In 1913, R.J. Reynolds carried out the first ever viral ad campaign and probably the most successful product launch in history. To put that in perspective, 425 million cigarettes in a year looks like:
- 35,416,667 cigarettes a month
- 1,164,383 cigarettes a day
- 808 cigarettes or 40 packs a minute.
In this issue of Stories of Successful Ads, I’m going to share how he did it, the exact ads he used and what lessons you can apply to your business and your ads.
Son of A Tobacco Farmer
In 1850, Richard Joshua “R.J.” Reynolds was born in Virginia to Hardin and Nancy Reynolds. Hardin was a tobacco farmer and Richard became fond of the tobacco business by helping his father.
In 1874, Reynolds sold his share of the family business to his father. He left home and moved to Winston, North Carolina, because he needed a railroad hub for his business. Winston happened to be the closest one.
At Winston, he started his first tobacco manufacturing operation. In its first year, it produced 150,000 pounds of tobacco. Even despite 15 other tobacco companies in the area. Reynolds separated himself from his competitors using business smarts and innovation. The biggest example of this is adding saccharin (artificial sweetener) to chewing tobacco.
In 1913, Reynolds had a simple idea: “What if tobacco users had cigarettes already rolled for them?” At the time, almost all tobacco users that smoked cigarettes rolled their own. Nobody was selling the pre-packed cigarettes we know today.
Reynolds created 4 brands: Reyno, Osman, Red Kamel and Camel. Reyno was for All-American smokers. Osman, Red Kamel and Camel all used a blend with Turkish tobacco (hence the Middle Eastern branding). In all 4 brands, he believed he’d perfected the right blend of tobacco to appeal as a national cigarette.
Details about the other brands are hazy. But what we do know is this. Reynolds favoured the Camel brand. He went straight to the largest marketing firm, N.W. Ayer & Son. He offered them $250,000 ($6.5MM in today’s money) to launch Camel.
… And they refused.
If This Cigarette Will Not Sell Without Advertising…
Armistead, the handler of the advertising account for N.W. Ayer & Son, advised against the launch:
While it is true that all those around the Reynolds Tobacco Company who have tried the new cigarette think it is a great blend, some of them may have expressed that belief because they thought it would please you, Mr. Reynolds.
If you spend a quarter million dollars on that cigarette – and the public does not like it – you will kill the brand, as well as lose a quarter million dollars. Public approval is the only way to test the product.
If this cigarette will not sell without advertising – it certainly will not sell with advertising.
The advertising firm recommended Reynolds do what we now call a soft launch. They recommended he send a carton of Camel Cigarettes to 125 retail stores in Cleveland and only measure repeat orders.
And repeat, they did.
Reynolds tested Camel Cigarettes in all sections of the country. And indeed Camel cigarettes had repeat sales everywhere. Armed with this information, Reynolds set up the necessary distribution deals in place and went back to N.W. Ayer & Son.
The First Ever Viral Ad In History
The first ever viral ad campaign was just 4 ads, each printed on a full-page spread.
Nothing about the product. Nothing about the company. Nothing about tobacco.
Just a full-page illustration of an animal that people may have heard of, but nobody had ever seen one. The camel you see here is named Old Joe and was part of the Barnum & Bailey circus.
The sole purpose is to grab the reader’s attention and plant the brand in their mind, nothing more.
An exotic animal and now a simple caption “The Camels are coming!” Likely a play on the famous “The British are coming!”
Again, a full-page spread in the newspaper.
“Wait, what? When? Why? How many? Who is bringing them?”
The first ad grabs your attention. This ad now creates questions.
You’ve seen the first ad and know what camels are.
You’ve seen the second ad and know they are coming.
In this third ad, you find out:
- They are coming tomorrow (urgency).
- They are coming to your town (personal).
- They are coming in a very big number (visually descriptive).
At this point, your entire town is talking about it. Tomorrow comes and everybody wakes up, wondering when the camels are arriving.
If you don’t see them in the streets, you’ll no doubt check the newspaper to see if there’s any more information. And then you see this:
Camel Cigarettes Are Here!
To cigarette smokers of America who smoke 10c, 15c, 20c or 25c cigarettes:
Here are Camels—20 cigarettes for 10 cents—a choice blend of specially selected Turkish and domestic tobaccos!
No man’s money can buy a more delightful cigarette at any price.
High grade tobacco and expert blending gives you a cigarette that will not bite the tongue and leaves no cigaretty taste (you know what that means!) in the mouth.
Every time you buy another brand you’re simply wasting money and pleasure.
On sale all along the line—20 for 10c.
There are a few things to point out:
Look at the images:
- The iconic camel is still being used
- There is a picture of the product itself (pack of cigarettes) to recognize in stores
- There is a picture of the product in action (lit cigarette) to show what it is
The headline pays off the previous teaser ads and introduces the cigarettes.
The subheading is specific and calls out cigarette buyers of different price ranges.
The copy uses very descriptive language to communicate quality:
- Choice blend
- Specially selected
- High grade
- Expert blending
It translates these features to promise two main benefits:
- It won’t bite the tongue
- It leaves no cigaretty taste
The copy emphasizes the main “reason to buy” – value for money:
- 20 cigarettes for 10 cents (mentioned THREE times)
- No man’s money can buy a more delightful cigarette at any price
- Every time you buy another brand you’re simply wasting money and pleasure
Under the camel, there is a tiny paragraph saying no coupons or discounts available. The product is of such quality that it cannot be sold any cheaper.
Under the copy, there is a tiny paragraph that gives instructions on how to buy Camel Cigarettes if your shop doesn’t have it.
In your business…
- Start a business in an industry you know. Reynolds grew up in the tobacco business and was familiar with every step from farming to selling tobacco.
- Start a business in the right place. Reynolds started his business near a railroad hub, allowing him to easily source and distribute goods. Geography is a lot less important with today’s internet and infrastructure. But it still matters for brick and mortar businesses.
- Think of ways to improve your customer’s experience. Reynolds made his tobacco sweet. He used his expertise to make a tobacco blend so good that it overcame regional preferences. He added convenience by eliminating the work of rolling your own cigarettes.
- Be careful about feedback. It’s likely Reynold’s employees cared more about not upsetting their boss than being honest. The same is true of many people in your life. The market, especially repeat sales, is what decides if your product is good or not.
- Do a soft launch. Test your ideas before you spend the money and time to roll them out large-scale. Spend a little money making something people want before you waste a lot of money making something people don’t.
In your copy…
- Use the unusual to grab attention. An ad lives or dies by its ability to get attention and attention of the right people. Use unusual imagery to grab it, but keep it relevant to your brand/product. Generally, the more universal your product, the more vague your imagery can be.
- Call out your prospects. Directly call out your prospects and speak to them.
- Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Repeat your core offer multiple times in different words.
- Use pictures wisely. Use pictures to show your product and/or show it in use.
- Give buying instructions. Tell clients how they can get your product, especially if it is something new or it might not be available by standard means.
- Copy is a multiplier. A stellar product with stellar copy gets amazing results. But a crappy product with stellar copy still won’t get anywhere.