Posts Tagged ‘small business’

How One Private School Welcomes Competition

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Only a handful of my friends know that I spend a decent amount of time each month as the President of the Board of Trustees at The New School Montessori in Cincinnati. It is a private Montessori program serving about 150 students from preschool through 6th grade in one of the older, close-in neighborhoods of the city. This is the school where both of my daughters go, so it was an easy decision to get involved with the program. Being on the Board not only allows me to use my knowledge and skills in leading an organization for the betterment of the school—it also provides me with another platform to learn and develop as a business leader. By day I work on billion-dollar brands for Fortune 100 companies. But in my volunteer time with the school I have a chance to work with a small, nonprofit organization. And last week I even learned how organizations such as this can benefit its customers and its business through Marketing with Meaning.

In addition to my role as Board President I head up the Marketing Committee for the school, working with some other parent volunteers and the school administration to maximize annual school enrollment and long-term equity in the community. We recently went through a marketing strategy process and chose to focus on attracting and retaining students by sharing and enrolling them in what truly makes our school special: its unique culture.

The New School Montessori has many benefits for the prospective parent: strong test scores, Montessori accreditation, a diverse student body, a challenging and personalized curriculum, and a unique setting in a historic mansion built in the 1800s. But what people end up loving most, and what other schools find difficult to compete with, is the people who are part of the school community. Parents, teachers, students, and administration are incredibly caring and giving. The leader and Director of The New School Montessori, Eric Dustman, exemplifies what makes the school great. And although he often has to make tough decisions (especially in this economy), Eric and those who work with him continually build upon the culture by doing what is right for students.

All of this is a long-winded way to describe one small example of how Eric chose to do the right thing for students in a way that puts school enrollment at risk, but ends up delivering meaningful marketing.

One of our annual events is something called “Life After The New School.” The event is held each fall, a few weeks after the start of classes. In this event, the class that just left the spring before returns to share their experiences in 7th grade with the new class of 6th graders. Because The New School ends at 6th grade, this event helps students start to learn about which schools they should consider attending the following year. The panel of “graduates” takes questions from students about everything from how much homework they have to the quality of the school lunches. And the answers vary a bit because there are students from about five different private and public schools in attendance. It’s a valuable, fun event for both parents and students of all ages.

In addition to students, Eric gives representatives of the schools themselves a chance to spend a few minutes talking about what makes their institutions unique and successful. This is where it gets interesting, because most of these other schools have programs for children in preschool through 6th grade. In other words, we are inviting our competition into our building to talk about how great their schools are.

Eric and I recently spoke about how this felt. He admitted that it can be a little unnerving to see parents of kindergartners in the audience getting pitched by the competition. But he realized that exposing these parents to other schools does two things: First, it is the right thing to do for parents and students, who eventually do have to choose another school for their child. This is a marketing service that goes back to examples such as Progressive Insurance, which tells you their price, and those of their competitors.

The second benefit is that in hearing about these other schools, parents are reminded of how great The New School Montessori really is. They see that these schools don’t offer anything more than we have, and the returning students all agreed in looking back that The New School Montessori prepared them extremely well—and that there are more than a few things they miss once they have left.

Doing the right thing for your customers, even at the risk of your business, ends up building loyalty and revenue. Interesting to see how even a small, nonprofit school can teach billion-dollar brands a little something.

A Costco Story That Wasn’t… But Still a Good Idea

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Way back in September 2009 I was asked to comment on a story about a new program that Costco was testing in a handful of stores as a benefit to its small-business shoppers and general members. Oddly, the story never appeared and I cannot find anything about the program anywhere. I’ve been holding onto my notes about this program since then, and I think it is still a story worth sharing—maybe a free idea for your large or small business to take and run with.

The idea Costco was apparently testing was a coupon book that includes offers for the services of its business customers. For a small fee, these businesses could include coupons and offers in a book that would go to all Costco members. This was an attempt to secure a win-win-win by giving small business customers (the heaviest spenders at Costco) a leg up in a tough economy, provide all customers with an additional benefit of being a member, and allow Costco to retain and add members.

I believe this was a brilliant move by Costco, and one that started because the company saw an opportunity to help its business customers on their higher-level needs. An increasing number of companies such as Costco are starting to look for new ways to add value aside from just stacking stuff high and selling it cheap.

The mission statement of Costco is: “To continually provide our members with quality goods and services at the lowest possible prices.” When I worked at Procter & Gamble in marketing, I had opportunities to meet with buyers from Costco. I quickly learned that everyone at the company is completely focused on bringing value to its members. This has traditionally been through better deals, lower prices, and stable margins. But in this case Costco is wisely delivering value to members in a new way. Here, the company saw an opportunity to “deliver members quality services” by providing a forum for marketing between members. Because of the company’s mission, it came up with this idea first.

