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June 28, 2022

There’s gold in the old (and the new)

On Saturday, we were planning to take our daughter Mabel to Exeter on her first train ride.

Instead, we went on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, a restored steam train high on the North Devon coastline.

The train puffed and whistled as we made ourselves comfortable in the restored Victorian carriage.

As we chugged slowly along the track, Mabel bounced from one side of the carriage to the other, shouting “Baa Baa’s!” and “Moo Moo’s!” as she spotted freshly-shorn sheep and inquisitive cows.

The entire 2-mile-round-trip lasted just 25 minutes, including 5 minutes for the locomotive to detach itself from the carriage, crawl to the other end, and re-attach itself for the return leg of the journey.

When we returned to the station, the conductor spotted me crouched down with Mabel, pointing out the steel track.

“Are you having a good time?” he asked.

“A great time,” I replied, as Mabel shuffled under my arm and frowned at the elderly man, “she’s grumpy today but you’ve managed to cheer her up a little!”

The man chuckled and we moved on to buy a Fruit Shoot from the old station cafe.

I then read on the information board that, despite being operated entirely by volunteers, it cost millions to restore just 1 mile of track and train.

I have no idea whether that makes any commercial sense, but from my perspective as a customer, it was worth every penny – and I’m thankful to everyone who made it happen.

Had we gone to Exeter as planned, I’m sure we’d still remember Mabel’s first train journey, but the memory will be so much sweeter with the puffing smoke, whistling chimney and Victorian carriages.

Having said that, it would be an oversimplification to say that the steam train is better than the modern train that runs between Barnstaple and Exeter. They serve different purposes.

The former provides a unique experience for families, train lovers and amateur historians. The latter gets you from A to B relatively quickly and cheaply.

At the same time, the modern train is only possible because of its steam ancestor and the mountains of rail engineering knowledge developed over centuries.

The same is true in marketing.

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier, cheaper or faster to communicate with markets than it is right now.

On the other side of the coin, the endless possibilities make it more difficult than ever to decide what to say, where to say it, how to say, and who to say it to.

There’s an endless array of marketing media, techniques, and goo-roos with “proven” plug-n-play templates. As a result, it’s easy to get bogged down, overwhelmed and frustrated by marketing.

In my experience, this is easier to avoid when you have a firm grasp on the foundations – simple principles to guide all other decisions.

For example, when you know that the sole purpose of a headline is to grab the attention of someone in your target market, it becomes much easier.

You can safely ignore the 1001 headline formulas, forget about what your aunty’s dog might think, and drop your worries about whether it should be 5 or 500 words.

Just write something that your target market would find difficult to ignore.

Simples.

In other industries, it would be unthinkable to approach the work in any other way.

Case in point:

If an engineer thought, “oh great, we now have the technology to make a solar-powered train!” but then ignored the underlying principles – knowledge developed over centuries – of how trains work, the thing would fly off the track before it reached full speed.

On the other hand, if an engineer built a train based on solid foundational knowledge – but refused to utilise technology like electricity and diesel – the journey would take 10x longer than necessary and cost a fortune.

In reality, train builders combine modern technology like electricity with rail engineering principles to produce trains which are relatively fast, safe and cheap to run.

It would be unthinkable to ignore basic principles when building a train, boat or plane – but for some reason, it’s the norm to focus on marketing technologies and neglect the underlying principles.

Both are important, but I’d argue that the principles are the more important. Why?

Because it’s better to arrive slowly than crash and die.

Best: combine the old and the new to create white-hot marketing which is fit for purpose.

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