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Theme Marketing

by Marcia Yudkin

One of the best-designed sales pieces I've received in years was a come-on for an MIT conference. Every panel implemented the metaphor of a deck of cards in both design and text. Bullets in the form of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs and subheads like "This session provides you with all the aces you need" carried through the unified theme. After spending so much time exploring this piece, I figured the conference sessions would have something to teach me too, and I signed up.

Another marketing piece, from CM Communications, Inc. of Boston, landed in my files because of its clever use of a tailoring theme. Headed "Getting the Right Fit," the three-panel brochure used a tape measure to illustrate subheads like "Don't Hem Yourself In," "Look for a Versatile Outfit," "Button Down Costs" and "S, M or L?"

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Well-executed themes get results in marketing because they reach beyond features and benefits to engage emotions as well as the intellect. In addition, they provide unity between words and graphics and thus become more memorable. Sometimes they involve a creative format too.

Cindy Marshall, of Jefferson, South Dakota, used the theme of a police suspect file in a promo piece for Media Concepts, in nearby Sioux City, Iowa. The manila file, complete with a real-looking coffee stain, opens to fingerprints, Polaroid crime-scene items and a profile including "caught guiding unsuspecting clients in specifying advertising goals" and "known to be armed with state-of-the-art equipment."

To select an effective theme, stay away from any you've already seen implemented in your industry. Play an old parlor game to spur your imagination: If your product, service or business were a fruit, which one would it be? If it were a song, which one would it be? If it were a communication medium, which one would it be? How about a feature of the landscape, a type of weather, a dessert, a bank transaction?

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Or, think about some general categories of phenomena that provide rich sources for themes: Nature; Technology; Hobbies; Relationships; Mythology; Popular Culture; Occupations; Common Problems. Sometimes a pun, such as in "A Hire Authority" for an employment firm, supplies an interesting metaphor you can build upon. Once you choose a tentative concept, brainstorm related ideas, such as for "shoot-out": holster; OK Corral; bad guys; sheriff; Wild West; trigger-happy.

For maximum effect, a theme should be unexpected, such as "Setting Sail for Internet Profits" and yet sufficiently familiar so that visual elements like anchors and rudders and textual references to "catching the wind" and "calm seas" make instant sense. The theme should always be more concrete, picturable and commonplace than what you're selling. Otherwise you will have created an unnecessary mystery instead of a compelling sales piece.

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As with any marketing idea, test it out with people similar to your prospects to make sure it provokes a laugh or a nod instead of a "Huh?"

Copyright 2009 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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