#004: How Five Words Boosted A Piano Maker’s Net Profits By 1,616%

Steinway & Sons Piano Ad Header

In a world with so much information, everyone is fighting for those 6-inches between your ears. Because if you’re thinking of buying something, any brand that has real estate in your mind is much more likely to win.

One of the best ways to get that real estate is by creating a slogan. A small handful of words that sear a brand in your customer’s mind:

  • Just Do It.
  • Think Different.
  • I’m Lovin’ It.
  • Gives You Wings.

Let me guess. You immediately thought of Nike, Apple, McDonald’s and Red Bull, right?

But there is one particular slogan. It is only known by music professionals. It belongs to a piano manufacturer. And it is why 19 out of 20 professional pianists today have sworn off every other piano in the market.

All because of 4 words written a century ago.

In this issue of Stories Behind Successful Ads, I’m going to share with you how this slogan was born and give you lessons you can apply to your own business and advertising.

For The Love of Music

On February 5th 1797, a boy named Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg was born. He grew up in Germany and the story goes that he became a carpenter.

During his time as a carpenter, he became an apprentice to an organ builder. This created a love of music in his heart. And he began to start building instruments.

Started with guitars. Then tried making pianos. Then made bigger and bigger pianos.

In 1835, he made his first square piano and gave it to his wife as a wedding gift.

In 1836, he built his first grand piano. Now it is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1839, he won a gold medal at a state trade exhibition for his pianos.

Fast forward to 1850, he left Germany and moved to New York City. In New York City, he soon started a company to manufacture pianos.

With advice from his friends, he changed his name.

Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg became Henry E. Steinway.

And on 5th March 1853, he founded Steinway & Sons.

A Reputation For Excellence

Over history, Steinway pianos have won many medals and awards for their quality and sound.

These pianos are so well-made, many owners consider it the most important thing they own.

Just read one of the earliest Steinway ads I could find:

Steinway & Sons Piano Ad 1909

Yet Steinway profits still kept going down.

Steinway went to the advertising firm, N. W. Ayer & Son. The same firm in the story of how Camel sold 425 million cigarettes in a year.

A young copywriter named Raymond Rubicam handled Steinway’s account.

The Instrument Of The Immortals

Raymond had a very clear task. Write three full page magazine ads for Steinway. Use the same layout as previous Steinway ads.

After hours and hours of thinking, Raymond still couldn’t come up with something. So he took a step back and looked at Steinway’s info file.

In this file, he learned many great pianists and composers used Steinway pianos. But the ads were just pictures of beautiful women sitting at a piano. No headlines. No mention of Steinway’s incredible history.

As Raymond kept reading, an idea flashed through his mind.

‘The Instrument of the Immortals.’

Where ‘the immortals’ are the famous pianists and composers who used Steinway pianos.

He immediately wrote it down and looked at it.

It looked good.

Too good.

So good that Raymond doubted himself and decided to leave it in a drawer then come back to look at it in a few days.

He worked on something else and a few days later, opened his drawer to look at it again.

And it still sounded great.

He walked into the Art Department and spoke to Art Director, Arthur Sullivan, about it. Hearing his idea, Arthur told Raymond that Steinway had a big vault.

The vault held oil paintings of all the great artists who played on a Steinway. But for some reason, Ayer was forbidden from using the paintings in their ads.

It wasn’t private or sensitive information. Every Steinway customer gets a picture book of these paintings when they buy a Steinway piano. But still, Raymond couldn’t use them.

Raymond’s solution? Have a model dress up to look like the famous composer Richard Wagner (who was also involved in the story of the second most famous ad of all time) and take a photo of that.

He took the finished ad to Jerry Lauck, Steinway’s account executive in Ayer. Raymond asked Jerry to convince Steinway to make this a campaign.

Steinway only agreed to use it once. But then… the sales numbers came in. And they could not believe how positive the response was.

Steinway demanded to speak to Lauck. And they demanded they use Instrument of the Immortals in all their ads.

From that day, each ad was written on this theme. Each ad spoke of great musical artists or composers who have used the Steinway piano.

Each ad implied that you could also experience the same prestige by owning a Steinway piano. That no true lover of music (like the Immortals it spoke of) would settle for anything less. And that there was nothing else out there like a Steinway piano.

In 1920, Steinway & Sons had net profits of under $100,000 ($1.2MM today). For the next 10 years after this slogan, Steinway’s net profits shot up. Their best year was 1924 with a very, very tidy $1,500,000 ($19.4MM today) net profit.

Here are a few pictures of the ads in the Instrument of the Immortals series, courtesy of Smithsonian Institute Records.

The First Few Ads

Steinway & Sons Piano - Instrument of The Immortals Ad 1920
Steinway & Sons Piano - Instrument of The Immortals Ad 1921
Steinway & Sons Piano - Instrument of The Immortals Ad 1922

The Aftermath

Unfortunately, this profitable run came to an end in 1929.

At the start of The Great Depression.

But still, Steinway survived. To this day, it remains at the top of the piano manufacturing industry. And it is still considered the Instrument of the Immortals.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Document everything. Your company history. Previous ads. Customer testimonials & reviews. Industry reports. Specifications and sources of raw materials. Internal processes. Everything. Businesses have made millions from a copywriter finding an idea in a hidden pile of paper. Don’t have this info? Allow your copywriter to talk to anyone and everyone in the company.
  • Do a small test. Trust your copywriter enough to test their ideas. Even if you think something might not work, know that the market has the final say. Give a small sample of your audience the chance to say it.
  • Understand that copy is a multiplier. Steinway had an excellent reputation and was profitable. William Steinway, son of founder Henry, was a millionaire in 1881. A full 4 decades before this ad. But good copy has the ability to turn something good into something great.

In your copy…

  • Study your product intimately. You can’t come up with great ideas unless you have enough knowledge to take from. And if you don’t have the burning curiosity to build that knowledge, you shouldn’t be writing about that product.
  • Make associations. The success of Steinway’s slogan comes from the connection to famous names that have used their pianos. Think about your product and make a list of possible things (places, people, times, ideas, etc.) you could associate it with. Then test out the different connections you could make.
  • Step away from your work. As creatives, we have the curse of getting too attached to our own ideas. Sometimes, we’re much better off just leaving something for a few days. Then coming back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.
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