Long-Lasting Lessons from Claude Hopkins Most Successful Advertising Campaigns (Part I)

The Cotosuet Campaign

I can’t think of a better way to introduce Claude Hopkins than this quote from David Ogilvy’s foreword to Scientific Advertising, “Every time I see a bad advertisement, I say to myself, ‘The man who wrote this copy has never read Claude Hopkins.’ ”

Claude Hopkins (1866-1932) was an advertising pioneer. He changed the world of advertising and promotion by introducing the following innovations:

  • Test marketing. Run a test campaign, analyze results, refine, and test again to continually improve your results.
  • Sampling. The use of coupons and free samples to let people try your product before buying it.
  • Tracking ad responses using key-coded ads so you can measure and analyze your results.
  • Copy research. Research the product and company thoughtfully to create meaningful and effective copy.
  • Brand images. Images like the one of "puffed cereal shot from a gun" he created for Quaker Oats Company.
  • Preemptive claims. Take an ordinary attribute common to similar products and claim it before anyone else.

Even though not everything he said has stood the test of time, most of his insights are still worth following.

In his autobiography My Life in Advertising (1927), you can find lessons learned from some of his most successful campaigns and mistakes to avoid. Having read both books, I’m partial to this one. It allows you to see the advertising campaigns through Claude Hopkins’ eyes - his thoughts, how he planned a campaign, why he did this and not that.

In a series of articles, I’m going to go over the following campaigns to extract some lessons from them: Cotosuet, Schlitz beer, Palmolive soap, Quaker puffed grains and Pepsodent.

Some things worth mentioning before starting that will help you understand Claude Hopkins better:

  • He was a firm believer in the reason-why advertising. Instead of general claims, pretty pictures, or jingles, an ad should offer a concrete reason why the product was worth buying.
  • He also believed that a campaign should be built around a single overriding selling point.
  • He considered advertising an exact science, not a gamble or a guessing game. It should always be measured and tested. He constantly tested new ideas in search of better results.
  • Advertising, he said, had the power to create new industries, change customs and fashions, build empires, and sway the most intimate habits of millions of people.

Let’s start with the campaign to advertise Cotosuet.

Advertising Project – Cotosuet


Sample and demonstrate. The more dramatic the demonstration, the better.

The Product

Cotosuet was sold as a substitute for lard. Its main competitor was Cottolene, a well-established brand with a strong advertising campaign supporting it.

Cotosuet was a substitue for lard. Hopkins used it to create "the biggest cake in the world."

Campaign Approach

To get attention to the product, Claude created a big sensation. He made "the biggest cake in the world" using Cotosuet instead of butter and advertised the event in the newspapers.

The cake was the main attraction at the opening of a new store. Part of the strategy consisted of offering cake samples and prizes. To win a prize, the customer had to buy a pail of Cotosuet and guess the cake’s weight.

The campaign was a success. Around 105,000 people showed up in the first week. The product gained thousands of users.

They repeated the same successful strategy in other cities, getting similar results.

But then… their main competitor, Cottolene, cut prices. Claude, to make a profit, had priced Cotosuet one-half cent a pound above Cottolene. The price was not affecting sales from consumers, but it was killing the sales coming from bakers, their other target market. Bakers knew that Cottolene and Cotosuet were mostly the same and refused to pay more for one of them.

The easy way out was to cut prices, right? But Claude opted for a different approach, starting with Boston.

Boston was one of the cities where selling Cotosuet to bakers was becoming impossible. Claude took one of the pie pictures they used in streetcar cards and went to Boston’s largest bakery, Fox Pie Company of Chelsea.

He put the pie picture in front of the baker and asked for his advice. He was, after all, the true pie expert. After some discussion, the baker concluded that the pie picture was perfect.

“With pies like that one”, he said, “I sure would sell much more.”

At that point, Claude offered to make some pie cards like that one for him. With one condition, Cotosuet should be advertised as the product used to make the pies. For each carload of Cotosuet ordered, the baker will get 250 cards.

It worked like magic.

Claude repeated the same strategy in other cities and with other bakers. He never brought up the price. Not once. He sold a service.

“I did not sell Cotosuet, did not talk Cotosuet. I sold pie cards and schemes, and Cotosuet went with them.”

Lessons learned from the Cotosuet campaign

  • Nothing gets you further than letting people try the product. In Claude's words, “None but those who regard advertising as some magic dreamland will ever try to sell without sampling.”
  • Show the product in use, how it works, and what it does. Engage the five senses. Let people touch, smell, taste, feel, and use the product.
  • Don’t ask people to buy. Give before you take. Claude Hopkins never asked people to buy. His ads offered a free sample or free information. They sounded altruistic.
  • Sometimes, your product price is not the real issue. Lowering it may not be the only or best solution. Try to find a different angle.
  • Principle of reciprocity. You probably are familiar with the principle of reciprocity thanks to Robert B. Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion published in 1984. Claude Hopkins was already applying this principle back in the 1800s.

A lot of people criticized Claude at the time. They didn't think that what he was doing was advertising. His posture was firm. Advertising is not always about using the right words. Sometimes, samples and demonstrations are the way to go.

More recent campaigns have used product demonstration with great success.

For example, the World Famous Tempur-Pedic Wine Glass campaign illustrates the material's impact absorption by showing how participants set a glass filled with wine on a mattress and then repeatedly attempt to disrupt it by walking, jumping, or dancing on it.

The World Famous Tempur-Pedic Wine Glass
You probably remember it from our early advertisements. Our beds may have changed since then, now featuring more TEMPUR material than ever, the new EasyRefre...

The Will It Blend? campaign consists of a series of infomercials demonstrating the power of Blendtec's line of blenders by blending unusual items such iPads, iPhones, golf balls, crowbars, and so on.

Will it Blend - Car Key Fobs
Uh oh - Tom stole some key fobs from his Blendtec employees. Will they blend?

The Volvo Trucks - The Epic Split feat. Van Damme live test was set up to demonstrate the precision and directional stability of Volvo Dynamic Steering. It shows Jean-Claude Van Damme doing his famous split between two reversing trucks.

Volvo Trucks - The Epic Split feat. Van Damme (Live Test)
Watch Jean-Claude Van Damme carry out his famous split between two reversing trucks. Never done before, JCVD says it’s the most epic of splits -- what do you...

Your product demonstration doesn't need to be so dramatic of course. Headspace, for example, uses a simple animated video to explain the benefits of using its product.

Say hello to Headspace
Download the Headspace app and learn to meditate whenever you want, wherever you are, in just a few minutes a day. Each day, it delivers a new guided meditat...

Here is the complete Claude Hopkins successful campaigns series: