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The Playbook

Duane Jones and the Blarney Stones

How a cost-conscious advertising man literally moved mountains with self-liquidating premium offers

In the autumn of 1938, a mysterious report appeared in the Irish Times newspaper. 

An unknown American businessman had reportedly appeared at Blarney quarry and ordered ten tons of limestone on the spot. He paid for the stone up-front, left instructions for shipment to the United States, then left, telling the quarry owners that “further consignments would be required at a later date”. 

Nobody knew what he wanted the stone for. Some locals reckoned the American was a furniture or flooring industry magnate. Others thought he was planning a full-scale replica of Blarney Castle, which had been built from the same limestone seam five hundred years earlier. The truth was far more exciting.

Duane Jones & Co Inc

The mysterious businessman hadn’t bought the stone for himself; he had been hired to act on behalf of a Manhattan advertising agent named Duane Jones. Frugal and unassuming, Jones didn’t fit the mould of the typical New York ad man. He spoke with a stutter, often disagreed with his clients over trivial issues and was known to cancel his own advertising campaigns if he wasn’t happy with their performance. He was also one of the best marketers of his generation. 

In 1935, he had successfully tested a brand new advertising technique called Self-Liquidating Premium Offers. By 1938, he was using this technique to sell all kinds of consumables (everything from macaroni to tea). With his big order of Blarney stone, Jones was gearing up for the most ambitious campaign of his career.

The Self-Liquidating Premium Offer

In 1930s America, household staples like soap and tea were expensive markets to break into. Brand loyalty was high — customers rarely abandoned their normal choice of cereal or pasta — and it was almost impossible to get owner-operated retailers to take a chance on a new product. Advertising campaigns and road sales teams were expensive investments, too. Manufacturers who wanted to grow their market share had to be ready to spend a small fortune just to get their product onto store shelves. 

Jones’s Self-Liquidating Premium Offer strategy was designed to help brands in these tough markets. It was a simple twist on an old idea. With a Premium Offer, a consumer would be promised a free gift (a ‘Premium’) if they sent proof of purchase (typically a product label) and postage costs (typically 25 cents) to the product manufacturer. The difference with Jones’s Self-Liquidating Premium Offers was that the ‘free gift’ always cost less than 25 cents to make and distribute. That way, Jones’s campaign always paid for itself (in other words, it was ‘Self-Liquidating’), and didn’t eat into his clients’ profit margins. 

Jones’s first attempt at a Self-Liquidating Premium Offer had been for Bab-O floor soap in 1935. Back then, Jones used radio advertisements to promise a pack of flower seeds to anyone who sent in the label from their can of Bab-O (along with 25 cents). The ad was a roaring success; within three weeks of his radio campaign airing, Jones had delivered six months worth of sales for his client. Over the next few years, Jones experimented with different gifts, including silk stockings and lipstick. He soon learned that the more desirable the gift, the more sales he could win for his clients. The only limit was cost; for the strategy to work, the free gift had to cost 25 cents or less. 

Moving mountains …one pebble at a time

Jones had his slabs of Blarney limestone shipped from Cork to New York, where each slab was immediately smashed into tiny fragments. A local jeweller then set each chip of stone into an ornate charm bracelet. The whole process cost Jones just 8 cents per bracelet – well under his 25 cent limit. With a little lateral thinking, Jones was hoping he could turn each fragment of cheap rock into something as precious as a gemstone. 

“Every woman since her school days has heard of Blarney castle and has heard of people travelling to Ireland just to kiss the Blarney stone.” wrote Jones. “Here, for 25 cents, she is offered an opportunity to kiss a fragment of this famous stone by simply using the product once.” 

The offer of an ‘authentic Blarney charm bracelet’ hit home. 10 days after the Blarney charm bracelet offer was first announced on the radio, 300,000 American households had sent in their labels. The orders kept coming in for months. Bab-O’s manufacturers, and Jones’ jeweller, could barely keep up with demand. 

Jones kept the Blarney stone offer going for as long as he could. Every month he ordered more stone — and manufactured more bracelets — until Irish authorities literally rewrote export laws to prevent any further shipments of Blarney stone. By the end of World War II in 1945, Jones was out of bracelets, but it didn’t matter. Sales of Bab-O had grown from 600,000 to 5,000,000 cans a year. Bab-O had gone from seventh to first place in the floor soap market, and Jones had made its owners a massive profit in the process. 

A rock-solid ROI 

Jones’ Self-Liquidating Premium Offers seemed too good to be true. Even Bab-O’s executives, who had benefited directly from Jones’s work, were suspicious of his results. On the one hand, they worried sales would plummet if the premium offers ever stopped. On the other, they complained that it was impossible to prove that the customers writing in for bracelets weren’t already Bab-O customers. Jones must have had his doubts too, because he surveyed 6,000 Blarney Stone charm bracelet recipients to find out. 

Of the households surveyed, 50% were already Bab-O customers. The other half were new customers who had never bought Bab-O before the Blarney stone offer. Three months later, the survey checked in again with those new customers, and found that half were still using Bab-O. This meant that every new lifetime customer was ‘costing’ Babbitt Inc. no more than four bracelets (or 32 cents). At the time, the profit on a case of Bab-O was 86 cents. Whatever way you looked at it, Jones was growing Bab-O’s sales profitably.

Duane Jones’s Legacy

Self-liquidating premium offers are still in use today (Shell’s Salt Water Cars promotion is a recent example), but Jones’s legacy goes beyond one single marketing gimmick. What made Duane Jones so special was his unshakeable commercial discipline. When designing marketing campaigns for clients (including Tetley’s Tea), he made sure that — from day one — every new sale would put more money in his client’s coffers. He refused to hide behind metrics like ‘reach’ and ‘customer lifetime value’ when spending his client’s money, and he transformed the advertising industry as a result. 

Jones’s commitment to innovation is worth remembering, too. Jones’s first flower seed trial worked really well — he could have stuck to flower seed offers and made his clients a lot of money — but he challenged himself to do better each time. 

The Blarney Stone campaign was just one of hundreds of initiatives that Jones spearheaded in the mid-20th century. He wrote a book in 1955 called “Ads, Women and Boxtops” which is worth a read; it’s out of print, but second-hand copies are available online.