An Ode to the Pitchman, Billy Mays: What We Learned From Him

The marketing world lost its most influential pitchman on June 28th. Billy Mays, known famously for his infomercials, took countless household gadgets and turned them into million dollar products. He turned direct response advertising into a respected form of marketing by building a personal brand that was energetic, trustworthy, and captivating.

Billy Mays started his career on the Atlantic City boardwalk as a pitchman for Washmatik. With mentoring from ‘old school’ sales men, he continued as a traveling pitchman to numerous home shows. Recognizing his talent, Orange Glo International hired him to work on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) to pitch Kaboom!, OxiClean, and OrangeClean. Anthony Sullivan, a rival pitchman on the show, later became producer and co-host of Discovery Channel’s reality TV show PitchMen in April 2009. The show became the number one Google search term the next day, proving Billy Mays had become a pop culture icon. His name was so influential that if your product got his blessing, it could mean millions.

Building a Personal Brand
If you type Billy Mays into YouTube’s search bar, you’ll get a series of videos showing a guy wearing a blue shirt, khaki pants, and a dark beard while yelling energetically into the camera about a product. Some are actually Billy Mays, some are just guys wanting to imitate him. This is the power of a personal brand.

His brand became one synonymous with OxiClean, Orange Glo, Kaboom!, and Mighty Putty but mostly the product demo. It was his over the top product demos that changed the infomercial industry forever. Entrepreneurs turned to Billy Mays to get their products recognized and if he responded, it meant getting backing for their product’s growth and turning their dreams into reality—something Billy Mays considered as a way of giving back.

Billy Mays managed his personal brand by bringing a consistent performance to each product shoot. Each pitch was an enthusiastic and honest presentation of a product he believed in. Before each shoot, he would warm up his voice, do his own hair, and trim his beard. While filming, he not only used his powerful voice but also his expressive body language to keep the audience entertained and motivated. During one of his PitchMen episodes, for example, he showed his co-host Anthony how to “wipe with authority” while demoing a product. Billy Mays also raised the bar on product demos, making them more extreme as they went on, reinforcing the enthusiasm and entertainment value he brought to each pitch.

Off camera, the PitchMen reality show exposed his ‘good guy’ side. His priority was his family and he was always friendly to the people on set, saying hello to each and every one of them. His sense of humor was contagious and often led to pranks with his co-host Anthony. These characteristics are what made people love him despite his abrasive behavior on screen.

The Conventions of the Pitch
Most people who have used a TV remote will be familiar with these lines: “Hi, Billy Mays here for… but wait, there’s more… Want to…? Now you can… that’s the power of… don’t delay act today!”. You could guarantee that each of these lines would be heard during a Billy Mays pitch. Each infomercial followed a sequence of questions, answers, and events. Although these have been summarized from a series of infomercials, the steps can be viewed as universal presentation rules. Here’s the breakdown.

1. Problem and Solution
State the problem as a question and solution as the product (e.g. “Are you tired of…?”)

2. Endorse with Personal Brand
After introducing the product, the spokesperson legitimizes it by associating it with his/her personal brand “Hi, Billy Mays here for…”; showing enthusiasm for the product is essential — if you’re not excited about it, your audience won’t be either.

3. Benefits of the Product
Provide list of benefits, both practical and emotional (e.g. avoids embarrassment); keep it simple — the more clutter the more confusion; leave it to the demos and the audience’s creativity to expand on the benefits.

4. Competitor Disadvantages
Provide competitor disadvantages and product’s competitive edge

5. Safety
Talk to product safety (e.g. around pets and children)

6. Secret to Success
The secret is in… (usually illustrated via computer animation)

7. The Demo
Practical demonstration (e.g. spray odor-eliminating product on common odor sources like shoes and garbage); reinforce effectiveness by acting out scenario to achieve the ‘I get it!’ reaction from crowd (e.g. smelling the shoes after being sprayed); convince the audience and deflate their bias.

8. Ease of Use
Continue demo, showing the audience through example how easy the product is to use.

9. Use in Context
Provide examples of where and how the product can be used; the more creative the examples the more the audience will be convinced of its value.

10. The Extreme Demo
Provide an escalated demonstration for entertainment value, to make a memorable impression, and to quench any lingering doubts (e.g. used skunk as an example of an extreme odor that is hard to get rid of).

