What Santa taught me about advertising and business

Why should I advertise?

This question bugs me immensely. I’ve heard it from the smallest of small operations and from some of the biggest. But I have to contend that these business owners and runners have never been taught why, and honestly, it’s not really covered in most marketing and advertising textbooks either, not to mention business books. 

These people, who shall not be named, don’t believe that advertising and marketing is a vital cog in their day to day operations. No matter the data or years of case studies to support or even justify this “airy-fairy” service’s existence, they still believe “If you build it, they will come” (without letting anyone know what it is, where it is, why it’s unique, etc.).

As an industry, we need to break it down for our clients, but we have to start at the beginning. When a potential client asks, “Why should I advertise?” What they’re actually trying to say is “I don’t believe advertising works, why don’t you prove to me it does?”. That elephant in the room needs to be, in the most politically correct manner, culled. 

But, we can only do that by proving it works. This should be the point where I abandon this existential task of writing to an audience with whom I have no relationship or rapport, because who am I to say what works and what doesn’t? 

I suppose anecdotes and examples would help my cause. So, I’ll begin with my grandfather’s scrapyard, and subsequently my family’s business. 

Buks Delport Motor spares, Johannesburg South

My grandfather/Oupa, grew up in a poor-ish part of town. Poor in the sense that it is wedged in an industrial district and that he and his siblings had to find work from very young ages to help provide for the family. 

Eventually, he had to drop out of school because of these commitments. His daily grind was to go around to other people’s yards and collect scrap pieces of metal and car parts mostly. 

That turned out to be relatively lucrative as in those days most people did their own mechanic work. From there, he attempted to fix those parts, and that turned into a business and scrapyard that would become my playground as a child.

Today, I look back at the success of that business, trying to find out how he could ever have made it the success without proper education or advertising? It’s taken me a while but what I have come to realise is that while he might not have had an “education”, he did have the knowledge that comes from experience, the type you only get by trying and failing, and trying again. And in a way he did advertise and market his business. He did it through storytelling.

From scrawny kid to Santa of the South

Buks Delport

I remember growing up thinking my grandfather is a giant of a man. With his barrel chest, battle-hardened hands, sleeveless shirts and short jean “pant”, he was a pretty intimidating figure to look at, but he always wore a smile. He had this magnetism about his personality that drew people closer, and before they knew it, they were getting his life story whether they wanted to hear it or not. That never mattered as his stories were so well crafted with quirks, suspense and a sense of optimism that you actually didn’t mind hearing it again and again.

His telling of his own narrative wasn’t necessarily advertising, but in a sincere way, it was self-promotion. However, the “real” storytelling came from the PR and publicity stunts he created that really helped promote his business. The difference between his marketing and what we’ve come to expect from the corporate world today is his was authentic.

1.      Word of Mouth

Growing up, Oupa was a scrawny kid, with no real meat on his bones. One day he was asked by his father to help to clear out of cemented in steel poles from a ±100m stretch of road. The poles were to be taken to the dump, which didn’t sit well with Oupa. “There are at least a few hundred kilograms of metal sitting there”, he thought.

So, he proposed that they should instead try to remove the cement and sell the scrap. His father wouldn’t hear of it, because the cement was so hardened that it would take days to remove it all. But he left Oupa to his devices to return later that day. 

When his father returned, he found this lanky boy passed out with a pile of pristine steel poles freshly cleaned with not as much as a fleck of dust on them. His father was stunned and couldn’t figure out how on earth this undernourished kid could have hammered off all of that caked cement.

Oupa later explained that he knew he couldn’t just let all that metal go the waste, so he tried to hammer it off. But try as he might, nothing would shake off that concrete. Not until he got so frustrated that he struck the poles with his hammer instead of the caked concrete. That’s when he noticed the vibrations from hitting the metal shook the cement so much that it would crack and fall off. 

This story would become a staple of his teachings to us grandkids. Even if frustration leads to the ultimate solution, the lesson was clear; Think differently and you will find a way.

2.      PR and Awareness

He came third in the National Strongman competition somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s, and he never even trained for it.

There he was, a complete outsider, having only “worked out” on V8 engines and the general heavy lifting of parts from here to there. He stunned the crowd, as well as the other competitors, at NASREC so much it made it onto the 7 o’clock news on the then SAUK (SABC now). 

