Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar

In the dizzy marketing world of social media, Hi-Def TV commercials, YouTube self-promo videos, over-the-top PR campaigns, digitally animated billboards and glitzy special events, there's one approach that always seems to get short shrift.

This is a great story, published recently in The New York Times, edited here for brevity sake. It makes the case, at least in one person's marketing campaign, for considering that most basic of promotional formats: a headline, a visual and a simple message, printed on one side of an 8 1/2 x 11-inch sheet.

As Rod Serling might have said: "Submitted for your approval...the humble flier."

Welcome to the October edition of Not Your Usual Marketing Tips from JDK Marketing Communications Management.

"Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar...and How to Build a Brand"

For nearly 15 years, Dan Smith has plastered New York with fliers promoting his guitar lessons. And in the process, has become a cult icon -- and successful entrepreneur. Why even John Mayer is taking notice.


Anybody who has ever set foot in a Manhattan coffee joint, bodega, or laundromat will recognize the following exhortation:

Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar.

For those of you outside New York, these are the simple words seen on ubiquitous fliers that have enabled Dan Smith to follow his musical muse and become Gotham's most widely known guitar teacher. By combining the basic tools of paper, printer and photocopier, with a free introductory lesson, Dan Smith has created a brand that keeps him flush with 20 to 30 students at a time, soaking in his relaxed go-at-your-own-pace approach to teaching guitar. Here's our Q&A:

When did the flier campaign start?

I started teaching full time around 1996. I had been fliering heavily to get to a point to be solely a teacher, but they weren't the same ones you see today. The fliers have evolved. I put myself on the flier in 2003, but people say they've seen my face for 20 years. We all have exaggerated perceptions of things.

Did they always have the simple "Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar" slogan?

Some form of that. I wanted to be as simple and straightforward as possible, but also set myself apart by having something that nobody could copy, like my name and face. Nobody can out-me me.

They seem to be everywhere. How often do you put up fliers?

They seem to be everywhere, but there are large parts of the city I don't flier. I am only one man wearing out shoe leather. I hang them whenever I can, on an ongoing basis. It's a bit of a dilemma because it works, which means I'm teaching, but then I don't have time to put up fliers. It's a nice problem to have.

Where do you put them up?

Wherever anyone can see them. I've been told fliers have been seen in Brooklyn even though I have never put one up there. People hang them for me out of their own enthusiasm, I guess. Some storeowners don't want the fliers, but others want them because it's a conversation piece, and I've been told it's a "stamp of approval" that makes a new business legitimate. All I want is a good spot.

The fliers definitely have a cult following.

It's got a strange life to it. There's a legion of blogs out there, John Mayer copied them, and people have posted a bunch of YouTube videos. Generally speaking, the reactions are positive. If nobody were paying attention, I wouldn't be teaching.

What is it specifically about the Dan Smith fliers?

That's an easy one -- the fact that they're everywhere. I'm consistent, and people know that this isn't a lark. I'm creating a brand. Everybody knows Coke, but it never stops advertising. Week-in week-out, month-in month-out, year-in year-out, I'm out there. The fliers penetrate people's perceptions, so all kinds of mythology have grown up around them. Consciously or subconsciously, people think of every other one they've ever seen, even if it's partially covered up.

How does it turn into sales?

Like any business, I get a lot of tire-kickers. Unlike other businesses, I probably get a lot more drunk and stoned teenagers leaving long rambling messages. Fortunately, I get a lot of people interested in playing guitar. It's not a school, which appeals to people who want to learn at their own pace. The lessons are focused and results-oriented, but it's a non-pressured relaxed atmosphere. Some people want to become great guitar players; others want to learn to play a single song at their wedding or to sing to their baby. It's great for me because I get to meet all kinds of people.

What is the financial set up?

There is a pay-as-you-go option for $100 an hour, but I also offer lesson plans, which are pay-in-advance and come with a discount. For example, there's a 10-lesson plan for $800. It's been a very successful model because the plans have a workable schedule with flexibility for real world encroachments. People know after 10 lessons they will learn something, although you get back what you put in.

It seems you've had quite a ride.

I have people dressing up like me for Halloween. I never would have imagined that. And it all starts with this low-fi, low-tech grassroots campaign. A two-year-old recognized me. Couldn't even say "guitar man" yet and was too young for me to put a pick in his hand, but who knows? Kid might need lessons one of these days.

Entrepreneur Spotlight
Name: Dan Smith
Company: Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar
Age: 39
Location: New York City
Founded: 1996
Employees: 0
Revenue: Undisclosed
Web site: www.dansmithguitar.com


Wasn't that refreshingly simple? Come by the first Tuesday of next month when we post on the virtual community corkboard another edition of Not Your Usual Marketing Tips.

Joel Kweskin
704.846.4835 office
704.575.8850 mobile
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