, 2014

Jingle sells, jingle sells… the ho-ho and ho-hum of holiday emails

Filed under: Design,Email marketing,Writing — Darcy Grabenstein @ 5:58 pm
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by Darcy Grabenstein

As we start a new year, let’s take a look at Christmas emails past. The 2013 holiday season was filled with promotional emails galore. Here are a few that caught my attention.

Black Friday

Gymboree gets the award booby prize for one of the earliest emails, hitting my inbox on Nov. 4. Home Depot, Lillian Vernon and weren’t far behind, sending holiday emails on Nov. 8.

Bebe brings it on with this headline: Bringing Sexy Black Friday

I’d like to give a shout out to these companies with subject lines that set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd:

Betsey Johnson
A Black Friday Offer You Can’t Refuse
☑Get your BLACK FRIDAY list ready | Over 500 Door Busters
Ready, set, click! Shop 500+ Black Friday Door Busters online.
$100 COUPON ends tonight! Black Friday Round ❷…
Current Catalog
❸ ❷ ❶ Black Friday Triple Offer Starts Now
☻☺☻☺☻☺☻ ☛
Ethan Allen
Black Friday Goes Red: Are you ready?
(I’m a sucker for alliteration…)
Black Friday Frenzy! 20% Off, Plus FREE SHIPPING!
(interesting how both the e.l.f. and Hartstrings subject lines were exactly the same; Hartstrings showed up first in my inbox…)
Imagine Toys
Tech the halls
(and in true J. Peterman style…)
J. Peterman
Unequivocal Blackness Today – Up to 67% Off & Free Shipping
Gift Ideas She’ll Definitely Take A Shine To + Free Overnight Shipping!
Judith Ripka
Bling in the New Year with Judith Ripka
Magic Cabin
Black Friday savings with all the fixings
(That one gave me an idea for a subject line for a Black Friday reminder email:
A second helping of Black Friday sales)
Nasty Gal
BLACK OUT—40% Off All Black Everything!
Nicole Miller
Don’t Go Cold Turkey – Shop Our Sale. Up to 70% off.
The Container Store
Oh! Oh! Oh! FREE SHIPPING on Stocking Stuffers

Both Ikea and Mod Cloth had similar headlines with a play on words that captured both the immediacy of the offers and their value:
Seize the days
Mod Cloth
Seize the deal

Mod Cloth also wins points for including content as well. The subject line – Feast your eyes on 5 Black Friday Tips + our fab 50% off sale! – says it all.

Modcloth email

Other headlines that caught my eye:

This should jingle your bells
(perfect branding…)
May all your holidays be clean and bright
those stockings aren’t going to fill themselves

When it comes to content, Wal-Mart does it right. The subject line – Be prepared with your Black Friday Ad and Map – tells you exactly what to expect in the email. The email includes a link to a store map so shoppers can navigate the aisles (and crowds).

Wal-Mart email

Cyber Monday

Here’s one subject line that caught my attention, as opposed to all the Cyber Week and other offers out there:

Cyber Sunday! FREE Shipping & Up to 50% OFF!

And now for the emails that made my list of nice and not so nice…


Fossil earns extra points for a compelling subject line – The feeling is virtual – and copy that pays off the concept, which is promoting e-gift cards.

Fossil email

Ugg also ties in its subject line – Looking for the perfect gift? You’re getting warmer – with clever copy:

Ugg email

Nordstrom also slips in a cute email selling slippers:


Vineyard Vines manages to tie in product to the holiday with both subject line – Check it out! New Sport Shirts are in… – and headline/imagery:

Vineyard Vines email

Tiffany brilliantly builds on its brand equity (See? I told you I like alliteration):

Tiffany email

And Dwell Studio puts a clever spin on last-minute shopping:

Dwell Studio email

These emails use compelling design to convey Christmas messaging. Nicole Miller keeps you coming back with its 12 Looks of Holiday:


Shopbop promotes its holiday boutique with a unique visual:

ShopBop email

And J.Crew separates itself from the rest of the pack with this simple email:

J.Crew email


Here are a few emails that made me go “Huh?” I think Bergdorf Goodman confused Christmas with Easter:

Bergdorf Goodman email

Neiman Marcus missed the mark with this one:

Neiman Marcus email

And Bumble and bumble lives up to its name. This email had me pulling out my hair over the headline:


Now that Christmas 2013 is behind us, what are your New Year’s email resolutions for 2014?

