It isn’t every day that a leader in the direct marketing industry receives recognition from a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. But in a recent interview with CNBC’s Make It, musician, actor and entrepreneur Jon Bon Jovi cited the story of Allstar Products Group Founder Scott Boilen as an example of why success in business isn’t about chasing “fads or fashions.” Bon Jovi remarked, "The guy that created the Snuggie showed that that was his creation. Don’t try to create the Snuggie 2 because you saw someone be successful at it." As Boilen recounts, “Blankets with sleeves had been around, but nobody knew about them — they were buried in the back of catalogs or the bottom rung of store shelves.” It took a clever name, the right problem/solution positioning, and a whimsical commercial that went viral organically to launch a new category of household item that has, ahem, blanketed pop culture, selling well over 30 million units.
The Snuggie story is a testament to the marketing truism “first in wins,” not in the sense that the first to market necessarily dominates a category, but that the first to successfully market a product that consumers become aware of and fall in love with can own the beachfront and keep the competition at bay. It has been some 10 years ago that the product first tested. Boilen, who launched Allstar in 1999, admits, “We probably tested 30 products that year. Nobody thought that the Snuggie would be a slam dunk. I was not that all-in on the spot; I thought there was too much joking around and not enough problem/solution. We launched it in August and my producer begged me not to test it then, but we needed to so that if it worked we could order product in time for the holiday season.”
When they saw that there was a pulse in the middle of the summer, the team at Allstar knew they had something on their hands, but couldn’t have imagined how big it would become. “It was one of the first truly viral campaigns,” explains Boilen. “Over the years, people have asked me, ‘What’s your secret?’ The truth is great viral campaigns start at the grassroots level. But when you see a spark, you have to blow on it and fan the flames.” For Boilen and his team, that meant getting out of the way and letting the YouTube satirists and late-night comics do their thing. “Were we shocked at the Snuggie’s level of success? Yes. But the economy was imploding as the Great Recession took hold, and we gave people a way to feel good for $14.99.”
Boilen, who keeps a sign in his office that states, “Never Fall in Love with a Product,” believes that DRTV is “the absolute ultimate focus group. We’re not guessing; the consumer decides.” Nowadays, amid today’s omni-channel marketplace, Boilen explains that his group “employs a predictive review process before we launch a product using broadcast media. Peer reviews are far more powerful than anything else, and we want to know we are going to get a four-star average review or higher.” Unlike some marketers, Boilen is extremely bullish on Amazon and thinks that the marketplace it has established is creating great opportunity for a variety of businesses big and small. Traditional brick and mortar, as well, plays a paramount role in the As Seen On TV product category. “If you go into Walgreens and look up, you’ll see the ‘Cold and Flu’ aisle, and then you’ll see where the ‘As Seen On TV’ (ASOTV) products are aggregated. Some of these best-in-class retailers have conditioned consumers to know where to go to look for these products. In the best-case scenario, an ASOTV item will become a staple. The planogram of Bed, Bath & Beyond, is riddled with ASOTV products throughout the store, a testament to the power of our genre of advertising.”
Speaking of that advertising, Allstar not only looks at traditional direct response metrics, such as a media efficiency ratio (that is, the amount of direct sales relative to the cost of media), but also relies on more traditional advertising metrics, such as gross rating points against a target audience and reach and frequency. “The sales we realize on a direct basis help offset the cost of advertising, but most of our metrics are focused on selling product through at traditional retail. Retail buyers have always been impatient and rightly so. They’ve been burned too many times by fly-by-night operators. I think that’s why the industry is getting smaller. Retailers want to work with players who have brought them hit after hit.” That trust is a big reason why Allstar has become a path for inventors and partners who feed them products to vet and take to market. Boilen explains, “We have a funnel that requires products to pass through three or four gates before we test them in the actual marketplace. We want to be sure that an item is going to be well-received by the public before we go to our retail partners. With social media and peer reviews, anyone trying to market an inferior product is going to be exposed very quickly.”
Boilen, who has sat on ERA’s Board of Directors, clearly has a formula that works: his company has generated over $3 billion in sales. That success has helped to fuel his other passions, which include his current role as vice chairman of his local food bank, Feeding Westchester. “We live amid one of the wealthiest counties in the country, yet 10 percent of the residents are food insecure,” Boilen elaborates. “To me, that is unconscionable and something we want to eliminate. We are a very small part of a very big problem, but when you can give turkeys away to families at Thanksgiving, you experience helping people on a very personal, one-to-one basis. It is extremely rewarding.”
Despite all of the changes amid a fragmented marketplace, Boilen is excited for direct marketing’s future. He states, “I think performance-based marketing as a whole is an exciting industry that is an entrepreneur’s dream. Look at Dollar Shave Club; you can start grassroots, and now have the ability to connect directly with consumers. At Allstar, we’re like a mini Shark Tank. People from all walks of life bring us products. Why? Because the opportunities are amazing. We are truly the American dream.” Proof positive that there is more than one way to rock the world.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with a Concentration in Marketing and Sales from Marylhurst University.