Direct Response Versus Branding: How to Write No-Hype Copy that Sells

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I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of business jargon. Piercing headaches overwhelm me when I hear words and phrases like blamestorming, right-sizing, and synergistic.

During a business meeting, someone told me to “birddog that information” and I almost collapsed. (On a side note, if you’ve been on-boarded or parachuted into a new office that’s replete with jargon-merchants and you need some comic relief, then you’ll love buzzword bingo.)

One of the more curious phrases I hear is brand integrity. A potential client will say, “I’m really worried about using direct response copy here…it might compromise brand integrity.”

Here’s what the person is really saying.

“I think direct response copy is obnoxious and I don’t want an infomercial type of thing because customers will equate us with crass hype and craziness.”

The difference between branding and direct response

In the marketing world, there are two somewhat divided camps: branding and direct response.

The branding people create advertising that attempts to make the client or customer feel a certain way about a product or service. McDonald’s runs seemingly non-stop ads featuring smiling people eating hamburgers and enjoying milk shakes. Its slogan is a carefully crafted: I’m Lovin’ It!

If you like vodka, then you’ve probably seen the print ads for Absolut. Here’s one of my favorites:

absolut vodka

You can see 60 more Absolute ads here.

The theory?

  • Produce clever, funny, and entertaining advertising.
  • Spend a small fortune on media placement so the ads are pretty much everywhere.
  • Hope that people react positively to them and flock into stores and restaurants to enjoy the product.

Here’s a problem: “pure” branding ads NEVER have a measurable call to action.

Proof? The super-clever ad above does not even try to persuade you to call a toll-free number or visit a website or redeem a coupon. With apologies to my brothers and sisters in the branding world, measuring ROI is, at best, guesswork when it comes to branding ads.

In the direct response world, we produce advertising with one goal: persuade someone to take a specific action that leads to a sale. Direct response advertising is measurable. It’s accountable.

The raw results are there for everyone to see. If it works, keep using the copy. If it fails, try something else. Direct response copywriting is not for the meek.

Bottom line: It works

Legendary advertising man David Ogilvy is famous for creating famous brands, but he loved direct response more than branding. Watch this video to hear his take on the subject:


Direct response copywriting is, admittedly, somewhat formulaic…and yes, it can be obnoxious, especially when the product isn’t exciting.

For instance, the golf industry has produced some of the most obnoxious infomercials ever created. Like this video:


See what I mean? This video is pure direct response advertising written by a direct response copywriter. Clients are justifiably worried that direct response copy will ruin a brand because customers will equate the company with hype.

And that’s totally understandable.

Direct response = Sales (not necessarily hype)

To allay any fears, it’s important to understand that many of the world’s top brands use direct response techniques.

Let’s start with LL Bean. Here’s a simple product.

LL Bean ad

As you review the ad, notice the direct response elements: offer (free shipping); the upsells (complementary products); benefit-laden copy; total clarity in the presentation of the product; the guarantee.

You might think of LL Bean as a company that sells high quality outdoor equipment and clothes. But LL Bean is a direct marketing company that uses direct response techniques… including direct response copywriting.

Is it obnoxious?


“Mr. Branding” himself, David Ogilvy, started his business by mailing letters to prospective clients. That’s a direct response exercise. He also wrote ads that appeared in major newspapers. Here’s one of them.

old ad from Ogilvy & Mather

The ad provides a classic example of the “How To” headline. It’s not “clever” and it’s not “creative” but it’s effective. It uses another powerful direct response technique: providing information. It also ends with a clear call-to-action.

This presents a pure example of direct response copywriting. And it’s NOT obnoxious.

Furthermore, it perfectly maintains “brand integrity.” Ogilvy and Mather became one of the world’s most financially successful advertising agencies and David Ogilvy retired to a chateau in France.

Here’s an important lesson from Ogilvy and others

You CAN have your cake and eat it, too.

You can (and should) use direct response copywriting techniques in your marketing, so you measure the return on investment.

Hype isn’t an issue, and it won’t hurt your brand. In fact, the tone of your copy can perfectly complement and even augment your brand. The skilled direct response copywriter can turn up the volume or turn it down depending on the product and the audience. In fact, here’s a ‘volume’ guide I give to clients.

For example, when I’m selling financial products, I turn down the volume. When I’m selling cleaning products, I turn up the volume to 11. When I’m selling information, it’s somewhere in the middle. Energetic copy converts well in the golf space.

You can use the power of direct response marketing to help you sell products and services. You can simultaneously make people feel great about your brand.

Yes…as those mid-80s Michelob branding ads used to bleat…You Can Have it All!

Scott Martin is a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also written or edited 18 books including The Book of Caddyshack: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Scott provides free resources for marketers including direct response checklists.

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