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Message in a Bottle: The Story of Harold Hackett

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I recently came across this story about a Canadian man named Harold Hackett who has thrown more than 4,800 message-stuffed, neon-colored juice bottles into the Atlantic Ocean since 1996. Astonishingly, he’s now received more than 3,100 responses from bottle recipients stretching from Africa to Ireland. Even more impressive, all of the replies have been handwritten letters, as Harold doesn’t include his phone number with his messages opting for the more sincere, personal correspondence.

Aside from the fact Harold is felonious polluter, with his phenomenal 63% response rate I couldn’t help but wonder, is there a marketing lesson to be learned here? Then it occurred to me: A good ad is a lot like one of Harold’s messages. Adrift in a boundless ocean of sameness, it sticks out. It floats to the top. It inspires consumers (or beach bums) to investigate, engage and respond in a positive way. So the challenge becomes making one’s advertising seem like a message in a bottle. But aside from bottling it and throwing it into the Pond, how does one accomplish such?

I think Mr. Hackett’s story shows that in order to connect with an audience while floating in vast sea of banality, you need at least three ingredients: surprise, mystery and sincerity. To explain further, outlined below is what I’m deeming the Unauthorized Harold Hackett Guide to Direct-Response Marketing (UHHGDRM). Have a look.

1. Surprise the consumer with the delivery. This doesn’t necessarily mean a fancy package (or juice bottle). It could be as simple as a great visual or a snappy headline. Whatever it is, it must grab the consumer’s attention.

2. Create a sense of mystery. Like Sarah McLachlan, one must build a mystery to arouse the consumer’s curiosity. It needn’t be heavy or convoluted, just something intriguing enough to get the lid off the bottle.

3. Deliver the message with sincerity. Once the consumer has the message in their hands, it’s game time, and an honest, personal tone will score more points than trite, salesy tripe.

While I admit the UHHGDRM is somewhat vague and undeveloped, it’s meant to be more of a compass than a roadmap. Just a basic set of maxims by which to judge an advert before releasing it into the sea. And though the formula isn’t perfect (since I came up with it about two-and-a-half minutes ago), surely it has some merit, right?

Regardless, I think Harold Hackett’s story sends an S.O.S. to the world of marketing, proving that everyone loves a surprise, a mystery and a sincere appeal. When we as marketers inject these elements into every breath we take and every ad we make, only then will we walk in fields of gold.

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