You Will Never Stand Alone If You Stand for Something

By Ben Hart

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, I was one of the very few conservatives on campus.
I knew of maybe five or six other students who were also conservatives. We got together and started a renegade conservative student newspaper called the Dartmouth Review. Many of the articles were humor and satire, with a right-wing edge. Part of the role of the paper was to explode the notion that conservatives were humorless, stodgy fuddy-duddies who did not like sex. The paper was often accused of being sophomoric, which did not hurt our feelings much because many of us were sophomores.

At any rate, the paper caused shrieks of outrage across the campus. There were protests outside the Review offices. The college administration tried to shut down the paper. It would not allow the paper to be distributed in student mailboxes or placed on tables in any Dartmouth facility for people to pick up (or not) as they wished. When we distributed the paper door-to-door in the dorms, we were chased by campus police. The Dartmouth faculty assembled and voted 113-5 to denounce the paper and recommend that the paper be banned from campus. Where was the ACLU? Review editors were hauled before the College disciplinary committee on absurd trumped-up charges and recommended for expulsion.

One Review editor was charged with having photocopied a press release that was in plain view on the bulletin board at the college news service. He then used part of it for an article he was writing for the Review. He was charged with theft. He escaped punishment after a full-day of Kafkaesque kangaroo court hearings.

Another Review writer was charged with being rude at the cafeteria when there were no strawberry pancakes for breakfast, though strawberry pancakes had been listed on the menu. This became known as the “strawberry pancake incident.” Though Anthony had been perhaps too vociferous in his complaint to the cafeteria manager about the absence of strawberry pancakes, he did not deserve suspension. It was clear to us that he, like Clarence Thomas, had been targeted especially hard by Administration authorities because he was a black conservative. Plus he was a very funny writer. And quite a few professors did not at all like his articles describing what was really going on in their classrooms. Anthony was doomed.

But a funny thing happened.

Students came out of the woodwork to join the Review. We soon had scores of students writing for the paper, selling advertising (for 20% commission), and helping with distributing the paper in the dorm rooms and across campus, chased every step of the way in Keystone Cops fashion by overweight huffing-and-puffing campus police.
I wrote a bestselling book about the founding of the Dartmouth Review titled Poisoned Ivy. This was the first book to point out the “political correctness” problem that infects academia. “Political correctness” is the enemy of freedom of thought and speech.

The paper was controversial. It was also an exciting place to hang out. I wrote a subscription solicitation letter to all Dartmouth alumni. The college produced a directory of all alumni, so we simply keyed the list into a computer. We knew nothing about direct mail marketing at the time, but I figured this list was valuable. I wrote a letter describing the paper and what we were trying to do. I made it very clear that this was a conservative student newspaper with an edge.

Another point I stressed was that the paper would give alumni the truth about what was really happening on campus. No longer would alumni have to rely on the official Alumni Magazine (written and created by Dartmouth’s fundraising department) for their news about what was happening at Dartmouth.
My letter was four pages, plus there was an order form. We mailed it at bulk rate since we could not afford first-class postage. We also mailed it in stages because we could not afford to mail all alumni at once. Without knowing it, we were doing many things right.

I had written a letter because we could not afford a slick four-color brochure (I did not know then that letters are always best and that slick brochures almost always depress returns). We were also testing and then rolling out as the letter proved successful (again, having no idea that this is the correct procedure in direct mail marketing).
Not only did subscriptions pour in, we received several $1,000 donations, one $5,000 donation and even one $10,000 contribution. We soon had more money than we knew what to do with. In fact, we quickly had a yearly budget of about $200,000—not bad for a few students. The Dartmouth Review soon became a major student enterprise. In fact, it’s still publishing today, 27 years later.

What made the Dartmouth Review an astonishingly successful student marketing venture was that it stood for something.

The controversy this renegade student paper generated attracted a lot of media attention. CBS’s 60 Minutes did a story on the paper, which turned out surprisingly favorably for us. The liberal 60 Minutes producer and reporting crew clearly had in mind a hatchet job on the paper, but apparently liked the students and did not like the administration’s efforts to crack down on a student journalistic project. Evidently, concerns about the First Amendment trumped the liberal ideology that reigns at 60 Minutes.

