MeadWestvaco: An advertising story you can take to your banker

First of all, let me take a moment to thank my friends Gordon Hochhalter, managing partner, and Bob Goranson, account services director, at Chicago-based Mobium Creative Group, and their client, Marc Tannenbaum, marketing vice president at MeadWestvaco Corp. in Stamford, Conn., for having the guts to share this information with us.

For some reason, most business-to-business marketers think marketing communications expenditures are a deep, dark secret to be stored securely in the company vault, like the formula for Coca-Cola or Krispy Kremes. As a result, b-to-b marketing communications has become a craft that is stuck in the Dark Ages—little understood, appreciated or trusted by top managers. In some cases it’s a necessary evil, in others a discretionary indulgence. But in every case, it’s an expense of the black hole variety.

Now, thanks to Mobium and MeadWestvaco, I’m pleased to provide another piece of evidence that marketing communications is, in fact, an investment—one that will pay significant dividends for the knowledgeable investor.

Our story begins in 1998 with an anonymous printing paper called TexCover II. The name was derived from Texas where it was made, and “Cover,” which represented the majority of its applications (postcards, pocket folders, and so forth). TexCover II had many redeeming qualities, most notably, it was easy for printers to use and was “forgiving” of on-press variation. Unfortunately, not enough people were aware of those qualities. TexCover II was stuck in fifth place in its category, with annual sales of less than $40 million.

Enter the creative folks at Mobium, who conducted some basic customer research to find out what people thought of TexCover II (if they thought of it at all). Those who were regular users liked its consistent, predictable performance for the most part.

So the creative recommendation was to give the product a snappy name, Tango, and a memorable slogan, “always performing,” which put the spotlight on its favorable qualities. For example, one of the introductory ads showed a coffee-drinking contortionist with the headline, “If you’re looking for a challenge … don’t use this paper.” The reasons: quick and easy folding, flawless stamping, trimming and die-cutting. The summary copy line was, “Tango, the most forgiving C1S cover you can use.”

Another early ad featured a father and son fire-eating team with the line, “If you like a little excitement now and then … don’t use this paper.” Why? Because it’s stable, reliable, without defects or long drying times. You get the picture. Sales went up 27% the first year.

The second year they expanded the product line, adding single and two-side coated versions. The creative was consistently brilliant, with insert ads showing a child in a fire truck on one side (I wanted to be a fireman … ) and a circus daredevil diving through a flaming hoop on the back ( … but I was born to perform). Each ad in the series played off the “always performing” theme with reasons that printers could appreciate—flawless finishes, stellar stamping, reliably gorgeous ink holdout, and so on. MeadWestvaco even created a special Web site (www.tangopaper.com) for all the details. Sales went up 34%.

Along the way, collateral material and swatch books were produced, and an integrated direct mail campaign was aimed at midsize printers. The Web site was customized to allow customers to request precut paper samples or direct contact from a salesperson. There was an 800 telephone number for customers to locate the name of their nearest distributor. And training sessions for the sales force to help them better understand the product positioning and take that message to the marketplace. Sales went up another 18%.

In the most recent advertising phase, inserts feature distinctive, humorous illustrations by Mark Frederickson with apprehensive performers being helped along by the always-performing Tango brand paper. Leon the Chameleon Comic avoids off-color performances (no blue hue, no yellow cast). Marty the Mental Marvel can actually fold socks with his mind (reliable die-cuts, folding and scoring).

And despite an industrywide recession these past several years, Tango sales have continued to climb, although at a more modest rate. The result is that these marketers have taken a No. 5 also-ran product and in four years turned it into a strong No. 2 contender that is now pushing for category dominance. They have doubled the business, going from $40 million to $80 million in annual sales. And they have maintained profit margins in the midst of a difficult economic climate.

But here’s the message you can take to your banker(or more importantly, to your CFO): To get an incremental $126 million in sales, MeadWestvaco invested only $2 million in all marketing communications activities over the four-year period. That’s a 6,000% return on investment. The product is essentially the same. The competition hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s different is the way the product is promoted.

It’s amazing so many b-to-b marketers continue to overlook the marketing communications trump card, but they do. They’ve bought into the old wives’ tale that advertising is an expense. And they earnestly believe the way to protect the bottom line is to clamp down when times get tough.

In short, they just don’t get it. Maybe this story will help change that, but I suspect we’ll need more evidence. If you’ve got some locked away in your company vault, send me an e-mail. I’d love to share it with Marketing News readers.