The Secret of Transubstantiation, Part 1

“No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered with a searching but at the same time a steady eye.”

If you take the time to “get” the marketing secret I’m going to tell you about today — the way I got it years ago — it could make you a much more powerful marketer, a much more effective business leader, and, ultimately, a much wealthier retiree.

During the past 15 years, I spent a considerable amount of time teaching young copywriters the secrets of direct marketing. Most of what I taught was the handed-down wisdom of the legendary advertising masters of earlier times — such master advertisers as David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Claude Hopkins. But a few of the secrets I shared were my own. Or at least they seemed like my own when I taught them.

Of course, we never know how truly original our “original” ideas really are. There are always strands of past influences in the fiber of new concepts.

But, that said, several times in my career I’ve had the experience of a sudden illumination, an insight into why things are or how things should be done that feels new and even revolutionary. That’s the feeling I had when I came up with the idea of “transubstantiation” — an idea that is one of the cornerstones of the AWAI  copywriting program.

You may be familiar with the word “transubstantiation” in the same religious context where I first encountered it. It means the changing of an ordinary substance into one that is extraordinary, and, as part of the Catholic Mass, it is used to describe the miracle by which bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. “And do not think that transubstantiation is symbolic,” Sister Christophene warned us. “You’ll get the back of my hand and a thousand years in purgatory for even thinking so.”

For devout Catholics, transubstantiation is a literal change. The wine that was, a half-hour earlier, just a product of Gallo’s vineyards is now the actual blood of the Savior. It’s unlikely, of course, that a DNA test would bear out such a conclusion, but people of faith understand the power of believing.

Perhaps as a result of being taught by Sister Christophene for three years running, I believe in the power of transubstantiation too — at least as it relates to business. I believe that it’s possible to completely change a business or product from something ordinary to something miraculous. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is how most great new developments (even scientific and social developments) occur.

What happens is this: For years, you and your friends have been wearing narrow-cut pants. They look good, and they emphasize the slimness of your legs. The only problem? The cuffs keep getting caught in your penny loafers. As the years pass and the size of your shoes becomes larger, this problem gets worse. One day, you wake up with an idea: “I know how to fix this. I’ll make the bottom of the pants longer and wider. That way, there will be no chance that they will get caught in my shoes.”

What you’ve done is transubstantiate trousers. You’ve taken an ordinary pair of chinos and turned them into something new and wonderful: bell-bottoms! Here are some more examples of transubstantiation in the marketplace:

  • A plain eraser becomes white-out.
  • A simple typewriter becomes a word processor.
  • A boring sandwich becomes a wrap.
  • A commonplace pair of sunglasses becomes a pair of photo-sensitive eyeglasses.

The secret to transubstantiation is this: It begins with an idea that seems like an impossibility and is advertised by a claim that sounds like a lie.

Let’s say your job is to sell bread. You’ve tried every sales, marketing, and merchandizing trick in the book to boost sales, but nothing has worked. The problem, you realize, is that you are selling bread. If only it could be something else . . . something more important, more exciting, more amazing.

You decide you will develop a bread that is more than bread. It will be something else. What will it be? You think about the possibilities and then decide: “My bread will do more than merely feed people. It will transform them into beautiful, muscular athletes.”

You’ve got the impossible idea. Now you need to make the questionable claim. You spend some time brainstorming with your people and come up with it: It will be called Wonder Bread — and it will build healthy, beautiful, muscular bodies in 12 ways. That sounds great, everybody agrees. But the bread you have doesn’t actually do that. It’s ordinary white bread. And that’s not good enough. OK. No problem. We’ll improve the bread.

You tell your product people to reinvent the product to make it capable of building the body in 12 different ways — and you tell them to make sure it looks, smells, and tastes like it does too.

Four months later, everything is ready. You are no longer selling ordinary bread. You are selling renewal, renovation, and personal transformation. And guess what? It works. Sales skyrocket, and your customers love the product.

Before long, you have a half-dozen varieties of Wonder Bread — one for heavy people, one for skinny people, one for people with wheat sensitivity, one for people who eat only natural ingredients, etc. You began with a boring product that wasn’t selling. But instead of hyping the marketing — shouting louder, as it were — you transformed the product. You did it by having the courage to commit to creating the impossible and selling the improbable.

Now, here’s an example of how transubstantiation might work for someone on a personal level:

Your 240-pound friend Anthony walks into the office one day and tells you that he is a triathlete. “What do you mean, Anthony? Are you saying you are interested in becoming a triathlete?”

“No,” he tells you. “I am a triathlete now. In fact, I’m a very successful triathlete.”

Upon further questioning, you discover that Anthony has an unusual idea about what it is to be a triathlete. For him, it’s not a matter of achieving some level of accomplishment — competing effectively in a certain number of events, winning medals, etc. No. For Anthony, being a triathlete means simply that he is practicing the sport.

Anthony knows that if he defines himself as a triathlete he will be doubly blessed: He’ll get the psychic reward of thinking of himself as being something he wants to be, and he’ll be more strongly motivated to keep working at it.

And so he does. A year later, he is entering competitions and winning prizes — and is, by anyone’s definition, a triathlete. You thought he was foolish for saying so earlier on, but he wasn’t. He was smart.

In his book “The  Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell explains that most revolutionary social and business changes occur when some gradually developing awareness of a problem or opportunity suddenly reaches a point where the need for a solution or an answer becomes overwhelming. At that point — the tipping point — the first person with a new idea becomes rich and successful.

That new idea, the one that solves a mounting problem or answers a growing opportunity, is usually a revolutionary iteration of a longstanding thing. In other words, it is usually a product of transubstantiation.

There is no question about it: If you can learn how to transubstantiate your business, your product, your service — or yourself — you can reap some life-changing rewards.

A friend of mine has used transubstantiation to turn himself into a personal success story. I’ll tell you about him — and how you can do it too — tomorrow.