December 14, 2013

We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert – heartfelt apology emails

Filed under: Email marketing — Darcy Grabenstein @ 10:17 pm

by Darcy Grabenstein

First, let me send my sincere apology to Paul McCartney for using part of the lyrics from “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” I’m sorry if I caused you any pain.

As email marketers, we cringe over what can possibly go wrong with our deployments – typos, broken images, broken links. And we lose sleep at night over the even bigger bloopers – missing or expired promo codes, products that sell out before the promotion is over, website glitches and more.

Let’s face it – it’s not the end of the world (although it could be the end of a job, depending on the severity of the error).

What resonates with customers, however, is how your company handles such “whoopses.” A sincere apology – especially when combined with an additional offer – can go a long way to restoring trust in a brand.

In this example from Rocawear, the company speaks its customers’ language with “Our Bad!” The subject line – We Apologize – Take An Additional 10% Off – gets right to the point. What I find interesting is that Rocawear did not remove its sharing link at the bottom of the email. (Of course, promo codes like this end up on sites like RetailMeNot anyway.)

Rocawear - We Apologize - Take An Additional 10% Off

Humor can help turn a negative into a positive. This Forever 21 email is the cat’s meow:

SORRY! Our cat ate our website speed.

And this Lily Pulitzer email combines humor with genuine appreciation of its customer base:

Lily Pulitzer - We've taken party crashing to a whole new level

Sometimes an apology is expected/demanded, and sometimes it’s just a “nice to have,” as in this email from Bargain Catalog Outlet. When an item is unavailable, it’s more of an annoyance or inconvenience, so an apology email is simply a value-added gesture. The subject line draws you in: Ooops! Didn’t Get What You Wanted? … Please accept $10 OFF your order*. (However, not sure I’d include the asterisk in the subject line.)

Bargain Catalog Outlet email

Put “OOPS” in the subject line and you’re certain to attract attention, as in this one from OOPS – we didn’t mean to send that last email. email

The use of a Post-It® note in the email design is a cute way to say “We screwed up.” does eventually apologize, inserting a bit of humor, but doesn’t include any special offer to make up for the mix-up. (I do wonder what the previous email said, though.)

From a public relations perspective, your mea culpas shouldn’t be limited to email alone. If the problem affected a majority of your customers, such as the site was down, an apology on the home page is probably a good idea. Your customers probably will take to the social networks to air their grievances, so you should moderate these and respond when appropriate.

Sorry if I got a bit long-winded here, but it’s an issue that I am passionate about. Forgive me?

December 11, 2013

WestJet publicity stunt puts the ‘Merry’ in ‘Christmas’

Filed under: Public Relations — Darcy Grabenstein @ 3:19 am
Tags: , ,

WestJet video

by Darcy Grabenstein

Kudos to Canadian airline WestJet, which staged the perfect holiday publicity stunt, complete with a virtual Kris Kringle. Here’s the video – narrated with a script mimicking “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The video included a Twitter hashtag as well: #WestJetChristmas. (My only criticism is that the apostrophe is backward on the introductory frame of the video.)

WestJet managed to give customers with a good feeling about not only the airline, but about the dreaded baggage claim area as well. The airline is certain to get a lot of mileage out of this one.

Here’s my humble homage to WestJet:

’Twas a day prior to Christmas, when all through the land
PR people everywhere proclaimed WestJet as grand.
The preparations were made by WestJet with care,
including a video, which thousands did share.

You see, the virtual Santa was more than a display
for the lucky passengers who flew WestJet that day.
He asked each one what they wanted to receive
before they boarded the plane and were to leave.

As the passengers were flying up in the air
(like Santa and his reindeer, if you must compare),
WestJet workers were busy making a list
to make sure no passenger’s wishes were missed.

They bought all the gifts, which they proceeded to wrap
and brought them to the airport in a snap.
When the passengers arrived on the WestJet plane
they didn’t know they were part of a PR campaign.

Young and old alike approached the baggage claim
and as the conveyor belt moved, they began to exclaim.
Expecting to find their luggage and bags,
they found something else (and later hashtags)…

Instead of their luggage they each found a gift
and – just like an airplane – their spirits did lift.
Low tech, high tech, even a big-screen TV,
the passengers’ reactions were a sight to see.

The geniuses who envisioned this caper in their heads
deserve a standing ovation – it goes unsaid.
And the employees who willingly played Santa’s elves
thought more of others than they did of themselves.

WestJet had some help with its PR tour-de-force
from Best Buy, Under Armour and other fine stores.
So I say to WestJet, which knows how to do PR right,
“You certainly made the holiday season more bright!”

