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Lesson #2: Take It Personally
“One of the cornerstones of the Lillian Vernon Corporation is a ‘feminine’ value, if ever there was one: the personal touch,” says Vernon whose company has come to represent an extension of herself. By understanding and successfully playing the name game, Vernon was able to take her company to the top.
From even her earliest days of working out of her kitchen, Vernon knew that she wanted to keep her company personal no matter how large it got to be. She refused to mail her catalogs to ‘current resident’ even though it might have attracted more customers. Instead, Vernon insisted on sending mailings only to named individuals. “At my company, we sell to people,” she says.
As the company grew, Vernon remained the personality behind the brand. As a young housewife and mother, she used her own identity to appeal to her female customers that were similar to her, which represented the majority of her clientele. She became one of her company’s most popular marketing techniques, with a personal message signed by Vernon and a picture of herself on the front inside cover of every catalog she published.
Vernon claims that playing the name game made all the difference in her company’s success, allowed for greater and more valuable publicity, made the move into new product lines smoother, and helped the company weather some of its more difficult times. She acknowledges that in today’s competitive direct-marketing industry, a strong brand identity is one of the keys to success. “In the past half century, the number of catalogs has topped 10,000 from just 25 when I began,” says Vernon. “All are clamoring for the attention of today’s increasingly busy consumer.”
It is in this world that Lillian Vernon stands out. In her personal messages that line the covers of each and every catalog, Vernon stresses that she is the customer’s personal shopper. “I want customers to know and relate to me as an individual, and to understand that my company is a reflection of myself,” she says.
Unlike Betty Crocker, a brand put together by marketers to appeal to housewives, many in the industry were surprised to learn that Lillian Vernon was a real flesh-and-blood person. When she signed her first big contract with Revlon, its Chief Executive Charles Revlon had been shocked to meet Vernon, thinking that she was simply another concept launched by marketers. But, it was Vernon’s unique personality branding that distinguished her from her competitors.
“Lillian Vernon Corporation is, in many ways, an extension of myself,” she says. “As a merchant, I believe in my company enough to use my products in my own home. Likewise, as an employer, I believe in my employees enough to make sure that they know that they work for a person – me – and not an impersonal institution.”
However big your company gets, Vernon believes that there can be no substitute for ensuring it remains personal. “For women entrepreneurs, the personal touch should come naturally,” says Vernon. “Use it.”
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