There are several benefits to such a program. First, it is a free service for members at a time when a challenging economy is taking a toll. By helping customers through these tough times, Costco will earn loyalty for years. Second, Costco’s success is completely tied to the success of its core small-business owners; if they do well, Costco will experience higher revenues, too. Third, Costco would win a great deal of positive buzz by being the first to embrace this idea. I think this compares well to the Hyundai Assurance Program, in which this small car brand broke through by being the first to buy back vehicles of those who lost their jobs. This program won huge sales during a down market.

But the big question is: Why haven’t we seen Costco launch this program nationally? This is hard to say. Retailers test things all the time, and often have trouble taking programs beyond a handful of stores. Other ideas might have had priority, or organizational politics might have gotten in the way. I imagine that there are a number of real challenges, too. Costco would have to hire people to process the customers’ ads and coupons, and it would have to pay to print and distribute the booklets. It would also take time to drive awareness of this program among its business customers.

Nevertheless, this is clearly an example of Marketing with Meaning, and there might be other businesses that could take this Costco idea and adapt it for success. For example, a major bank has hundreds of business customers that it could bring together to market their products and services to each other. Business-focused law firms and accountants could host networking sessions for their clients to join up. Perhaps the greatest thing about an idea like this is that it is relatively easy to test. And even if you fail to get a critical mass, your best customers will appreciate your desire to help them succeed.

Marketing Lesson from an Oil-Change Business

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

village quick lube

I’m a little bit ashamed to not have written about Village Quik Lube in this blog until now. After all, I’ve been writing here for nearly two years, and I pass this little dose of Marketing with Meaning every day when I come and go from work. I guess it was this small business’s new Facebook effort that gave me the final push to feature it hereas another example of how social media best works as a way to bring an entire marketing strategy to life.

Village Quik Lube is a small oil-change business located in Newtown, Ohio, a small suburban Cincinnati village just about 2 miles from my home. The shop is known by everyone around as “the place with the funny sayings”as the owner of the business updates the sign above a couple of times a week with a new joke. Some are funnier/cornier than others, but every time the sign changes we are compelled to look and laugh. Aside from this sign, the shop has several other remarkable features: There’s a fish pond outside, chairs made up of old-car seats and barber chairs inside, and the parking lot is often the host of grill parties and fund-raisers.

What I love about the Village Quik Lube is that it brings some personality to a business that most people grudgingly tolerate every three months or 3,000 miles. Most of us are used to going into the cookie-cutter Jiffy Lube and car-dealership services, which feel more like a trip to the dentist. Just like these competitors, Village Quik Lube has a convenient location and all of the periodic maintenance services we expect at a fair price. But this business spends the time between our visits making us smile on an otherwise boring commute. We appreciate the owner’s attempt to lighten our day, which leaves us almost looking forward to making the stop in for an oil change and tire rotation. All it takes is some time to think up the signs and change them a few times a week.

So it’s no wonder that Village Quik Lube has gone into social media with a fan page on Facebook. Interestingly, Facebook offers a direct transfer of the company’s “offline” marketing strategy for the online world. Facebook has become the virtual vehicle of our daily commute, so of course people who enjoy driving by and stopping at the shop would want to continue the relationship online.

But Facebook offers benefits that the signs and store itself cannot do alone. For example, the owner recently asked his 200-plus members if they would like to see some of the ideas for signs that were a little too racy for the road. I learned that he actually gets complaints on certain topics and has toned down the humor over the years. Of course the members said “yes”and we were treated to jewels like:

Did you hear about the new vitamin just for men sold only at golf pro shops? It’s called Tiger Wood.”

Of course this one is a little too daring for the G-rated public thoroughfare, but I laughed out loud at this and some of the others I found on Facebook.

Reading further, I got to see photos from this intersection in 1970 “when there were cows grazing in the field nearby.” I saw that the shop staff is thinking about raffling off the chance to drive a demolition-derby car. And I learned how the owner was told by a Quaker State executive that his store would be out of business within six months; that was 12 years ago.

If you really think about it, Village Quik Lube is not new to social media because of its Facebook presence. Rather, this is a business that has always been about social media. Its goal is to make people smile and give back to the community. In return, it earns loyalty and positive word of mouth. Digital social media is just an evolution of what it has been doing successfully for 12 years.

When I read about the brands that are doing the most in social media, it seems to mainly be small businesses such as Zappos and the Kogi Korean BBQ truck. They have succeeded by starting out in social media and created businesses around this core approach, rather than just bolting on a Twitter feed or having an agency monitor buzz.