That was his PR. Even the local community newspapers picked it up and lauded the local boy that did good, citing his business name and address.

3.      Press, Radio, Mobile Outdoor Advertising, and Activation

My grandfather was in the stunt business. Not many people can say that, even though the professional sense of being on a movie set or equivalent lacks in mine. 

He was a stuntman, not the Evil Knievel style, but he provide the vehicles. He would sponsor American muscle cars that would jump through burning double-decker buses (also sponsored by him) at Wembley Stadium in the south of Johannesburg. The genius of the sponsorship was that for weeks before the stunts, passersby at the yard could see the sign writer working on adding “Buks Delport Motor Spares” in large letters with the address and phone number to the bus. 

The sign writer, an old family friend, Pat, whose full name I can’t recall (I still believe it is Pat Signs), would usually add in a quirky illustration of an old man riding what looked like a decrepit Model T with speech bubbles saying things like: “I’d better get down to Buks Delport”.

A week leading up to the stunt, Oupa would drive that bus through the streets of the South promoting the event. At the event, newspapers and cameras were at the ready to capture the death-defying leap a 2 ton Cadillac/Rover was going to do through a fire engulfed double-decker bus. 

After the feat of sheer madness, Oupa would begin the repair of the bus and Caddie for the following year’s jump. 

Now if you are a scrapyard/workshop, and you want customers to trust you, there is no better way of achieving it than by jumping a perfectly good car through a bus, then repairing said vehicles and doing it again.

The one thing most people of the South will remember about Oupa Buks is the charity work he did every Christmas season (August-January) for 38 years before his passing in 2013. He was the Father Christmas of the South, and he had sleighs and helpers, and Mrs. Claus was always by his side.

Oupa took an old 58 Ford Bedford truck (the second incarnation or MK2 of the sleighs), machined, welded and hammered it into a red Santa’s sleigh, fully equipped with 4 life-sized prancing fibreglass reindeer on a 12-foot spring-loaded lever attached to the front. 

It was this 58 Bedford that would travel around, then apartheid South Africa, and deliver food, clothing but most importantly presents to the underprivileged blacks and underprivileged whites that were marginalised by society (yes, the repeated “underprivileged” is intentional). 

A story that sticks out for me was when Oupa travelled to a township in or outside Boksburg, it was during an anti-apartheid protest, and the police barricaded all entrances to the township trying to contain the “violence”. 

I can only imagine the officers’ faces when a large, not to mention unlicensed, sleigh with a man in a red suit, fake white beard pulls up and demands to be let through because it’s Christmas, claiming (all in Afrikaans of course); “I have presents to deliver”.

My grandfather would giggle like a schoolgirl retelling how these officers were going to have uphill trying to convince him otherwise, and how their jaws dropped when a phone call came through from some high ranking official nearby granting Santa Claus entry to the rioting township. 

After stories of the Santa escapades, they always took a vulnerable and intimate turn, when he would explain why he would do such a thing at such a time, and for so many years. His response was simple. He wanted to make the people, and especially the kids, smile for a change. He said the smiles on their faces when they received the gifts of food, clothing or even stuffed toys were why he did what he did. It was all worth it, the money that came out of his own pocket, the long hours driving, repairing the truck, my gran’s year-long knitting of stuffed dolls, all of it was worth it. It was worth the difficult times and good times, all just to spread a little bit of hope.

My grandfather’s success in business came from hard work, discipline, integrity and most of all gratitude. His marketing and advertising of his business turned it into a trusted well-known (in the South) brand, that trust led to sales, the hard work and high standards on every job led to repeat business, but it’s that repeat business that enabled him to give back something way more exceptional. 

If he hadn’t pushed so hard, advertising without advertising, I wonder what his business would look like? What those Christmases would have been like for so many? 

Luckily, he did get his name out there and let everyone know who the man behind the name on the shopfront was and what he stood for.

I am forever grateful for those stories and the man I remember.

Going back to the question of why you should advertise, and does it work, all you need to do is ask yourself:

  1. What if 10% more people knew about my business?
  2. What if you could write, design and craft your message about your best attributes to match the questions in their minds as to your trustworthiness? 
  3. Would that improve your bottom-line? 
  4. And finally, what would you do with a better business and brand? My answer: do something great.

Written by Sarel Delport. Buks Junior

Need help with marketing and advertising?

Give us a call or contact us here. Our team of brand experts are here to help.