Marketing: From junk mail to mainstream: Businesses and political parties are appreciating the benefits of the direct approach

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DIRECT marketers have cause to rejoice whatever the results of the European elections. In the past few weeks, each of the main political parties have run direct marketing campaigns - evidence that the technique is fast shedding its tawdry, 'junk mail' image.

'Direct marketing is an effective way to reach a particular audience and generate a large response,' Labour's head of fund raising, Michael Cunnington, explains. And in the six years the party has used it, direct marketing has contributed pounds 2m a year to Labour Party coffers.

But it is not just campaigners and fund raisers who invest in the medium. Although traditionally used to sell expensive products bought infrequently, or for short-term, tactical campaigns, direct marketing is now being used for mass-market consumer products.

In April, Heinz announced it will use direct marketing across its 300-strong product range. The company has broken new ground with its commitment to spend pounds 12m a year on 'umbrella' TV advertising, while investing almost as much again in direct marketing.

Direct marketing is set for significant growth, Andrew Seth, Lever's UK managing director told a conference last month. Traditional TV advertising is understood to account for less than half of Lever's pounds 25m budget to advertise its new Persil Power soap powder.

A number of factors have contributed to this renaissance. The recession has forced many marketing departments to reassess their activities and insist on better value for money. Direct marketing - using a range of activities from direct mail to telemarketing, direct-response advertising to mail order - offers reduced wastage through precisely targeted consumers.

Direct mail has grown in volume by 9.5 per cent in the past six months, according to Direct Marketing Association figures. Direct response TV advertising, although still at the experimental stage, is up 20 per cent year on year. The use of telemarketing is growing twice as fast as any other medium.

Consumer confidence in buying products by phone - one of the fastest-growing direct marketing disciplines - is greater than many UK businesses realise, according to Teleculture 2000, a report published by the Henley Centre for Forecasting last week.

This growth has been stimulated by the 'information revolution' which has made it possible for companies to gain access to detailed information on prospective customers, from location, spending habits and income to the number of pets and babies they have.

Also, there is already a high demand from consumers for direct communication with companies - even, in some circumstances, when this means receiving 'outbound' calls - where the marketer calls the consumer - traditionally the most sensitive area of direct marketing.

'Companies are beginning to realise that pure advertising alone is not necessarily the best way of reaching customers,' says Miles Young, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Direct. Traditional advertising does not recognise different consumers' varying values.

Targeting 4 million of the UK's 21 million households enables the manufacturer to concentrate firepower on the strongest prospects, says Grahame Senior, managing director of direct marketing agency Senior King. 'Brands now have a relationship with increasingly closely defined groups of consumers,' he explains.

This personal approach helps to encourage the consumer to make a repeat purchase. 'The days of acquiring new customers are over,' Mr Young believes. 'What's important is keeping and cultivating them.'

But despite its effectiveness, direct marketing has only recently been widely acknowledged. Pedigree petfoods and Nestle's Italian brand Buitoni were already using it, but it has taken the full-scale endorsement of Heinz to prove that direct marketing has finally emerged from the shadows.

'Companies like these are now using it as a strategic part of marketing rather than a tactical bolt-on,' says David Cheek, business development director at direct marketing agency WWAV Rapp Collins. But not all marketing directors are grasping the nettle. 'Most have grown up in the Seventies and Eighties when direct marketing was young. They are more confident with TV campaigns,' he adds.

Too many marketing directors still regard direct marketing as an either/or option - using TV for branding and direct marketing to stimulate action. But increasingly direct marketing is being used to convey brand values.

Few believe direct marketing will ever supplant traditional above-the-line advertising, but many companies are reassessing their use of both. Future growth looks set to come from from emerging users - such as telecoms companies, power suppliers and services. It will also be driven by new interactive technology.

Direct marketing has as valid a role to play as the highest-profile TV campaign, says Mr Cheek. Although few people gossip to friends about the latest mailshot they have seen, one day they might.

(Photograph omitted)