Some people would describe Jackie Barrie as my competitor – but I think of her as a colleague.  She’s a brilliant writer (not just marketing copy – but get her Little Fish books too) and has years of experience writing for companies from big to small.  These are some salutary tales of how not to get too carried away with your marketing campaigns!

Imagine you work in a call centre for a major home shopping organisation. They are running a big marketing push for a particular product. In addition to handling calls as always, you have to mention the offer to every single customer. Depending on how the customer responds, you have to complete a whole load of forms. You and your colleagues complain that the promotion makes a pile of extra work for you, but you do your best anyway.

At the end of the promotion, you’re relieved that business is back to normal. You come to work and find a Chocolate Orange on your desk, together with a note from your manager thanking you for the extra effort and explaining that the promotion has made an extra £1 million for the business. You look around, and all your 100 or so workmates also have a Chocolate Orange and a note on their desks.

Would you:

  1. Eat the Chocolate Orange in appreciation?
  2. Write to the Sun newspaper complaining that you helped the company make £1m and all they gave you was a Chocolate Orange?

This is a true story from a few years ago (although I made up the bit about the process because I don’t know how much work the staff actually had to do).

One of the call centre operatives told the newspaper, not knowing that the manager had bought the Chocolate Oranges out of her own pocket. The poor manager never dreamed that her generous gesture would backfire in such negative national publicity.

It’s just one example of how a well-intended action can go horribly wrong.

You may remember the Hoover holiday fiasco a while ago. They offered free flights to Europe or the USA for customers who spent more than £100 with them, only to be so overwhelmed with responses that they couldn’t fulfil them all. It ended up in legal action, executive sackings, reams of bad press and a reported loss of £50m.

More about this story on Wikipedia

More recently (although still a few years back), Threshers off-licence chain sent a 40% Christmas discount voucher by email to key suppliers and their friends. The message went viral and their website crashed with the number of downloads. There was concern that so many people would take up the offer that it would impact profit margins. There was also suspicion that they’d done it deliberately. However, it didn’t help the business survive long-term, as hundreds of stores closed in 2009.

More about this story on BCC News

Both those situations could have been avoided with canny copywriting. The small print only needed to include something more specific about it being a limited offer, and they wouldn’t have run into so much trouble.

It’s not just big businesses that need to think carefully about their marketing promotions.

I’ve just written some sales letters for a small plumbing business. At first, my client wanted to offer a half-price boiler service next year to people who book him for a service this year. However, when he worked out the figures, it would have meant him trading at a loss, so we came up with an alternative deal.

Top tips

  • Find an offer that has high perceived value to your customers but low cost to you
  • Make sure it results in incremental business not just a discount on business you would have won anyway
  • Only give away a discount in return for something you want, such as immediate payment instead of credit terms
  • Employ a professional to help write your copy
  • Check your small print!

For example, back to the home shopping company. They incentivised customers to buy more by giving away a hotel voucher for orders over a certain amount by a certain date. Customers won, because the perceived value of the voucher was around £70 per head. The business won, because the vouchers only cost them a couple of quid. And the hotel won, because vouchers only applied on dates when rooms would otherwise have been empty, most people didn’t claim on their vouchers anyway, and those who did were constrained by the small print to eat their meals in the hotel –which is where they make their margin. Win:win:win.


Jackie Barrie writes without waffle for websites, blogs, newsletters, brochures, leaflets and speeches, in fact, anything to help your company make more money. She is the author of ‘The Little Fish Guide to DIY Marketing’ and ‘The Little Fish Guide to Networking’.

Find out more at or 0845 899 0258.