Barry Callen's Marketing Words of Wisdom

The power of marketing lies in humility and acceptance.

August 28, 2013

Barry Callen’s job once depended on the kindness of Johnny Cash. One of Callen’s first marketing gigs was to get the “man in black” to participate in a TV commercial for a blood donation telethon in Texas.

“My whole job hinged on it, at a time when you couldn’t buy a job,” Callen recounts of the day decades ago when he met the music legend at the Houston Astrodome before a show. “I would be out of a job if this commercial didn’t work.”

The only problem: Callen had never made a television commercial before. He didn’t know the required length or that he was supposed to bring a script. He ended up writing one on the spot. “I didn’t know anything,” says Callen.

But Cash graciously agreed to do the ad anyway, Callen kept his job, and the future marketing consultant, author, and teacher learned an invaluable lesson about humility that would guide his career.

Over the course of his entire professional career, Callen estimates that more than 160 clients—from Coca-Cola to Famous Footwear—have invested about $500 million in his ideas. Even so, Callen is confident he doesn’t, and never will, know everything about marketing.

“I think one of the traps for people like me is to think we know,” says Callen, who teaches at CUNA management and marketing schools, oft en helping students avoid marketing pitfalls.

He also is the author of “Perfect Phrases for Sales and Marketing Copy” and “Manager’s Guide to Marketing, Advertising, and Publicity.”

Callen offers these “words of wisdom” for credit union marketers:

►The power of marketing lies in humility and acceptance. Marketers can’t be arrogant.

►Effective communications relies on a set of highly dependent variables. Each market is different. Each credit union is different.

►General principles apply, but finding out what your audience wants and testing the message are critical. 

►Zig when others zag. Dare to be different. This takes a lot of guts to do because we all have a sense of what a professional credit union ad should look like.

►Psychological trumps logical. Aim for the heart, not the head. The heart beats up the head and takes its lunch money every time.

►If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you’re lucky and have a winner, stick with it. It’s not easy.

►Always throw out multiple ideas for testing. Sometimes good ideas are dead wrong. It’s detective work.

►It’s easy to unintentionally market to yourself instead of your audience if you’re passionate about a cause, surrounded by true believers, and have spent your entire life working for that cause.

►One of the most dangerous things you can do is to think you know what your target market wants. It’ll surprise you every time.

►Accept and respect your audience. Don’t force your ideas on them. Changing people is hard to do.

“If you want to be an effective marketer,” Callen says, “you have to say to your audience: ‘Yes, you are that way. I am unlikely to change you. I just need to find a way to build on the way you are, to connect to what you already care about and believe.’”

NEXT: The teeter-totter theory

The Teeter-Totter Theory

Empathy goes a long way, says Callen.

“It helps to love people and to be curious about people. I love exploring different emotional terrains,” the marketing expert says.

That’s because creating action in humans through advertising requires understanding two very human impulses: fear and desire. Think of it as a teeter-totter, Callen says, with fear on one side and desire on the other.

“As marketers we try to discover the desires and fears that influence decisions. We increase the desire and decrease the fear. When the teeter-totter tips, people will act,” he says.

But make sure you’re looking at the fears and desires of your audience and not the ones you think they have.

“People do things for their reasons, not yours. Most people don’t devote nearly the amount of thought and study to your area as you do,” says Callen.

‘Maybe he’s right’

As you acquire more experience, it becomes more important to grow in humility and acceptance, according to Callen.

Don’t rest on your laurels. What worked once, might not work again. Every situation is unique and requires dedication to constant research and analysis.

“If you’ve been in a field for more than seven years, it’s easy to think that the way you solved problems or had success earlier in your career will work in the future,” Callen says. “Secretly, in our hearts, we remember our successes.”


Callen likes to share a story about the legendary advertising creative director Bill Bernbach, whose notable ads include “Mikey” for Life cereal and “Think Small” for Volkswagen. Bernbach is oft en referred to on the TV show “Mad Men.”

Legend has it that Bernbach carried a card in his wallet with the phrase: “Maybe he’s right.” “It’s one of the ways he kept himself from being fossilized,” Callen says. “I think that humility is cool.”

To receive a free white paper—“PitchPerfect™ Message Strategy: How to find the most powerful thing to say to your target audience”—email Barry Callen and mention the phrase “CU Magazine PitchPerfect white paper.”