The most Overused Concepts in Direct Marketing

As an art director by trade, I can appreciate the art of a good concept. Especially one that enhances the message, fulfills the strategic goals, and promotes the brand. But in the constant pursuit of “standing out” from the competition, direct marketers tend to fall into some traps.

One such trap is the overuse of conceptual symbols and devices. It’s not always the agency’s fault. Sometimes it is case of a client seeing something they like… and well… passport overused  they pay the bills… and you know how the rest of the story goes. Clients may suggest ideas but anyone worth their salt is going to know how to take those suggestions and make it their own.

The first step in creating an effective dm program is to stay clear of these overused concepts. You may be tempted because they will seem so perfect for your message but let me be your voice of reason. They are so perfect because they symbolize the broadest, most topline concepts. They are also perfect because you have seen them hundreds of times before. Stand out from the crowd! Don’t fall into this trap.


The passport concept is so tempting because it is the symbol of travel and adventure. It is the perfect concept for a program that requires participation at multiple locations or highlighting products by organizing them by location. It’s perfect because it is the easy way out. All you need to do is print up a dark blue booklet, throw some gold foil stamping and include the word “Passport” somewhere on the cover and you have an insta-concept.

Nancy Harhut, my current Executive Creative Director and the 2004 NEDMA Direct Marketer of the Year, has accumulated a large collection of these passport concepts: “A Passport to Savings” or “A Passport to Adventure” or “Passport to 6 New Dishes at the Olive Garden” Each concept the same.

Maybe that’s why so many people do it. And the main reason why you need to avoid it.


The compass concept is commonly used because it points to direction and guidance. A great message to communicate especially in the industry of financial planning. But even for packages that include actual compasses, it carries no perceived value anymore.

A search at Branders. com pulled 19 different customizable compasses. And for what? What does a compass really say? Proponents would say it illustrates that the customer is confused and the advertiser will show the way. What it really says is you are trying to buy favor from a customer with a cheap giveaway.


Real maps are cumbersome and unwieldy. And they serve their purpose of getting you from Point A to Point B. So of course, marketers will use the map device to take a customer through the necessary steps.

Like the passport and compass, the map is used way too often. Most of the time maps give a greater feeling of confusion than of guidance. Frequently, the execution is subpar: filled with superfluous embellishments and legends, and overcrowded with useless detail.

Do yourself a favor and try to organize this journey differently. Sometimes you can say the same thing with a well set bulleted list or sidebar treatment of a brochure. Do us all a favor and save the maps for when you really need to use one.

I realize that we, as marketers, are hyper-sensitive to direct marketing campaigns. I also realize that the average customer is not smart enough to know the difference. But in the business of relationship building, we owe it to both our clients and their customers to deliver unique messages. Don’t worry, you get something out of it: a better response rate.