I believe there has never been a better time to start a business than the present. Large companies’ advantages in mass scale are falling away as people become more interested in niche products and meaningful brandsand marketing is as simple as telling your story on a blog, tweet, or Facebook page. The future of business might look like millions of passionate owners connecting with a handful of customers by adding value through products, services, and marketing.

Local Nature Center Enlists Kids’ Help

Monday, April 6th, 2009

One of the things I love to do is prove to people that Marketing with Meaning is not limited solely to big brands with million-dollar budgets. It can be something that helps small businesses and even not-for-profits succeed in driving customer engagement and loyalty. Recently I witnessed an example of a small not-for-profit that is doing something unique and meaningful, and if this organization can do it, surely the big brands can get onboard.

The letter above from the nearby Cincinnati Nature Center arrived in our mail. On one side was a note addressed to my 8-year-old daughter, Grace, inviting her to attend a meeting to give her ideas for a natural playscape that will be created in the year ahead. On the back was a letter to parents that describes the natural playscape initiative and the purpose of the children’s involvement. This is the kind of direct mail that stands out in a sea of junk.

Of course Grace was thrilled, and at the dinner table that night she started coming up with ideas. She’s quite the “nature child”—reading books about plants and animals continuously and never being afraid to pick up bugs. Last year when a bee stung her, Grace ignored the pain and carefully helped the bee remove the stinger from her hand, knowing that if the stinger comes off, a bee will soon die.

Overall, this is a brilliant example of meaningful marketing: By enrolling the target audience (here, both parents and kids) into the process of building the “product,” people feel a deep, personal connection to the Cincinnati Nature Center. Whatever comes out of this session, everyone who is involved will feel a sense of ownership that lasts a very long time. The result is more visits, more word of mouth, and more donations of money and time when the requests come.

So why isn’t your brand building customer feedback into the product development process? No, I don’t mean traditional closed-door research in focus groups and surveys. I mean enrolling brand fans and openly asking them for advice and ideas. To paraphrase a few people, “Research is the new marketing”—as a call for input in a direct, public way can help brands gain valuable input while winning customers for life. Examples in the “big brand” world include the My Starbucks Idea program and the beta test of the video game Call of Duty 4.

I actually do know why your brand isn’t openly asking for input in the development stage; you’re worried about whether or not you can change to what they ask, your R&D team thinks it knows better, you fear that the competition will see what you’re doing and adjust accordingly, and you don’t know how to set up such a system. All are rational arguments, but the time has come to start breaking some of these rules. Today’s consumer knows better than you, and she expects to be involved in the brands that she loves best.

A Cold Call with Meaning

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I don’t know about you, but I receive somewhere around six to 12 “cold” solicitation contacts by email or phone every day. As an executive at our agency, I suppose that I appear on a lot of lists that salespeople purchase to try to get their foot in the door for a meeting. Unfortunately for the folks trying, I respond to very, very few such messages. First, a lot of them are for services that my business just doesn’t need; and second, my time is extremely limited. Plus, there’s the fact that I have a huge personal network with WPP and there is a sister agency I can trust for virtually any service we require. I feel like a jerk sometimes for spurning cold-call advances, but I lived that life when I was selling lawn care out of a phone book in college. And in my job today I have to try a few cold calls every once in a while, too.

I’ve seen every strategy in the book, ranging from sending stuffed animals, to people saying they were “referred” to me by some unknown mutual contact. One guy even tried calling me twice a day for more than a month straight. But a few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email from Chris Abraham, a fellow blogger and President and COO of buzz agency Abraham & Harrison. Here was the introduction of his email to me:

Hi there Bob

I wanted to reach out to you since you’re a current fellow member of the AdAge Power 150 with Marketing With Meaning.  Please excuse the form email but there are over 780 current Power 150 members.  I am popping you this note for two reasons: first, I would like your help to do something with this list; second, I just want to update you as to what I am up to.”

Chris goes on to write about a file he was willing to send with the names and email addresses of all of the other members of the AdAge Power 150. This shiny needle in the haystack of business spam caught my eye for a few reasons: First, Chris is a fellow blogger rather than just another sales guy. We have something in common and it means he probably knows his stuff. This established immediate respect. Second, he offered something of value to me and my business in the form of the Power 150 contact list. He was essentially giving away a valuable piece of data that he worked hard to create, and one that his competitors could use to contact the same people he is going after.

By offering up “marketing” that itself was valuable, Chris was practicing Marketing with Meaning. And guess what? I immediately replied to Chris and set up 30 minutes to give him an opportunity to sell me on his services. I found Chris to be very smart and personable, I listened closely to his pitch, and I asked him to follow up with the person on my team who works closest on blogger outreach programs. I didn’t buy anything on the spot, and I’m not sure if we’ll need his company’s services, but Chris achieved a critical sales goal of getting a foot in the door with a key decision maker, all because he added value.

