Aligner 1.png

make kickass ads &

Direct mail is garbage
and i love it


Here's the story of two pieces of
direct-mail advertising

Along comes Candid, a new oral-wellness brand selling custom-designed clear dental aligners. I was asked to write a direct-mail advertisement to inform consumers about Candid’s soon-to-open retail location in New York City. The idea was to drive prospects to sign up for a free laser-scan of their teeth, and to incentivize the CTA with a $200 discount on the purchase of clear aligners. Easy? Easy.

Here's the direct-mail  ad I originally proposed to Candid to drum up interest in their new retail location. I loved this ad, and so did lots of other people. But it never shipped, because there was a huge problem in how it tested.

Here's the direct-mail  ad I originally proposed to Candid to drum up interest in their new retail location. I loved this ad, and so did lots of other people. But it never shipped, because there was a huge problem in how it tested.

I had to write a Super-tricky Ad. It was super-tricky for 4 reasons.

1. The product was complicated and unfamiliar

It requires an in-office visit for an oral laser scan, followed by an approval process, followed by a months-long commitment to using the product itself. Even worse, most consumers haven't heard the term "clear aligners," and instead know the product by the trademarked Invisalign brand—Candid's main competitor.

2. The price point was high

Even though Candid sells clear aligners at a significant discount over competition brands, this is still a $2,000 product. High-price-point products require a very different marketing approach and incite a very different behavioral response—one that isn't always conducive to direct mail.

3. The incentive was abstract and indirect

Incentives are emotional, and $200 is only a lot of money  if it feels like a lot of money. In this case, the discount didn't feel like anything, because it rewards a separate action from the one being incentivized, and only after a massive cash outlay from the consumer. So while the ad is trying to get consumers to sign up for a laser scan, the incentive applies to the purchase clear aligners—an action that happens days or even weeks after the laser scan, and which requires a $2,000 expense. A better (and cheaper) strategy would have been to offer a free, tangible reward to customers who sign up for the scan—a free Quip toothbrush, for instance.

4. The kitchen is not for vanity decisions

Some expensive products (like cars or engagement rings or houses) are great for direct mail, because consumers deem these products to be essential. People read their mail in the kitchen, and kitchens are where essential decisions are made, so direct mail makes se. But cosmetic dentistry simply doesn't register with consumers as an essential purchase, so the best practices for direct-marketing a high-price product aren't very useful here.

When it comes to direct mail,
I live by a couple rules

I've written elsewhere about how to write a decent direct-mail ad. That's easy. But writing an awesome direct-mail ad? That takes a little extra.

Be the designated driver!

Everyone else in the mailbox is drunk. That means it's easier to stand out by staying sober, elegant, muted. A sleeker, simpler design, beautiful photography, and captivating, even enigmatic headlines can go a long way.

Aim for the fridge!

In other words, take your ad seriously. That means refusing to treat your ad as trash, even as you acknowledge that your ad is literally designed to end up in the trash. The goal of the ad cannot stop at the basics; the goal should also be to end up on the prospect's refrigerator—if anything because the prospect loves the ad so much that they want to see it again and again. This can really happen.

Fuck it! Take a risk!

After all, nobody else does. Direct-mail flyers all look the same, and that's why people dislike them and forget them. (Can you remember any direct-mail ad you've received? Ever?)

But Here's how
"fuck it take a risk"
can go wrong

So I decided to go big. Typically, a direct-mail headline should describe the product and the consumer benefit clearly and directly. In this case, that was impossible. Candid's product is simply too complicated. A headline like "Get $200 off custom clear aligners," or "Clear aligners delivered to your door for 65% less," or "Straighten your teeth without the metal braces" would either fail to stand out, mischaracterize the product, or risk alienating people who have no idea what clear aligners are. So the responsibility of describing the product and consumer benefit fell to the sub-headline, and I allowed myself to go all-in on an attention-grabbing headline.  

First lesson:
Never trust your instincts
when you can, like, test them

I loved "To hell with genetics." I thought it was brave, compelling, and empowering. I thought it leaped out of the garbage of the mail-pile and screamed something new and clever and compelling. This ad brought news. Big news. And the first guy I showed it too loved it also. So did the second guy, and the third guy, and the fourth guy. The fifth person? Not so much, but that was just one person. She was worried that the term "hell" was too aggressive, and she didn't understand what "genetics" had to do with the product. But that was fine, right? Only one person out of six disliked the ad.

But then I kept socializing. I asked twenty colleagues and friends —ten men and ten women—and the reactions were exactly split on gender lines. The men loved it. The women either hated it, felt uneasy about it, or simply didn't feel a resonance with it. That settled it. I designed another ad, and it shipped.

Whereas "To hell with genetics" provoked starkly polarizing reactions among men and women, this headline was received with broad positivity across demographics.