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Still think a brand is just a brand? You have to check this out

Still think a brand is just a brand? You have to check this out

April 15, 2010

Soon it will be time for summer vacations and museum visits. We're only about an hour drive from the mecca of all museums in Washington, D.C. and I'm sure you've been there or you've heard about the horror stories of long lines, hot, humid summer days and children who would rather get a flu shot than visit one more museum.

But, there's one museum children love to visit so much they'll actually volunteer to clean up their rooms just to get the opportunity to go. And get this, parents love it too! It's one of my favorites.

I'll tell you why in a moment ...

LeRoy Ripley created a Big Zig by building a brand around the strange and unusual that led to a radio show, TV show, books and museums.

The important thing to keep in mind is that this one museum stands out from every other museum in the world because it created what I call a Big Zig -- a big, bold powerful brand. So while the museums zag their way through the market this one zigs its way through the hearts and minds of millions of people worldwide.

The museum was named after one man who was a master of using the Big Zig to his advantage. His name was Robert LeRoy Ripley, creator of 'Believe It or Not.'

In the early 1900's, he was one of the most famous men of his time. He was as well known as Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum. According to the United States Postal Service, he received more mail than Santa Claus and perhaps more than anyone in history. Sometimes he received over a million pieces of mail a year.

He grew up in Santa Rosa, a small town in Northern California, dropped out of high school his senior year and signed on as a pitcher for a semi-professional baseball team. But he was also a good artist. He started to draw postcards for his baseball team. He left baseball, worked at several newspapers before landing a job at the New York Globe.

What's important about this progression is when planning a career, the steps that you take to advance your career aren't always linear. Ripley focused on developing his core competency over time. Eventually, his core competency, which was reporting on what was interesting, unusual and odd became his full time (and very lucrative) career. He was the master of the Big Zig. He knew how to differentiate himself by finding the unique and weird in other people.

When he worked at the Globe, his job was to draw cartoons of sporting events. One day, in 1918, there wasn't anything to draw, so he started to draw weird comics about sports odysseys. He drew about a man who was able to hop 100 yards in only 11 seconds. Next he drew about a man who held his breath under water for 6.5 minutes. Finally, he drew about another man who had jumped rope 11,800 times without stopping.

Champs And Chumps (Ripley's First Oddity Foray)

He originally titled his cartoons; 'Champs and Chumps,' but the editor didn't really like the title. They really weren't champs and chumps. So he changed it to a wonderful name; he called it 'Believe It or Not.'

By December 19, 1918 his cartoons became so popular that the editor asked him to draw all sorts of other things. The Globe began occasionally featuring Ripley's cartoon, and as it grew in popularity, it increased in frequency. At first it ran on a weekly basis, and then daily. It started in the world of sports and moved onto other subjects. Over the years, he created over 340 categories.

Ripley received so much mail that it was like he had enlisted millions of people to work for him. He ran contests, he challenged and rewarded people. And what were the rewards?

The rewards were fame and recognition; being part of something larger than themselves. He prom'ised that when good ideas came, they would be published, and people would be recognized. He received such weird letters that they were signed in Morse code, in confederate civil code, in sign language, some were written on tin, wood, turkey bones, and once even a grain of rice. Some were addressed to the 'biggest liar in the world', but he took them all! The more outra-geous ' the better.

The way that he lived his life was a reflection of his innate understanding of the Big Zig. He relished in gaining others' attention. He dressed wildly and colorfully. He had two-tone shoes and he would wear batwing ties. One person described his appearance as a 'paint factory that got hit by lightning.' His flamboy'ance extended to his homes as well, including his house in Florida, his Manhattan apartment with 13 rooms and his 28-room mansion on his own island that he called BION (short for Believe it or Not).

Challenge your audience ' and create a following

Ripley used his articles to put challenges out to the world. He claimed that nobody had been able to invent a machine that could twist a pretzel into the shape that bakers have been doing for centuries. A company called the Redding Pretzel Machine Corp created a patent on the first pretzel twisting machine. This little company from Pennsylvania broke the barrier doing what no one else could ever do. Redding Pretzel Machine Corp. did that through his challenge.

Are you challenging people? Or are you simply stating facts in your marketing and on your website like a dictionary?

Ripley was also very bold. He boasted that he had never made any mistakes in his column, and for years he was able to prove the truth of every item.

Nevertheless, Edward Mier, president of Ripley Entertainment, said there were maybe one or two false claims a year. 'Ripley sincerely believed that if something had been in print, it was gospel,' Mier said. If Ripley didn't have it in writing, he would try to get a photograph. And he challenged his audience to prove him wrong!

There was a very unusual postmaster in Iowa named Leon Harbour, who was so completely convinced that Ripley was a liar and that his columns were full of bunk, that he made disproving Ripley's column the center of his life. For more than 26 years, he wrote nearly a letter a day. Every time Ripley mentioned someone in his column, Harbour took the time and energy to track down these people and write them a letter asking them to verify Ripley's claim. He wrote to more than 22,700 of them. 10,363 wrote back; not a single one ever contradicted Ripley's claim!

By the 1920s, Ripley's column appeared in dozens of papers around the country, but his big break came in 1927. This is a great message of the Big Zig. Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic and the world was in love with him, except for Ripley.

Ripley took a different approach to Lindbergh, claiming that 'Lindbergh is the 67th man to fly non-stop over the Atlantic Ocean'. Lindbergh was simply the 'first to go alone'. This made readers crazy with anger! 170,000 people sent letters denouncing Ripley and criticizing him for picking on their hero. However, here's the instructive point: this publicity made his book, Believe it or Not! a best seller and it turned Ripley into a celebrity of awesome status.

He was willing to put his neck on the line and say something that was controversial, some-thing that was different. He was willing to zig when everyone else was zagging. Everybody was talking about how great Lindbergh was and Ripley took a different angle. What can you do in your business that's different from everyone else?

As you can see, Ripley's entire approach to business was creating one Big Zig after another. That continues today, long after his death, in his museums. They're filled with the odd and unusual including 4-D movies through a mine shaft, rare artifacts and unbelievable discoveries that can't be found anywhere else.

If you haven't checked one yet, I highly recommend it. I bet it will be one museum the kids will actually WANT to visit!

Always taking you from where you are to where you want to go,


Jon Goldman



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