There are more than 780 other people on the Power 150 list, and I’d guess that Chris is getting a lot of other meetings because of this approach. He even got a feature post on this blog! His example shows that Marketing with Meaning can be applied by both small businesses and business-to-business marketers.

All it takes is to think about how you can do something with that phone call or email that actually adds value to your prospect’s life. And if you can’t figure that out yet, don’t bother picking up the phone.

Content Aggregation for Legal Help

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I love it when readers share stories and examples of meaningful marketing. Last week I discovered a pretty interesting new way for lawyers to promote their services in a meaningful way; it’s an interesting concept that represents a big opportunity to move toward a new model of content aggregation.

Emilie Cole at LaunchSquad, a PR firm focused on new products and services, emailed me about her client, JD Supra, which is hoping to provide a way to serve useful information to people in a way that helps build the businesses of law firms. At, lawyers can upload articles, court papers, legal briefs, and other documents so that they can be read by visitors to the site. The general idea is that people who are in the market for legal services will do some online research before hiring representation. If they find something useful at JD Supra, they may be especially inclined to hire the firm that uploaded said document. (See the nice coverage from The New York Times.)

Cole makes a great point about how this might revolutionize the way lawyers advertise their services:

[In the old model] they have a website… and maybe a terrible phone book ad. Part of their problem is that they can yell about how great they are until they’re blue in the face, but that still doesn’t convince you or me that we should seek their services. And how would we know if they’re any good anyway?”

Overall, this concept fits very well under what we call Solution marketing, which happens when brands find a way to provide some kind of value-added information for consumers, which is related to the brand or category itself. Anytime a brand creates an article or a consultant writes a blog (such as this!) we are marketing in this way. We all hope that by providing useful information, customers will repay us with their business.

But JD Supra creates further value through its content aggregation service. The problem with blogs and websites is that they live on isolated islands and depend almost entirely on personal networks and their position in Google searches for visitors. Brands have a hard time standing out, and consumers often don’t find the best information on Google. A growing trend is to aggregate content under a semi-walled garden, where higher-quality information is stored and well-tended. Wikipedia is a great example, as are Squidoo and Alltop. Search engines such as Google actually send more traffic to content aggregators, in turn, because they provide more of what the user is looking for.

WebMD is a kind of content aggregator as well, and it clearly has succeeded as a first-search source for millions of people. The downside of WebMD, though, is that it is a fully closed information marketplace. The company “owns” all of the content, which means huge cost, complexity, and lack of outside voices.

I had a chance to speak with the founder of JD Supra, Aviva Cuyler, as well. She started the firm after working for 12 years as a litigator and realizing that fellow attorneys were drafting the same documents over and over again. She pointed out that with so many legal services becoming commoditized, this service can help law firms work more efficiently so that they can cut costs and spend more time on value-added advice. Cuyler described four key business benefits of the service to contributors:

  1. Attracts clients who are searching for information and end up impressed by the expertise of contributing firms
  2. Improves networking, as lawyers search for specialists in specific areas, who they may hire to help out on a specific issue or refer business their way
  3. Gains attention from the media, which is increasingly subscribing to JD Supra’s feeds and using the site for their own research. Reporters are starting to reach out to law firms that are submitting documents, and by quoting them, might generate further business.
  4. Drives strong search results (SEO), as each uploaded document means another link back to the law firm from a trusted, valuable, high-traffic source

The service is expanding its usefulness by embracing the latest social networking tools as well. A Facebook app that it created allows members to show their contacts whenever they have uploaded a new document to JD Supra. And it has several specific Twitter feeds with news around topics such as Tech Law and Banking Law.

JD Supra even has a business model: While contribution is free, lawyers who submit documents must pay anywhere from $450 to $750 per year to add links to their profiles, websites, and email addresses. Hey, that’s less than a couple hours of work billed for most of the lawyers I know! So even one client landed through this effort could pay out this investment very quickly. The business model element helps ensure that the folks behind JD Supra keep improving the service continually.

I’d love to see something like this in the marketing world. There are countless agencies, consultants, and bloggers such as us out there talking to a relatively small audience. We all hope that some article is read by the right person with a huge following who, in turn, links to us. Instead, it would be incredible to have a central place where marketing experts could leave articles around specific topics. Readers would find and rate the articles, and the best thinkers and writers (rather than the best networkers) would see their work rise to the top.

Until then, I’ll keep doing my best to keep you coming back here, dear readers!