“Know Your Customer (er, Mark)”

In retrospect, disgraced financier cum swindler Bernie Madoff may have been a lousy investor, but he sure was a helluva salesman. How else does one attract $50 billion from thousands of investors and financial institutions worldwide?

As best I can discern, herewith are his top five marketing insights (offered in the spirit of public service):

One. Come through the back door, not the front door.

Spam. Junk mail. Pop-up ads. Telemarketers. Embedded advertising. Interstitial ads (interstitial ads??). You’d have to be crazy to answer your front door today, or pick up your home phone anytime between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The typical American consumer is so bombarded with advertising now, if Timothy Leary were still alive, he would have to update his famous advice to “turn off, tune out, and log off.”

The only way to reach people who always have their guard up is to . . . figure out where they don’t. Social settings. Church or synagogue. Fundraisers. The country club dining room or clubhouse.

By all accounts, Madoff was a master at insinuating himself into all of these venues.

Two. Be a tortoise, not a hare.

The stunning thing about Madoff isn’t that his returns were so stellar — it’s that they weren’t: about 10% annually, year in and year out, in an era when many hedge funds delivered multiples of that (it was Madoff’s very consistency that was the biggest red flag).

“Smoldering” vs. White-hot

Consistent, relatively modest performance turned out to be critical for two reasons: 1) a Ponzi scheme that smolders slowly needs a lot less fuel (fresh money) — and is therefore more sustainable — than one that burns white hot, i.e., promises annual returns of 20%, 30% or more; and 2) people who are investing for their retirement, overseeing charitable endowments, etc. want their money managers to be stable, solid, steady.

Such investors don’t necessarily want or need to treble their money — they just don’t want to lose it.

Madoff’s profile — “Uncle Bernie,” “the Jewish T-bill,” etc. — played into that mindset perfectly, and showed mastery of the ultimate marketing dictum: ‘know your customer, er, mark.’

Three. Cultivate an air of inaccessibility.

No, that’s not an oxymoron. As Woody Allen famously observed, “no one wants to belong to a club that would have them as a member.”

Well, Madoff was exclusive — at least until the end, when his need for new money overwhelmed the exclusivity artifice. Almost like a forbidden fruit, the harder it was to hire him . . . the more people tried. Soft sell, indeed.

Four. Make the right people money.

The original viral network? It’s not Facebook, MySpace, or some other product of the Internet — it’s the local country club. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out: all that is apparently fair game poolside or on the greens (or at least I imagine — personally, I’ve never belonged).

The best possible advertising Madoff could have gotten was cultivating an early circle of clients who appeared to be in on the ground floor of something good. These strategically placed “disciples” attracted oodles more money than Madoff could ever have done solo.

Five. Start out honest.

Madoff originally made his name as a friend of the small investor: his computerized trading system dramatically reduced commissions, and therefore investors’ trading costs. Who wouldn’t trust someone like that? Madoff built on that reputation through his philanthropy, board memberships, etc. (Interestingly, money market innovator Bruce Bent (The Reserve) appears to have followed a similar path.)

If there’s a silver lining to all the financial pain that Madoff has caused, it’s that none of these “marketing strategies” is going to work again for a long, long time.

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.

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