Let me tell you a cool story I think you’ll like — one that taught me the most powerful advertising lesson I’ve ever learned.

I had a client in a mid-size midwestern town was the king of his category, not only in his town, but pretty much in the whole state as well.

He had a terrible voice for radio and we’d been using it in his ads, blanketing the airwaves with them for 20 years. And during that time, he had quietly but powerfully supported his favorite well-known charity. And by powerfully supporting them, I mean that when they had their annual banquet, he was seated up on the dais at the head table.

Now here’s where things get interesting: some of the radio stations we were on screwed up this clients schedule, and wanted to make up for it with gifts and freebies.

Typically, this takes the form of cruises, concert tickets, vacations, etc. And, just so you know, these things often go to the media buyer. But as a media buyer with integrity, I NEVER take these gifts and ALWAYS instruct my clients to never take them either. They’re not freebies — they are very, very expensive, as you’re essentially allowing the stations to “buy” your business loyalty with them.

In other words, we don’t like gifts, we like air time.

Of course, blanketing the air waves as we were for the business, we didn’t need the air time for ourselves. But the charity’s Make A Wish radiothon was coming up and my client decided to use those spots to advertise the radiothon.

With those marching orders, I got to work and negotiated a deal that made my client the main sponsor of the entire Radio-Thon while allowing us to blanket the airwaves promoting it.

Now, if you’re starting to wonder what this has to do with advertising, hold on.

See, when the radio-thon rolled around, my client was not only the corporate sponsor, he put his personal money where his mouth had always been. Out of nowhere he shows up at the event and grabs a live mic. Then he dropped a thousand dollars donation and challenged others to do the same. A few matched his donation and you can feel the tension as people wondered: is that all played out now?

Nope. When the donations slowed, my client did it again by dropping another thousand dollar donation and again challenging others to do the same.

And again, some people and businesses did, but things started slowing down.

So on the third round my client pulls out one thousand more dollars AND says if anyone else shows up with one thousand dollars he will match their donation, making it a two-thousand dollar donation. He had a few more takers and people got to listen, on air as he did what he said he would and matched their thousand dollars with another of his own.

Then he dialed it up another notch. He challenged every one of his competitors saying he would match any of their thousand dollar donations. Somebody showed up that owned a different business in town and asked if our guy would match his money. The answer was “Absolutely!”.

And to top it all off, my client — the undisputed king of his category — offered to feature any one of his competitors on his websites homepage AND match their thousand dollar donation. Talk about calling out one’s competitors!

Sadly, not one single competitor met his challenge.

But a lot of locally owned businesses did step up. So he created a new home page with links that featured all of them. And he matched their donations. And there was a lot of em. It was a very diverse list of businesses.

As you can imagine, you start matching thousand dollar donations here and there and pretty soon it adds up to real money, especially when you get a few dozen “takers” for your offer. And this is the marketing lesson.

In less than 48 hours after the Radio-Thon, my client called me saying this was his best marketing thing he’d ever done. EVER.

Wait a sec what did you market man? NOTHING. Didn’t try to sell a damn thing!

What my client did with his performance during the radio-thon was create a bond with his community. A solid meaningful “this-is-our-guy-ride-or-die” bond.

How’d he know? Clearly he didn’t measure that by sales. Two days aren’t going to tell you anything other than results from a One Day Sale. And our guy didn’t discount anything to anyone ever.

He knew by his own commitment to the community and the responses coming back what he’d done that day.

And yes sales were up that year. You couldn’t prove that it was because of the bonding experience. But by all the chatter from customers in the store you could certainly make an educated guess.

And that’s the lesson: bonding is never about “reason-why” advertising and Unique Selling Propositions or What’s-In-It-For-Me?

Bonding is about shared values, shared commitment, and shared sacrifice.

When the people of the community heard what my client did live, on-air, with his own money, with nothing in it for him and no ulterior motive, they bonded with him.

And it had nothing to do with how he ran his retail store or what his quality was like or what his prices were.

It had everything to do with his genuine values and commitment to the community.

Think about that when you’re planning your bonding campaign. Are you speaking to and demonstrating values?

Or are you trying to sell people on reason-why advertising bullshit?

P.S. As fortune would have it, the radio personalities who had previously ran the charity Radio-thon were fired later that year and the stations approached my client to MC the thing as their replacement. And from that day on my client with the lousy radio voice hosted that annual program himself, on the air. And it continued to be the best marketing thing he ever did. 

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