Marketing Lessons From the 20th Century

Historic case studies in great advertising and copy

Marketing Lessons From the 20th Century
Photo by Ben O'Sullivan on Unsplash

My all-time favourite piece of marketing copy is from 1958.

David Ogilvy ( the master ), for Rolls Royce.

“At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Eighteen words to tell the story of luxury.

Only eighteen words to demonstrate how much care went into making a Rolls Royce. A single line told the story of how elegant it was to drive this car, and how refined you were to own one.

Ogilvy was the master. If you’ve never read any of his books, you should. But he’s hardly the only marketing icon from yesteryear that has something to teach us.

Long before David Ogilvy was talking about the luxury of Rolls Royce, a man by the name of William Scholl was building and telling stories about the company he founded, Dr. Scholls.

Too often, when we talk about great brands and the story of their rise, we talk only about what’s “sexy”.

We laud Apple, Nike and Coke Cola for giving us “Here’s to the crazy ones.”, “Just Do It.”, and “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”.

We talk about and revere these companies and the campaigns they created to introduce and to keep their products in our lives.


If we only look at the sexy, we’re missing out on so many great stories from brands that may, at first glance, seem less than glamorous.

Enter the world of feet.

In 1906, in Chicago, Illinois, a Mr. William Mathias Scholl founded the Dr. Scholls company. To this day, ( though long ago sold to a conglomerate ) Dr. Scholls is one of the leading makers of foot comfort products.

Big company. Very successful.

William Scholl was obsessed with feet. He was a businessman, but he dreamed of providing comfort and care to the hard-trodden foot of the early twentieth century.

His first product to solve those foot woes, the one that started the company, was decidedly un-sexy.

Dr. Scholl’s made and sold insoles. Formed inserts that went inside shoes to provide support, padding, and comfort.

Sidenote: They didn’t call them insoles initially. The products originally were labeled Foot-Eazers…because why not.

The original Dr. Scholls insole came in one variant. It was brown and it was sized for men. You see, William Scholl built his product for the modern man. The man on his feet all day. The hard-working man. We’ll get back to this later.

So, Dr. Scholls has their insole. The business starts moving along. They’re making sales, convincing some shoe sellers to carry their products, but they’re not lighting the world on fire.

This will soon change.

Early to Bed and Early to Rise, Work Like Hell and Advertise

By all accounts, William Scholl was a master salesman and, as all good salespeople know, it’s all about working hard and telling a great story.

That line — “Early to bed and early to rise, work like hell and advertise” — was how Dr. School explained credited his success.

William Scholl was an early-days marketer and he was extraordinary.

The marketing initiatives that he came up with, I’d argue, would be as valid today, as they were in 1906. He focused on education, and he prioritized the needs of his partners (shoe sellers ), as well as his customers.

A Focus on Your Partners

Dr. Scholl made the decision early on that every insole had to be custom fit to every customer. At first, they make each insole by hand, but as sales increased this became impossible. It would take too long for people to get their insoles, the friction would kill sales.

Dr. Scholl knew he needed to find a way to allow for quick customization of his insoles. He knew if he could get that solution in the hands of the shoe sellers themselves, he’d remove a significant barrier.

Enter the Rent Paying machine.

Wait, what?

Yes, the Rent Paying Machine, a relatively simple device of his own design, usable by anyone (certainly by shoe sellers and cobblers ), to custom fit his Foot-Eazers to the unique arch of every foot.

This “arch-fitter” allowed shoe sellers to make a quick and precise adjustment to the Foot-Eazers, customizing the insoles on the spot. They made the product more useful, demonstrated to the customer that effort (and a little something special) was going into the product. The machine itself got people talking.

The idea was a good one, but the name was where it became genius. Dr. Scholl knew that by focusing the marketing of the device on the needs of shoe sellers, to make more money for themselves, to in effect help pay their rent, he’d have a significantly easier time convincing them to sell his products.

