#486: A Sweet, Dark History of the Promise Lead

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When writing a Promise-Driven Lead, where should you start?

The default for most marketers is to study the product and just figure out what it can do best. We’ve all heard, after all, the lesson about “features” versus “benefits.” First you make a list of the products best features, and then you translate those into what they will do for the customer.

Simple.

It’s a lesson you may have heard connected before with one of the most successful product pitches in history. Forrest E. Mars grew up in candy maker’s house. And with some big shoes to fill. His father’s home business grew to invent and sell some of the world’s most famous candy bars, including Snickers, Mars Bars, and Milky Ways.

But Forrest’s father didn’t want to expand the business and Forrest, fresh home from Yale University, did. So he sold his share in the business back to Dad and moved to Europe. That’s where he took up with other candy makers.

It’s also where he first spotted the breakthrough that would help change the chocolate business, the course of World War II, and millions of kids’ birthday parties — and indirectly, the advertising industry.

It was a tiny pellet of chocolate, wrapped in a candy shell, found in the field kits of soldiers fighting the Spanish Civil War. The chocolate gave them quick energy, the shell kept it from melting under harsh conditions.

We know it now, of course, as the M&M.

Forrest took it back to the States and patented his own formula for the candy in 1941. Within a year, the U.S. was committed to World War II. And not long after, M&Ms made their way into soldiers’ field rations. When the soldiers came home, the candies were a hit with the general public.

But sales were about to get even bigger.

Forrest realized that television — making it’s way into the mainstream at that time — was the next place he wanted to go to sell M&Ms. He hired a copywriter named Rosser Reeves to do it. It turned out to be another groundbreaking move.

Reeves, at the time, was already a success. He was both copy chief and vice president of his agency in New York. But when he sat down with Forrest Mars to talk candy, he listened and took notes like a first-year copywriter.

“He was the one who said it,” claimed Reeves in the version we’ve heard told. “He told me the whole history and then I pressed him and he said, ‘Well, the thing is they only melt in your mouth, but they don’t melt in your hands.'”

That was all Reeves needed.

Within four years, Mars was selling one million pounds of M&Ms per week. M&Ms have since gone on Space Shuttle flights with astronauts. They’ve been the official candy of the Olympics. And according to Business Week, they’re the best-selling candy in the world.

Mars died at ate 95 in 1999, with a $4 billion fortune. And his candy company takes in over $20 billion per year, with 30,000 employees worldwide.

It’s no accident that Reeves went on to his own kind of fame. And not just because Reeves happens to be the real-life model for the character of Don Draper on TV’s series, Mad Men.

You might know him even better, after all, as the father of what every copy cub and professional advertiser memorizes as the “Unique Selling Proposition” or “U.S.P.”

To Find the Promise, Find This First…

When Reeves first wrote about it the U.S.P. in his book Reality in Advertising, he was writing down the formula you can use to write any effective Promise Lead.

Reeves formula had three parts.

The first part, for Reeves, also meant starting with the product. And only if that product was actually good enough to almost sell itself. As a preacher’s son, Reeves was fundamentally honest and felt all advertising should be too. The product must be able to do what you’ll say it can do.

But an even better reason for starting with the product is the second part of Reeve’s formula. What the product does and by default will claim to do has to be original. That is, the best products do something competitors won’t or can’t. That’s key because the U.S.P. — the promise you’ll make — has to sound and feel different from everything your prospect has heard before, too.

Then there’s the final part of Reeve’s formula. This is the one most forgotten, but it’s impossible to overlook if you’ve got any hope of coming up with a powerful promise. Every promise must target your prospect’s core desire. That is, they have to already want what you’re promising.

This is worth repeating.

Reeves believed, and so do we, that you can’t create desire in a customer. You can only awaken what’s already there. This is especially true in a pure Promise Lead, where you have nothing but the claim pulling all the weight. The more tightly you can target those core desires, the more likely your ad will work.

It’s that simple.

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Last modified: October 23, 2017

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