October 23, 2013

You had me at hello – welcome messages with “wow” factor

by Darcy Grabenstein

If first impressions are lasting impressions, then the welcome email is key to subscriber engagement. A welcome email – or series of emails – sets the brand tone and sets expectations of things to come.

A glance at my inbox folder full of welcome emails revealed many subject lines that read “Welcome to [fill in the blank].” Yawn. A couple of the emails had subject lines that began “A warm welcome from [fill in the blank].” How nice. Now show me the money!

Several subject lines did include offers, ranging from 10% to 15% to 20% to free shipping. Some subject lines only hinted at offers. Some of those offers had expiration dates (boo); others didn’t (yay).

Athleta’s subject line – Welcome to the Team! – is in keeping with its product line of athletic apparel. JC Penney’s subject line includes specific instructions on what to do to complete the subscription process: “Welcome! Just Open And Confirm Your Email.” Alrighty then!

Most of the email “from” lines simply have the company’s name. That’s a good thing, especially for a welcome email. Ruby Tuesday, however, takes it one step further; its “from” line reads: Ruby Tuesday So Connected. Panera’s is “My Panera” – a nice way of inserting a bit of quasi-personalization into the mix. That’s the name of its loyalty card, and the welcome email actually does include first name personalization, along with the card number (however, the image slice for the number personalization doesn’t line up exactly with the card image):

Panera welcome email

I’ve subscribed to many emails, particularly B2B, that rely solely on the ESP’s automated, cookie-cutter subscription confirmation email. There’s a missed opportunity here. If the ESP doesn’t offer customization of the opt-in confirmation, then follow up with your own branded welcome email.

Here’s a look at a few companies that do a great job of putting out the virtual welcoming mat.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. While the welcome email is important, so is the subscription confirmation landing page. It’s yet another chance to acquaint the subscriber with your brand.

Ruby Tuesday’s landing page includes a clever play on words:

Ruby Tuesday welcome landing page

In true Sally-Field-Oscar-acceptance-speech style, Zappos uses its landing page to thank the Academy its subscribers, then gives a snapshot of what’s to come.

Zappos welcome landing page

Its welcome email continues the tone (friendly, enthusiastic) and style (italic headline) of the landing page. I think the “XOXO” might be a bit overkill, though.

Zappos welcome email

Athleta’s welcome email resonates with its female audience, repeating the mantra “Power to the she”:

Athleta welcome email

Moosejaw is the master of irreverence. Its welcome email is a case in point:

Moosejaw welcome email

“Madness” perfectly describes the Moosejaw experience. And that’s OK. It’s what Moosejaw customers come to expect. Anything less would be a disappointment.

Woot is another company that’s delightfully cheeky. Even its name reflects a fun-loving, laid-back attitude. A couple of excerpts from its welcome email say it all:

Woot welcome email excerpt

Woot welcome email excerpt

The UK’s Innocent Drinks also uses humor effectively:

Innocent Drinks welcome email

Moosejaw’s and Woot’s irreverent tone is in keeping with each brand’s voice. However, if a luxury brand, such as Tiffany, tried this it would come off as inauthentic and offensive. Tiffany’s welcome email is true to character – simple, straightforward, and incorporating its iconic robin’s-egg blue:

Tiffany welcome email

There’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for welcome emails. Successful welcome emails – like any email – are those that are true to the brand and resonate with their audience. However, a company must live up to the expectations it sets for product, pricing, customer service and more.

Otherwise, it’s like pulling out the proverbial welcome mat from under your subscribers’ feet.

October 16, 2013

A copywriter’s take on subject lines

Filed under: Email marketing,Writing — Darcy Grabenstein @ 2:38 am

While email subscribers sign up for emails to save money on products/services, keep up with industry trends or simply to be entertained, those of us in the industry usually have ulterior motives when opting in to an email list. I subscribe to hundreds of emails – and to email subscription services like Milled, Mailboxr, Patroneer and The Swizzle – so I can keep swipe files on everything from copy to design to offers and more.

Often, I come across emails with subject lines that are so clever (or so bad) I’ve just got to share them with my colleagues. So sit back and enjoy the show….

A purr-fectly good example of a bad subject line

One of my copywriting mentors would cringe every time he saw “purr-fectly” used in conjunction with any cat-related product. I feel the same way about the use of “Egg” in this 87-character (!) Golf Warehouse subject line (bold emphasis is mine): Eggcellent Easter Savings! Free Ship + Egg-stra 10-15% Off Clubs, Clothes, Shoes & Bags.