Not only did he position the device in a way as to benefit his shoe sellers, but he also gave it to them for free, at significant cost to himself. He invested in his “partners,” he bet big on the people on the frontlines believing firmly that their success meant his success.

From a newspaper ad attributed to William Scholl:

“Then again, the machine makes talk — people ask what it’s for, then they say, ‘Well, I’ve seen those Scholl Foot-Eazers advertised in the magazines, show me a pair,’ then you sell a pair and make a dollar. If I can double your business on Arch Supports I can well afford to give you an Arch Fitter, for naturally you will keep on selling the Scholl Foot-Eazers, and Scholl Arch Supports because you will find them the best.”


Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve their problem(s). Helping shoe sellers make more money, put more food on their tables and prosper in business is the goal, selling more Dr. Scholls is the byproduct.

Now that he’s addressed the needs of his first audience, shoe sellers, we move on to their ( and his ) customers…the shoe-wearing public.

Marketing Affects the Product, As It Should

How do you take advantage of a slow manufacturing process?

Manufacturing in the early part of the last century was difficult, it was expensive, and it was more manual labour than anything else. Creating a product at scale took a long time, a lot of people, and a ton of money.

New products were the most difficult. Any scale you could achieve relied on replication and simplifying production tasks, any customization meant a reconfiguration of that process, and because of this new, different products were few and far between.

So, how do you take an existing product line and begin to offer more variety? How did Dr. Scholl give himself the ability to tell his stories to a broader range of people?

He started by cutting his Foot-Eazers in two.

He pulled a number of his Foot-Eazers, once completed, off the line and had them split into two pieces — the front half and the back half.

Thus was born Scholl Arch Supports and Scholl Heel Supports.

Now Dr. Scholl had new stories to tell, new foot problems to address, and all he had to do was take his existing product, made by an existing process, and add a new twist.

Same product. Different application. New price points. The perfect example of marketing affecting the product.

Genius. But Scholl doesn’t stop there.

If you recall, the original Foot-Eazers came in brown, but that’s another easy change. With the addition of a few new materials, Dr. Scholls begins offering Foot-Eazers in black and grey, to better match with a finely tailored suit.

Now Dr. Scholl is really humming. He starts thinking about tailoring his products to a specific audience, telling unique stories, and he’s off to the races.

  • He made pink insoles (to keep things feminine) for women.
  • He came out with smaller sizes in patterns for children.
  • He introduced double thick (extra comfort) insoles for the sporting man.

Dr. Scholl would make a relatively minor change to the product, weaving a tale of how he made that product special for each and every demographic, all without having to reinvent anything.

Now we need to be clear on something: Dr. Scholl believed in his products. He was obsessed with feet and foot care. He genuinely thought he was doing important work and his products reflected that. These minor customizations, while minor, were all based on a quality product — a product that helped people. He was not merely putting lipstick on a pig with these changes, and he didn’t make a change and throw the product out the door. He spoke to his audience with care. He was at the forefront of a foot-care revolution and the marketing moves he made were in pursuit of that mission. Profit came, but it was secondary.

Be more like Dr. Scholl. Care deeply. Build something worthwhile. Be savvy with how you put it out there, what it looks like, and how you help the people who need what you have to sell them.

A Case Study in Killer Marketing, From the Early 20th Century

I’m often reminded how little we humans have changed over the years.

We think ourselves so advanced, so savvy, so worldly in 2019. Yet, time and again, the things that worked well before most of us got here, still work and are still relevant.

Whether it William Matthias Scholl in 1906 ( and onwards ), or David Ogilvy in the 50s and 60s ( and onwards ), the thought and care that went into their work, and into the stories they told, are just as relevant today as they were then.

In the words of Seth Godin:

“Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become. It involves creating honest stories — stories that resonate and spread. Marketers offer solutions, opportunities for humans to solve their problems and move forward.”

That’s what we’re doing folks. Those are the stakes.

I hope you enjoyed this one.

Now get to work!

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