Media Scene

Charlotte’s Ruth Castleberry honored for advertising skill

Ruth Castleberry
Ruth Castleberry

Charlotte advertising pioneer Ruth Castleberry made her reputation by figuring out what sparked people to buy things and framing ad campaigns around it.

When she was handling advertising for Charlotte-area Subway franchisees, executives at the restaurant chain’s headquarters noticed that the region’s shops were outperforming those in the rest of the country. They came down to find out why.

Subway had been founded in Bridgeport, Conn., as a sub shop for college guys and aimed their marketing at young men. But Castleberry wondered if that was on target.

She came up with a questionnaire that required people to fill out cards for a drawing and noticed that half the entries were from working women. She found out they were attracted to fresh ingredients.

So Charlotte-area stores began stressing that in ads and marketing to women, and sales surged. Subway executives changed their marketing strategy nationwide. Soon Subway’s slogan was “Eat Fresh.”

Last week, Castleberry, 69, was honored with the silver medal from the American Advertising Association Charlotte, the ad club’s highest annual honor.

“Ruth is among the most forward-thinking agency owners Charlotte has ever had,” said Bo Haynes, creative director at Parsons Corp. She brought unprecedented research and analytical methods to the local advertising scene, he said.

“American business goes about some things backwards,” said Castleberry – it figures out what it wants to make, then starts thinking about how to market it.

Castleberry was always curious about what motivated consumers and tailored her pitches to that. “You just have to figure out why consumers are buying what they’re buying,” she said.

Reta Thorn, a former silver medal winner, said Castleberry was a pioneer in using psychographic targeting to reach customers. She was also a mentor to young account executives.

“Ruth encouraged many young salespeople to step outside of the box and think creatively,” Thorn said. “She showed them how to write proposals, how to tie into the creative process, and how results would be measured.”

Castleberry’s first campaign was for homebuilder John Crosland Jr. in 1975. It was a tough market – interest rates were high and the economy was uncertain.

Castleberry called recent homebuyers to find out what made them choose a house then designed a campaign based on her findings.

It showed a glass of Alka-Seltzer and proclaimed the “four-way relief” offered by Crosland Homes – they’d help with loans, allow people to rent with an option to buy, buy back the home if people lost their jobs within two years and would purchase the former homes of buyers like car dealers allow a trade-in.

Crosland sold 160 homes in 14 weeks.

“It really is about understanding why people buy,” she said. “I love what I do because if you can figure it out, it works.”

She keeps her hand in the business through her company, Castleberry Consults. She is selective about picking clients and does pro bono marketing for the YWCA.

Advertising seems tougher now because the channels to reach potential buyers have fragmented. “It’s hard to break through,” she said, “because people are inundated so much.”