Lessons from a crooked water tower.

First published in BW Businessworld here.

Circa 1980, motorists on the iconic Route 66, passing through the small town of Groom in Texas encountered a strange sight, a leaning water tower slanted at an uncomfortable angle. Passersby were intrigued by the sight, asking themselves what could have caused it? A crashing plane? An earthquake? A tornado? And many of them, terrified that the tower was in the process of collapsing, swerved into the nearby truck stop, thus playing right into Ralph Britten’s hands, the truck stop owner.

When Ralph Britten wanted to start a truck stop and restaurant off Route 66, near Groom, Texas, he bought an old water tower, painted “Britten USA” on it and using bulldozers elevated two of its legs off the ground, dangling them in midair without support, so that the water tower made an unnerving 80-degree angle with the ground. This helped his truck stop and restaurant business immeasurably, with concerned passing motorists swerving into his truck stop shouting; “watch out, that tower’s about to fall.”. Ralph would then calm them down, respond that it had been like that for years, and then ask them to sit down, buy food and drinks and enjoy their break.

The Britten Leaning Water Tower was an ingenious marketing ploy to attract visitors. Ralph Britten understood that people had no reason to stop by at Groom, a small town of less than 600 residents, while on their journey elsewhere on Route 66.  With his creation he demonstrated an uncanny understanding how passing motorists – his potential customers – might behave. And what needs to be done to draw their attention, to get them to visit his truck stop and spend their money there. His genius lay in growing his business by using his advertising device (the leaning water tower) to trigger a natural human reaction.

This anecdote holds valuable lessons for us; marketing and advertising professionals.

In most product categories today, the internet plays an ever-increasing role in helping people discover new brands or research new products or make comparisons with other brands. But the advertising and AdTech industry seems obsessed with strapping technology jet-packs to everything. Digital agencies spend a lot of time talking about re-targeting cookie pool, device IDs, third party data etcetera.

However, it may be worth remembering that all marketing efforts are aimed at real people. And real people have emotions, feelings and certain behaviors “hard-wired” into them. Despite the increasing amount of time spent by people online, browsing, scrolling and shopping, we live our lives “offline”. We feel alive and experience true emotions with simple things like; enjoying a meal with family, playing a game with our children or laughing with friends. Hence, instead of simply obsessing over the minutiae for improving efficiency, in designing marketing and communications interventions we must pause to think about what will people feel? What emotion would it arouse? Or what natural human behavior could be triggered? After all real people buy, the ‘cookie’ doesn’t.

Going back to our story, while Britten’s truck stop closed after an unfortunate fire accident, the Britten Leaning Water Tank still exists in Groom. And even today, passersby on Route 66 stop at its sight. They halt and take pictures, underscoring the point that an idea rooted in natural human behavior is indeed timeless.