E. W. Cole and his humanitarian guerilla marketing campaign

by Sayraphim on November 22, 2012

When I was young I had one of the many “Funny Picture Books’ put out by E. W. Cole, a book merchant from Melbourne. Each page had 2 or 3 columns of text and pictures like an old newspaper and had stories, jokes and cartoons of various sorts. As I recall I never found them very funny, but I loved the big black book cover with the colourful rainbow stretching from spine to bottom edge.

That was all I knew of E. W. Cole back then. But over the past couple of years I’ve been finding out more. He owned a massive book store in Melbourne which opened in 1883 and was filled with not only a proclaimed ‘1,000,000 books’ but also had a fernery, a Chinese tea salon, a cage of monkeys and iron hens that would lay eggs (that were mostly filled with sweets but occasionally with a handkerchief, much to the disappointment of the child receiving it). There were constant entertainment acts including bands and jugglers, a wonderland with funny mirrors, a lolly shop and a café were you could sip a cup of tea while immersed in the books.

E. W. Cole was also an excellent marketing man and a firm believer in humanitarian ideals, and he had a really interesting idea of how to combine these two things, which is the point of this blog post.

Cole had metal medals (or tokens) made up with humanitarian mottos on both sides and his store information in smaller letters and he would scatter them around the streets for people to find. Each one also featured his brand images of the palm tree or a rainbow. He referred to them as ‘little missionaries for the spread of educational knowledge’. If people bought them back to the store they could be exchanged for three pence. Alternatively, people could buy them in store and they would allow admission to the second floor (where the orchestra played) when the store was busy.

However, usually people kept them. Some had a tiny hole and could be used as a pendant or placed on a watch chain, serving as a perpetual advertisement for the store.

I love the idea of scattering mottos of how to live a good life around for people to find and take, especially back then! I also like that although it was marketing, Cole was genuinely attempting make the world a better place, which is a rare thing in the marketing world. And it warmed my heart that this was going on in my town and in the streets I work in over 130 years ago.

That’s pretty damn awesome.

All the photographs of the tokens come from the Museum Victoria website and are all part of their E. W. Cole collection, which you can find here: The Museum also has items from Coles’ Book Arcade currently on display as part of it’s Little Lon exhibition.

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