Creative Marketing Secrets from Van Harden

What’s the secret of Iowa’s most creative marketer? It has a lot to do with personality. 

Van Harden is considered by many to be a broadcasting legend. With over 40 years in radio, he has helped lead 1040 WHO Radio to be the top station in its market, winning 13 national Marconi awards from the National Association of Broadcasters, five of which were awarded to him personally. You may know him best for his nationally recognized Van and Bonnie morning radio show, his book Life in the Purple Wedge, or his Cheese Crust Pizza. I know him best as “dad.” 

Listen to Van and Drew discuss the interview

So how has he won all these awards and made his radio show the No. 1 Iowa morning show for years? The answer comes down to two main ingredients: hard work and creativity. In fact, Van has become synonymous with creative marketing in his industry. He has created hundreds of memorable promotions over the years that have spiked the interest of thousands of people in not just Iowa, but around the country and the world. His creative campaigns have seen him bringing ice cream to the entire Senate in Washington D.C., racing down an Olympic bobsleigh track, and living on a U.S. aircraft carrier - all while entertaining his audience and creating invaluable word-of-mouth for his morning show. 
As marketers and business owners, we occasionally run into roadblocks and struggle to harness creativity. What can organizations take away from Van’s example? My quest for creative marketing inspiration gave me the perfect opportunity to sit down with him and dig a little deeper. 

Van and Drew Harden

Drew Harden interviews Van Harden 

Van’s Experience with Creative Marketing

Drew Harden: Marketers have been using creativity to surprise and delight their audience for years, and you are a master of this tactic. How have you used creativity to market to your audience over the years?
Van Harden: Early in my radio career when I had a radio show in the middle of the day, I noticed that the morning drive time show and the afternoon drive time show were getting lots of TV, billboard, newspaper and magazine advertising that the radio station purchased. My mid-day show got zero purchased advertising. I wasn’t bitter, but I thought, “There’s no way they are going to get all that advertising and promotion and my show isn’t.” So I started doing attention-getting things on my own.  

I did things that made people talk, and I found - as I suspected - that word-of-mouth advertising was even more effective than the purchased ads, and those two drive time shows actually became envious. And the station was thrilled because they weren’t spending a penny for it. People were saying, “Hey, have you heard what that Van Harden guy did on the radio yesterday?” And more and more people would tune in to see what all the talk was about. I don’t think I ever heard anyone say, “Hey, did you see that advertisement in the paper for that morning drive time radio show? That really made me tune in!”
Drew Harden: What are some of your favorite, most creative promotions you've come up with?
Van Harden: That’s a bit like asking, “Which are your favorite children?,” so I’ll mention several. The Van and Bonnie ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ in which we took thousands of listeners 500 feet below the surface of the earth in a limestone mine was a big hit. The “International Leisure Suit Convention” was truly international with people and media coming from all over the globe to attend. People, especially women, have loved our “Van and Bonnie Free Chocolate Breakfast.” 

There are many more, but perhaps the one with the most incredible results was a promotion we did when the Iowa State Fair asked us to help get a big crowd on the very first day to jump start the attendance at the fair. We did the “Van and Bonnie Corn Dog Chomp,” in which we tried to get as many people as possible to come to the fairgrounds during our morning show that day. The goal was to set a world record for the largest number of people eating corn dogs together at the same time. 

The fair agreed to give our listeners free admission and a corn dog if they arrived before 8:30 a.m. that morning. Long story short, 43,000 people came out before 8:30 a.m. The police and security professionals weren’t happy. People were turning around in the median of I-235 because of the traffic jams, and some were jumping out of cars on University Ave., running to get to the gate in time!  

We could only fit 11,000 people in the grandstands while we did the show. The rest were waiting in lines at the grandstand gates, or meandering around the fairgrounds. We were headline news on TV and newspapers all over the state.  

People have asked if we broke the record. Well, we served over 8,000 corn dogs before we ran out, but truth be known, there never was a corn dog record before that. So if I had been the only person to eat one, a new record would have been set. So the answer is yes.   

state fair van and bonnie 

Creative Content Marketing

Drew Harden: In the digital industry, we often speak of content marketing - the practice of creating and sharing valuable content to acquire customers. We see great benefits when our clients provide something that's useful, entertaining or generally adds value to their target audience. How have you employed this "content marketing" approach to your radio audience?
Van Harden: It’s a bit like a good football team. First you have to have the basic nuts and bolts framework, skeletal system of your business. That’s your ground game, like a good offensive and defensive line, runners and quarterback. In my business of sharing content of a good morning radio program, the ground game is quality news, weather, sports, traffic and other information a listener would seek. In another business, let’s say a company that makes and sells office equipment, it might be quality products and great customer service. The ground game is essential, an absolute must. But if that’s all you have, the best you can hope for is an ordinary business. I don’t know about you, but ordinary is not good enough, or enough fun, for me.  

