In 423 Miles, Turn Left: Brilliant Marketing in the Middle of Nowhere

Last October I was racing across the barren expanse that is eastern Montana and Wyoming in my 2000 Toyota Echo.  With 175,000 miles on it, this remarkably resilient car had already gotten me to San Francisco, back over Donner Pass in an early season blizzard, and through my hometown of Bozeman, MT.  Now I was gunning it across the flats.  I had McDonalds splayed across the passenger seat, Ethan Hawk was reading Slaughter House Five to me via book on tape, and I was in a dotted yellow line-induced coma from driving for so many hours.  Even then, in this zombie-like state, I was still a helpless victim to great marketing.

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota is almost the definition of a tourist trap.  Anyone who has done a cross-country road trip on Interstate 90 has undoubtedly heard of this place and most likely stopped there; the gigantic brontosaurus statue is hard to miss.  I have done the drive more than once (including once on a bicycle, but via a different road) and I always marvel at the brilliance of Wall Drug’s marketing.  It is simple in its perfection: be there first and then repeat repeat repeat.

Humans have a propensity towards things that come first.  On ballots, candidates listed first receive more votes than candidates listed next by a significant margin. I remember being coached to never guess “A” on multiple choice tests like the AP tests and SAT because the test writers know this and make “A” (of possible answers “A” through “E”) the right answer less than 20% of the time.  When it comes to retention, one of the most highly cited papers in psychology, a 1956 paper by Princeton psychologist George Miller, argues that humans cannot hold more than 7 items in our working memory, plus or minus 2.  We also tend to remember the first and last items on a long list of data better than the noise in the middle.  So with only seven slots in our brains to fill at any given time and preference given to what we see or hear first, the application to marketing is straightforward. Possibly no one harnesses this human condition better than Wall Drug.  The first sign I saw for Wall Drug was just outside Billings, MT – 423 miles from the exit for Wall Drug.

And that was just the beginning.  Signs would pop up from time to time in various forms on both sides of the road.  Sometimes there would be several small signs in a row affixed to fence posts.  Others would be painted on the sides of wagons or on enormous billboards next to offers such as “free ice water” or “5¢ coffee.”  Looking for signs almost became a scavenger hunt and by the time I approached the exit for Wall Drug so much anticipation had been built up in me that I had to stop.  Literally, I had no choice in the matter, my hands turned the steering wheel on their own accord. And it seems I am not alone.  According to a New York Times article from 1999, Wall Drug makes more than $10 million per year in revenue from upwards of 2 million visitors.

Everyday we are bombarded with hundreds of marketing campaigns, offers, and cleverly crafted ploys to get us to spend our money on one brand versus another.  Rather than hang its sign just before Exit 109 where all the other restaurants and attractions announce themselves, Wall Drug goes the extra distance.  Again, literally.  Doing so not only made sure I remembered their name, but it made them into a destination, rather than just another drug store in the middle of nowhere.

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