11. Value & Trust
State economic point (e.g. “Why spend on products that don’t do the job?”); add value through the use of bonus offers; provide money back guarantee to reinforce consumer trust.

12. Call to Action
State call to action so the motivated consumer can follow through on the sale  (e.g. “Here’s how to order”).

Throughout the infomercial, the product name is mentioned 6 times on average. The demos are flawless and ‘ease of use’ is always highlighted. Although these steps directly reflect what you see in a typical infomercial, the demo and ‘ease of use’ portion has become a popular form of consumer advertising (think of the Apple iPhone ads). So, consider what Billy Mays taught you about marketing next time you have to build a PowerPoint deck, present in front of an audience, create a web campaign, or build a 30 second ad. That’s the power of Billy Mays.

Essential Product Tips

Perfecting the Pitch

Remembering Billy Mays


AIGA Enlightened Spaces: Creating User Experiences That Inspire & Engage

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) once again brought together a spectacular panel of design leaders in the Bay Area to discuss issues in design. This event, hosted by the AIA on June 23rd, focused on environmental user experiences. These are not the type of experiences we go through online, but on the street, in a museum, in a corporate office, etc.

Eileen Jones, Principal and National Discipline Leader for Perkins+Will Branded Environments
Eileen started off the evening with a presentation about brand experiences meeting business strategies. One of the stories she shared was a project with Bank of America. The company approached her with the challenge of enhancing the staff’s sense of community and improving recruitment retention. Her response was to create an associates hub, which involved preparing environmental spaces to project their social outreach. Digital displays were included to reinforce these messages. Moving through the building, one could experience the different classes of identities from the different teams, creating a sense of belonging and community. Other projects discussed included the ResulTech Academy and the University of Cincinnati.

Susan Pontious, Deputy Program Director, San Francisco’s Public Art Program
Susan introduced her presentation with one word of advice — enable artists. Her projects ranged from the San Francisco International Airport, to a jury assembly room, to the Third Street light rail stations. The SF Int’l Airport project turned the once sterile walk from the airplane to the arrivals area into a journey through the clouds. Floor to ceiling 3-dimensional murals ran along the walkway and the roof was opened up to let natural light in while providing a grand view of the sky. Here, the environment reflected the journey but in the case of the Third Street light rail project, it was the environment that reflected the community. Local artists were recruited to participate in the design of the terminals and the path of the transit route was paved with a contrasting material to highlight how the line intertwined with the neighborhoods. The jury assembly room was designed to reward the jurors for their civic duty and invoke a sense of pride. This was accomplished by creating a large backlit mural of the Constitution. The artists and designers worked with the court’s judge to ensure that the design was effective but not too rhetorical. Susan closed with her list of ingredients for a successful project:

– Have a clear vision for the role of the artist but don’t over prescribe his/her duties
– Match goals with resources
– Be realistic with materials
– Have a symbiotic relationship
– Don’t design as a band-aid
– Know and respect the limits of community involvement

John Chiodo, Principle of Chiodo Design
John absorbed the audience with tales about interactive environments. These are places where people can consume, share, and remix ideas while exploring public communities. He talked about dynamic communication, which is based on sense and response — it is the experience that conveys the content/message. This was exercised in a project that had a large light projected onto the side of a building providing an opportunity for a passerby to interact with the simulated environment. As people walked by, they eventually started playing with their shadows and interacting with other people’s shadows, crafting their own experience. This type of communication was used to build a sense of community in a public setting. Higher levels of technology were also used in John’s projects to encourage interaction through play. Lights that were sensitive to movement were projected onto floors creating a sort of catch game and polarized film was placed over life-sized models of animals to display their skeletal structure, so the information could overlay the object. Through the interactions, the user learned about the message as well as themselves and their community.

Melissa Alexander, Director of Public Programs at the Exploratorium
Melissa took the audience on a journey through the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, which focused on reclaiming material and encoding meaning into it. She also described the inner workings of the museums, where labs for testing the exhibits are actually visible on site and cognitive scientists study user interactions. One study was an installation of a drinking water fountain in the shape of a toilet bowl. It was interesting to see how bias can influence decision-making. Melissa was also involved in the Black Rock City project, better known as Burning Man. The project involved major infrastructure planning while being mindful of the participants’ need to create. Melissa closed with a 1975 quote from Doug Engelbart:

Intelligence Collection: An alert project group, whether classified as an A, B, or C Activity, always keeps a watchful eye on its external environment, actively surveying, ingesting, and interacting with it. The resulting intelligence is integrated with other project knowledge on an ongoing basis to identify problems, needs, and opportunities which might require attention or action.”