The Golf Warehouse email design is not as lame as its subject line. However, the email doesn’t show any product. At the very least, it would have made for an interesting A/B test of offer vs. product.


I’ll give Golf Warehouse credit for creating a colorful, quasi-interactive, Easter-themed offer. It’s easier to carry out a holiday theme if your products tie in to the holiday, such as gift baskets, or if your company name ties in, as in this subject line from Newegg: NewEGG HUNT: Come Crack Our Mystery Egg! 

It is possible, however, to use holiday-related terms in your subject line, even if you have no direct tie-in to the specific holiday. This Bealls subject line is one example (bold emphasis mine): Hop Online for An Extra Day of Lowest Prices…. What I like about this subject line is that it uses a different verb (“hop” instead of “shop”) for the call to action. I’ve used a similar tactic in a subject line for an Easter sale reminder email: Hop to it! Sale ends today.

Great minds think alike

I’ll often find emails in my inbox with the same or very similar copy. Whether it’s a case of coincidence or copy(cat)writing, it makes me do a double-take (pun intended). Here are a couple of back-to-school emails promoting backpacks that caught my eye. The first one, from Journeys, had this subject line: We’ve Got Your Back. The design does a good job of showing breadth of product, but I would’ve preferred an inset with a close-up of one backpack so I could see more detail.

Journeys back-to-school email

The other email, from Jack Spade, had this subject line: Got your back. But that’s where the similarities end. This copy kicks Journeys’ butt, so to speak. It starts with a clever but on-target headline: ONE STRAP, TWO STRAP. The copy is concise, but filled with just enough details to encourage click-through (and aid in purchase decision): hands-free utility, starting at $125, sturdy materials. And the imagery shows the backpack in use.

JackSpade back-to-school email

During seasonal promotions such as back to school (and even more so during the Christmas season), it’s difficult to make your emails stand out with all the inbox clutter. This Sony email has a subject line that, while on the long side at 70 characters, hits the target audience and gives savings specifics: Big Deals on Campus | Save up to $500 on PCs + exclusive student offers.

Sony back-to-school email

Those of us who started in the industry as direct-mail marketers often compare the subject line of the email to the teaser of the envelope. It must be compelling enough for the recipient to want to read more. Otherwise, the both the email and the DM piece end up in the trash.

This post first appeared on the Only Influencers blog.

Check out Darcy Grabenstein on Google+

September 22, 2013

Mourning the loss of more American troops – on a personal level

Filed under: Social Media,Writing — Darcy Grabenstein @ 4:01 pm
Tags: , , ,

Facebook is a social network that keeps us connected with family and friends. It’s a great way to keep others updated on our lives, no matter where we are. We share everything from the minutiae of our daily lives to major life events. We take joy in others’ happiness.

And we drown in sorrow at others’ losses.

Today, I am drowning.

Life has its highs and its lows. Yesterday, I wrote about a most glorious day in New Jersey. Today, although the sky is a silken, sun-filled, cloudless blue, it might as well be dark and dreary.

It is raining on my soul.

Liam Nevins

Liam Nevins

Today I found out, through Facebook, that the son of one of my best friends was killed – ON BASE – in Afghanistan. This is incomprehensible. This happens to other people’s sons and daughters, right?

Liam had recently been injured and was due to come home soon. He was about to begin a new chapter in his life with Julie. The fact that he was killed on base makes it especially hard to swallow.

He one of three American troops killed, all members of a special ops team. They were military’s elite.

He wasn’t much older than my own two sons. I can’t help but find it ironic that he celebrated his 32nd birthday on September 11th.

For those of us who think we are so far removed from the conflict in Afghanistan, this is a stark reminder that we are not. We should be grateful every day for the brave young men and women putting their lives on the line for our country. For democracy.

I ask everyone who reads this to take a good look at this handsome young man. We need to put a face on our forces serving overseas, especially those killed in the line of duty. They are not just statistics. They are someone’s son, fiancé, brother, uncle, nephew.

Forgive me if I’m rambling. This all hasn’t quite sunk in just yet. Writing is a form of therapy for me, so I’m pouring my heart out here. (It’s hard to type when you can’t see the keyboard through buckets of tears.)

To my good friend, I can only hope that my words – and the words of condolence sent by many on Facebook – will be in some way therapeutical as well. We are all so very proud of Liam.

Check out Darcy Grabenstein on Google+

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