Forget the appearances of knights, pirates, and a smiling hot dog that squirts ketchup on his forehead -- bad shtick is a staple of locally produced commercials. Nor is it his gray ponytail or strangely robotic hand gestures that make them odd. It's Brown's voice that weirds you out -- a high, compressed whisper that sounds like either he's smoked a ton of weed or he's in the midst of being strangled.
Craig Callander, host of a late-night talk show on WCSB, remembers the first time he heard it. He was sleeping in front of the TV when a Norton commercial appeared. "It was his voice that woke me up," Callander says. "It totally freaked me out. It was so different and weird, and I knew I wanted him as a guest on my show."
"Yeah, his voice is a little odd," says Brian Kazdin, the broker who handles Brown's advertising buys. "But he's not an actor. He's a real guy, and that's really the way he talks."
As it turns out, Brown was kicked in the throat by another kid as a child, injuring his vocal cords. Yet behind his peculiar presentation is an uncommonly astute merchant who's managed to become the king of the urban-furniture business.
Brown took over Norton 10 years ago from his father, who ran a modest operation in a dilapidated building at Payne and East 21st Street. Executives at Ethan Allen and Levin Furniture wouldn't look kindly on the location. The neighborhood consists mostly of a few run-down houses, a homeless shelter, and acres of Cleveland State University parking lots.
But the son went to work. He started by selling mattresses in housing projects. He'd cram a few hundred people into a housing-authority auditorium, serve $100 worth of hot dogs and soda, then hit them with a half-hour sales pitch. For months he sold beds by the dozen, until the housing authority barred him from its property. The experience taught Brown a lot about his target audience: mostly poor, mostly black, with couches and beds that were falling apart. They needed their furniture delivered because they had no cars, and they needed low down payments because their credit was trashed.
Brown started buying ads on R&B and hip-hop radio. The commercials brought in a trickle of customers, but not enough to justify the expense. So he launched his ubiquitous TV commercials, which preached the Norton mantra: "If you can't get credit in my store, you can't get credit anywhere."
Today Norton Furniture engulfs eight floors of the building. And though it's filled with statues of Ray Charles, Rodney Dangerfield, and James Brown -- press a button, and they'll talk and sing -- underneath the shtick is a sophisticated operation.
"I wouldn't sell one of these props for a million bucks," Brown says. "Most of my customers are single mothers who bring their kids. I want this to be a paradise for children, so they love it and bring their parents back."
Every Norton customer gets a birthday card. Brown also sends get-well cards to sick customers and sympathy cards to customers who lose a family member. Every person who arrives at the store gets a loaf of bread. Anyone who files for bankruptcy in the city of Cleveland gets mailed a monthly flier, advertising Norton as a great way to rebuild credit.
One employee does nothing but call every customer to ask questions from a two-page survey. Was their salesman courteous? Were they satisfied with the delivery? Are they happy with their financing plan? Old customers who bring in new ones get $25 cash on the spot.
Brown's business cards include his home number. He hands them to everyone, including people who recently left homeless shelters and prisons. "Sure, I get crank calls," he says. "All the time. But it's part of the service. If people have a problem, I want to know about it."
Many of Brown's customers have no checking accounts, so they come to the store to pay in cash. If the customer is close to paying off his debt, Brown faces both risk and opportunity. The customer soon will have money to buy something else. But if Brown doesn't sell her something quick, the customer will stop coming to his store. So he casually walks over and inquires about the condition of her mattress or kitchen table. "To be a successful salesman, you have to be prepared," he says.
Brown has an uncanny ability to remember customers' names and what they bought. "He sells to thousands of people, and he never forgets a name," says Brown's sister, Barbara. "I don't know how he does it."
Given the checkered past of many customers, Brown has also learned to read them. Last year, Peter Haughton came to the store with his girlfriend. She wanted a bed, and she wanted Haughton to co-sign the loan. "This girl looked all wrong," Brown says. "Here comes this nice guy, his credit is perfect. And she's a very young, very attractive woman with no credit at all. She was a tramp, and she was gonna take all his money. So I took him aside and said, 'No way. I won't let you do this.'"
"Marc was right," says Haughton. "I didn't co-sign her loan, and two weeks later she dumped me. Marc had her figured out better than I did."
Brown grew up in Cleveland Heights, a self-described flower child who lived in a commune in the 1960s. Now, after years of hustling, he has employees who chauffeur him to lunch in a new Lexus. He attributes much of his success to his strange, disarming ads, featuring the voice that people find so creepy. Their low-rent quality puts customers at ease, fooling them into thinking for a second that maybe Marc Brown isn't so smart. "A lot of people are intimidated to come into a store," he says. "But once you come in here and you start talking -- boom -- I've got you. You're gonna buy a bedroom set from me."