unique creative business

So, just like a champion football team, you want to add to your arsenal the element of surprise, uniqueness and attention-getting! How does a football team do that? Every once in awhile, while the competition is trying to figure out how to beat your ground game, you throw a long bomb. You totally surprise not only the other team, but everybody in the stands, and even though you have a great ground game, that’s not what people are going to be talking about. You get loads of attention, street talk and publicity because you did something out-of-the-box!  People don’t forget that and are interested in you because they wonder what you might be doing next. Meanwhile, your ground game is churning away, moving into the end zone! We have done that by many of the weird, attention-getting shows, promotions or contests we have done.  

What would that long bomb be for the office equipment company, or a hospital, or an accountant, or.… name your business? Since I’m not in your business, I don’t know. But you are there every day. Have some fun brainstorming, or thinking about it in the shower or researching what other businesses have done. In all fairness, just like a football team, I’ve thrown a few long bombs that didn’t work. But you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.

Drew Harden: In the digital marketing world, we love creating unique online contests that grab an audience’s attention. I know you’ve been doing just that on the radio for years. What are some of your favorite creative contests you've come up with?
Van Harden: Once we had 50 fast food certificates to give away. We found 50 old shoes, gave one to nearly all of our staff members and had each hide the shoe somewhere in their own neighborhoods. The next day we had our traffic reporter tell a story about how he was up in his small aircraft trying to tie his show and it fell off. We told the radio audience to call us if they found his shoe and they’d get a certificate for free food.  

Suddenly, phone calls started pouring in from excited listeners all over the city that had found THE shoe. We put them on the air one by one and gave away all 50 of the certificates. Many more people remembered that than if we would have simply asked for “caller number six.”  

Another time we broadcasted the morning show from a Chevrolet manufacturing plant in New Jersey while we watched an SUV being built. At the end of the show we drove it back to Iowa and gave it away in a “hands-on” contest, in which the contestant that let go of the car last won the car! I can’t think of any business anywhere with whom we could not do a promotion.  The possibilities are endless!
Drew Harden: I remember both those contests! My personal favorite was when you got 1,500 people together and gave each one of them a dollar coin. Every time you said, “flip!” each person flipped their coin, then waited for the official flip. People who didn't have a coin that matched the official flip had to exit the competition. The person who remained standing at the end won all the coins. 

Van Harden creative content marketing 

How Can You Make Your Content Interesting?

Drew Harden: We often work with brands that struggle to come up with creative ideas for their blog articles, newsletters or YouTube videos. Some companies feel that it’s too difficult to create interesting content because their industry is “boring.” Our message is that every organization can produce fun and interesting content - it just takes a little creativity and often some insight into what’s trending. What are some tips you can offer businesses that aren't sure how to make the brand fun?
Van Harden: One thing I’ve learned after 40 years is that people are attracted to personality. When interesting, or sometimes even boring, inane things happen to people on our staff or our station in general, we get huge numbers of visits on our blog articles that tell about it. 

I suggest that every business make your company a personality. Share personal things about your business or employees, with their permission of course. If you come up with creative ideas, great. But if you think you can’t be creative you need to know two things. First, you’re wrong. If you’ve convinced yourself you can’t come up with a creative idea, you won’t. But if you have a pulse, you can. Secondly, you don’t need to have the biggest blockbuster promotion in the world to get people interested in your business. Maybe your CEO got squirted in the face by a defective water fountain this morning. Tell the world about it! They’ll laugh and remember your business! No business is so lackluster that nothing interesting happens. Be an observer! Keep your ears and eyes open. Have your staff tell you things that they witnessed!  You and your business are personalities! Act like one!

brands need personality 

Drew Harden: So true! That’s one of the strengths of social media. It’s generally not a great platform for direct sales, but it is a great platform to showcase your brand’s personality. No one wants to be sold to on their Facebook or Twitter feed, but interesting content and culture from your brand can be very appealing. 

How to Keep Your Marketing Constantly Creative 

Drew Harden: One of the easiest things for a marketer to do is to get stuck in a rut and rely on the same tactic over and over. How do you suggest marketers keep things fresh and get comfortable trying new tactics and creative approaches?

Van Harden: Good question, because we're all human and fall into that. It's easy to become a creature of habit. As long as those habits are the basic ground game service elements customers expect from your business, like turning on a faucet and expecting water to come out, that's fine. But food with no spice can be tasteless, gets boring and will even be rejected after a while. That's where the "long bomb" surprise element comes in.