The point is, if you stand for something, especially if it’s controversial and in the minority, you will gain followers. And your followers will be committed and loyal to you. This is why Rush Limbaugh has been such a successful radio personality. The more outrageous he is, the more he is attacked, the better he does, because the more his audience likes him. Michael Savage pushes this strategy even further. Ann Coulter is making a very profitable career out of saying controversial, often outrageous, things. Her books are always bestsellers.
I’m not arguing here that you should agree with any of these people or with me on politics.

The point is, when you stand for something, and when you are attacked for your position, your friends, those who like you, those who agree with you, will rally to your side. “The enemy of enemy is my friend” is the logic here. “If the people I oppose don’t like this guy, he must be doing something right,” is another way to put this principle.
Being controversial and outrageous may be the easiest way there is to make a lot of money.

Howard Stern understands this as well as anyone. There are few radio personalities more successful and profitable than Howard Stern. He is attacked all the time. I don’t like him much. But there he sits, laughing all the way to the bank.

Every commercial enterprise can apply this principle to improve their marketing and selling.

In all your marketing, tell your prospects why you are different, why you are not at all like your competitors. Explain why you defy “conventional wisdom”—which, by the way, is almost always wrong anyway.
Defying conventional wisdom, by definition, differentiates you from the crowd and draws attention. Defying conventional wisdom, by definition, tells everyone you are different. You will do very well simply by doing the exact opposite of what the conventional wisdom says you should do.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is a terrific example of how this can work for a run-of-the-mill product where there is almost infinite competition. How do you make ice cream different?

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream became popular at exactly the same time we were being told everyday to get rid of all the fat in our diet—that fat was terrible for us, that fat was the lead cause of heart attacks. Ben & Jerry’s made no secret of the fact that it contains more fat per scoop than any other major ice cream brand.

It also tastes a lot better because it’s so thick and creamy—precisely because it contains so much fat.

I’m a very health-conscious person. I’m not overweight. But I would much rather eat Ben & Jerry’s than any other ice cream because it tastes so much better. Diet ice cream never made much sense to me. Nor lite beer. Diet Pizza does not make much sense to me either. Ice cream is supposed to be dessert. It’s not supposed to be good for you. It’s supposed to be a treat.

If you want to indulge yourself, why not indulge yourself with the best tasting stuff?

Yes, you’ll have serious health problems if you eat Ben & Jerry’s all the time. And you won’t be doing yourself any good if you drink beer as though it were water. But you’re not supposed to do that. Ben & Jerry’s was successful because it made a conscious decision to make the very best tasting ice cream without concern for how many calories or how much fat is in each scoop. I’d rather have one great tasting, high-calorie Heineken than five Miller Lite’s.

In marketing, narrow is the gate to paradise. The more identifiable you are, the better you will do. Never try to be all things to all people. Never worry about controversy.

In fact, controversy can be great for you, your product, and your business. Controversy will get you noticed, will attract attention. And as long as your position, your stance, has a constituency, your path to profit is a clear one. Your task then is to find your constituency. More often than not, if you are at all competent, your constituency will find you.

All you have to do is put the bait in the water.

Turns out a lot of people did not want low-fat ice cream. Turns out a lot of people do not care what the Surgeon General thinks. Turns out a lot of people just want ice cream that tastes great, no matter what the fat content. Turns out people were sick and tired of blandness and sameness in their ice cream. What they wanted was Cherry Garcia.

So be different. Never be afraid to say exactly who you are and what you stand for. Stake out your role. Never shrink from controversy, as long as it’s defensible controversy. The great thing about the Conventional Wisdom almost always being wrong is that you will become automatically controversial simply by clearly stating the truth. And controversy will cause people to talk about you, and this is good for your business.

So don’t worry about controversy and don’t try to be all things to all people in the vain hope of gaining a greater market share. If you keep these principles in mind, you will attract loyal followers.

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