Kit Hinrichs, Partner & Creative Director at Pentagram
Kit, well know for his identity design projects, discussed storytelling in space. He gave examples that spoke to how they need to be memorable, unique, and create an emotional response. In the example he gave for his design of the Boudin Bakery museum, he started with the issue of wayfinding. The San Francisco waterfront, where Boudin is situated, is crowded with signage. Boudin wasn’t using their visual real estate, so a large sign was built to compete with the visual noise around Fisherman’s Wharf. As the guest approaches the building, his/her senses are awakened by the smell of fresh Boudin bread. Entering Bakers Hall, signage becomes an important part of the visual experience but, rather than being branded, the signs are designed to give a farmer’s market feeling similar to Pike’s Place. As the visitors move through the hall to the museum, they are educated about the history of bread and Boudin’s role in the growth of San Francisco. Eventually, their journey passes by a large glass window that looks down onto the manufacturing floor where the Boudin bread is made. Other examples Kit gave included the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum where the use of humor and materials reflected the message (i.e. large signs directed kids to the washroom and stacked rows of hand driers on the wall catered to each kid’s height). Signage created for the San Francisco Zoo displayed graphics that worked with the vernacular and rooms prepared for the Library Initiative in New York reflected the age and interests of the users. Kit concluded with examples from the California Academy of Sciences. Their mission of exploring, explaining and protecting the natural world was supported by a living roof covered in grass, walls made of glass, and a circular logo that represented the harmony of the natural elements. With the largest research library on site, funding from donors was an important subject. The design of the donor wall became its own challenge and Kit approached it from a unique angle. Instead of organizing the donors by value of contribution, he assigned specimens to them—butterflies, starfish, beetles and the California poppy. Butterflies, for example, represented donors who had contributed over $10 million. This not only reflected the nature of the academy, but also created a bit of a competition for the donors. Everyone wanted to be a butterfly.

The panel closed with reflections on their experiences. They encourage people to experiment with materials, allow change and response, encourage engagement with the user, work with a varied team (young, old, artists, designers, etc.), and provide opportunities for play.

iPhone vs. Android Apps

I’m a Mac but I bought an Android. Although I’ve been a dedicated Macintosh computer user for the last 15 years or so, I was hesitant to purchase an iPhone. Mostly, it was due to the service cost per month. The other reason was I was skeptical of its usability as an internet device. Apple is a company well known and respected for quality control and consistency between its products. Unfortunately, the internet is not a place for that. There’s a lot of chaos out there. Google, on the other hand, is the internet and has built a wealth of online tools that integrate with the internet, not a personal computer. So, even though I work on a Mac around the clock, I use Google to store my contacts, calendar, instant messages, and some documents. This is why I was sold on the Android when it was released.

Developing applications to work on these two leading mobile devices is split between two programming languages – java and cocoa. One is more widely used than the other, but the lesser is still building more apps. This is due to market demand. The iPhone has a larger user base than the Android, but it has also been around longer. With a new operating system known as Cupcake and a new version of the mobile device currently in the developer’s hands, it is possible the Android will be catching up soon.

Despite the large user group on the iPhone, Android users tend to keep their apps longer and use them more. This is reportedly due to the amount of apps available to each – more apps means greater opportunity to pick and choose. Fewer apps lead to tolerance of what needs to be improved and working around its faults.

But wait, if Java is a well know programming language and there is demand for more apps on the second most popular mobile device, why isn’t anyone cashing in? They are. Some Android developers are pulling over $25k per month on one little app. They aren’t as seamless as the iPhone apps (coca touch has a beautiful interface) but they sure don’t have the same level of competition.

So, if you want your company to reach its audience through a mobile device and possibly make some money from it, consider the Android. It’s more likely that you will get attention from your target market and connect with your audience before your competitors do and java programmers may be more affordable that specialized cocoa programmers.

More on Android vs. iPhone apps.

UPDATE: Around 1:30am on Wednesday July 8th, my husband launched his first Android app called Pic Paint. Within 6 hours of its release, 350 users had downloaded the app and left feedback. The number doubled a few hours later. Check out the stats here If you have an Android, download the app, try it out, and leave some comments. Hope you like the app’s icon….