We have brainstorming pizza lunch meetings occasionally that I invite 10 to 15 people to join.  We order pizza and sit around a big table, shouting out ideas of things we could do that would be novel, even crazy. I write them down on giant post-it notes that we stick on the wall for everyone to see. The idea is to go for quantity of ideas, not necessarily quality. The sky's the limit. No idea is too dumb because even if you don't use it, it spurs another idea from someone else. Invite a wide variety of thinkers: accountants, creative types, artists… whatever. They'll think of things you would never have thought of. We had a janitor come up with one of our best ideas, and he beamed when he heard us use it! This makes for great team building too. Just list the ideas. Don't waste time judging or detailing them during your session. You can do that later. 

Also, if you have a new idea, but you are hesitant to try it, do it anyway!  If it works you have a new weapon in your arsenal. If not, don't do it again. Pretty simple. 

And finally, don't restrict your thinking. If you are focusing on your business, put a microscope over it and do a feature on a smaller part of your company. Find a person who is interesting, but you never considered talking about. Or conversely, put a telescope on it and show your businesses in relationship to your industry's universe.

Content Marketing with Van Harden

A Few Personal Questions for Van 

Drew Harden: You get to pose some fascinating questions to interesting people on your show, but don’t often get interviewed yourself. Now I’m going to ask you a few hard-hitting, personal questions. First, what is the most rewarding thing about your job?

Van Harden: When I got into this business it was the electronics and the equipment. It didn't take long to find out the real joy was the listeners. When I was a kid I wrote some letters to radio personalities that said, "You don't know me from Adam, but I listen to you every day and you are like family to me." Now I get variations of that quote all the time, and it warms my heart because I know exactly what they are talking about.  

Drew Harden: What's the most challenging thing about your job? 

Van Harden: Although I'm still hosting the morning radio show on WHO, I recently retired from being Program Director, after 30 years of holding that position. Any busy business person reading this will identify with this. The most challenging thing was keeping so many plates spinning at the same time. That's a reference to the acrobat who used to come on Ed Sullivan's show with a long saw horse that had vertical sticks on which he would spin plates. There were so many plates that by the time he got to the last plate spinning on the last stick it was time to run down to the other end to re-spin the first plate so it wouldn't fall off and break. That is the job and the challenge of many people today. My advice is do your best to keep the plates spinning, but know that occasionally one will drop. Just be sure it's not one of the big ones.

Drew Harden: You have interviewed literally thousands of people over the years, from U.S. presidents to Hollywood stars to the small business owner down the street. What are a few of your most memorable interviews?

Van Harden: One of the first ones I did was Bob Hope, who at the time was probably the most well-known entertainer - maybe person - in the world. That was in the ‘70s and wow, was I nervous! We had a great conversation and it turned out he was just a normal, fun guy. The residents were fun, but more fun were guys like Orville Redenbacher and Colonel Sanders. I just recently interviewed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They've both been on before and besides the meaty issues of the day, we talk about fun things that no one ever asks these people. I asked the Donald if he carries a wallet and if so what he has in it. He said, "This is why I love you guys!" And, you're right, local people are just as much fun, if not more so.

Drew Harden: While we work in different mediums, I think I can say we both have a great appreciation for each other's industry. I spend every day in digital marketing, but I actually worked as a board-op at a radio station years ago. You focus primarily on radio, but you've had quite a bit of control over WHO's online presence over the years. What's your favorite thing about radio as a medium, and what's your favorite thing about the internet as a medium?

Van Harden: Many radio stations ran from social media and technology at its inception. I guess they were afraid it was going to put them out of business. We instead embraced it and made it a huge part of our company. We not only have a 50,000 watt, clear channel radio signal, we also have blogs, podcasts, tweets, emails, personality pages, Facebook, all of that.  This is why the company changed its name from "Radio" to "Media." So my favorite thing about both is that they are really one, a method to present ourselves to others, serve their needs and have fun doing it.

About Van Harden

You can listen to Van’s morning radio show, now in its 30th year, weekdays from 4:59 a.m.- 9:00 a.m. on 1040 AM WHO Radio, on the iHeartRadio app or through the web. Learn more about Van and check out his book at

Drew Harden
Drew Harden

CEO and Co-Founder of Blue Compass, Drew Harden has grown and guided the company from a two-person startup in 2007 to one of the Midwest's leading digital marketing companies today. He's a published author, has been cited by PR News and USA Today, and has led web projects that have been honored by organizations like Adobe and American Design Awards.