What Every Company Needs To Know About Marketing

The image is a little confusing at first. On a sunny afternoon, inside a small truck with wooden floors and walls, bright specks of color show through clear plastic trash bags, each like a rudimentary piñata. Indeed, the specks are bags of candy—M&M’S, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and what look like Starbursts—and printer-paper boxes are piled high, too, having been repurposed to carry more than a ton of sweets.

Confusing, but effective—the image was part of the marketing of Valley Pediatric Dentistry, P.C.’s annual “Candy Buy Back” program. The imaginative Yorktown practice (it also has hosted pajama days, baseball days, and luaus to help kids embrace their check-ups) buys kids’ Halloween candy for $1 per pound to get some excess sugar off the street and send it to troops overseas. The results? A story on LoHud.com, on patch.com, and in other outlets that covered the “operation.”

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“Imagery is very important to help bring a story to life,” says Christina Rae, president of the Yorktown Heights PR and marketing firm Buzz Creators, Inc., which worked with Valley Pediatric. “Having photos of the mounds of candy bags being loaded into the truck was critical to securing all of the media coverage we received.”

To businesses just starting to market and advertise, collecting more than 2,000 pounds of sugar-rush fuel may sound like just a wacky—if charitable—stunt, but really it’s Marketing 101. As Rae puts it, “It’s more important than ever to stay top of mind with a potential customer who is in need of your product or service.” And if you have to load up a truck to stay top of mind (or make a testimonial video or start selling hostess gifts or start events to combat a bad reputation), so be it.
If your customers are quitting, your sales are slipping, and your bottom line is bottoming out, your company needs a dose of marketing moxie—so it’s important to understand the basics.

“Marketing includes your advertising, public relations, pricing, and positioning,” says Kelly Parkhurst, marketing manager for Marks Paneth & Shron LLP, an accounting and consulting firm in Tarrytown, Manhattan, and Long Island. It also includes business decisions about distribution, packaging, and even what products or services you sell.

The goal of all these facets of marketing is, of course, to increase sales of your product or service. Nat Mundy, vice president marketing director of Grand Prix New York, explains that, like Valley Pediatric Dentistry, his company, an entertainment center in Mount Kisco, uses publicity from events to spread the word. “The article in the newspaper gets me a lot more birthday parties and bar mitzvahs than putting an ad in that same paper.” What kind of events? “We once shut down the roads around Columbus Park in Stamford to run an outdoor race to benefit Hedge Funds Care. We didn’t take home a dime, although the charity did. What we gained in marketing by putting on this spectacle of driving go-carts on a city street was priceless. At least one hundred thousand people saw us, from those walking by to those who saw the news coverage.”

Since the best marketers study their customers’ needs and wants, Karen Berger, PhD, professor of marketing and associate dean at Pace University, says the first step to an effective marketing plan is to get to know the people who do business with you—and those you want to. “Not being able to define their market clearly is the single biggest mistake small businesses make,” Berger says.

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She tells the story of Weinstein’s Pharmacy in Katonah, which, she says, has stayed successful because it found the right market for its products. Even as many traditional mom-and-pop pharmacies had to shutter because of pressure from the big-box drug stores, Weinstein’s “came to understand that they would have to find a market to keep their store going. They chose a market segment that was right for the area—the gift market. They carry an array of items that fit the Katonah clientele including glassware, ceramics, costume jewelry, and the like. They wrap their gifts in a luxury style, and, in the last ten years, their business has grown.”

The principle of knowing your customer holds for business-to-business marketers as well as business-to-consumers. “You have to know who you’re marketing to,” Parkhust says. “Even if I’m marketing to lawyers, I can’t just send something to all lawyers. I break it down into real estate lawyers, media and entertainment lawyers, tax-planning lawyers, and so on.”

Once you’ve identified your targets, it’s time to figure out how to appeal to them. One way to do that is through formal (read: expensive) market research. Another method is what’s known as “mother-in-law research”—actually talking to people and asking them questions. What a concept! It’s not particularly sophisticated, but it may very well tell you what you need to know. “Our first step is to interview the company or organization’s users to find out what they think and feel,” says Sherry Bruck, creative director of the Harquin Creative Group, a brand-strategy consulting firm in Pelham. “I start with a list of the company’s clients. I call them and dig into how they interact with the company.” She adds, “Depending on what they say, we integrate that feedback into the organization’s brand strategy.” Only then comes the creation of what she calls “touch points” like brochures, websites, e-blasts, or advertising campaigns.

Bruck tells how that approach shaped a recent marketing plan: “We did a project with New Roc City to get rid of some of the perceptions about it being dark and full of kids hanging out at night. I talked to a lot of people in the community and our research showed that we weren’t going to change that perception, so we suggested a strategy that called for organizing events during the day, many of which have age limits for kids. When you know what people are thinking and feeling, that’s the basis for your strategy.”

Alyson O’Mahoney, executive vice president of Robin Leedy & Associates, Inc., a Mount Kisco marketing and PR firm, recommends using the two-way customer communication made possible by social media to tap into the consumer’s mind. For the firm’s client Softlips, they ask fans to do things like choose seasonal flavors or pick a new shade for gloss. In return, they run frequent product giveaways and sweepstakes to reward those who actively participate. The campaign built a community of more than a million fans on Facebook.

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“You don’t just need people, you need their attention and engagement,” O’Mahoney says. In May, the firm launched a marketing campaign for a medical device company, Diopsys, Inc. One of their products is the Enfant, a vision-testing system for children. “A mom came to them and said, ‘Your test saved my daughter’s life. I want to tell my story because the product isn’t available everywhere,’” O’Mahoney recalls. Robin Leedy created a video, “Nora’s Story,” and posted it on YouTube. Within days, it was reposted on dozens of other sites by some of the 3,800 viewers who saw it in the first week. O’Mahoney says, “If you make an ad and forget to include your Facebook URL, you’re missing a chance. If you make a video, you have to ask viewers to share it. It’s amazing how much instruction you have to give your audience.”

Of course, with all the emphasis on campaigns, it can be easy to lose track of the ways that even day-to-day business practices can affect both how you interact with customers and their perceptions of your business. “Marketing is most definitely more than advertising and PR,” says Steven Klapow, vice president of creative and communications services at White Plains-based marketing firm Berlin Productions, Inc. “Pricing and positioning are important. Even if it’s a marketer’s job to make a client’s product or service as compelling as possible, having to promote something that you know has no defined audience, poses no competitive benefit, is priced obscenely—or all of the above!—is a nightmare.”

Rae agrees that there can be aspects of marketing to look out for. In your plans, she warns, it’s important to “avoid anything that comes across as too self-serving or promotional in nature.” In other words, business fundamentals—like products people want to buy priced fairly and respect for your customers—should be as much a part of your marketing as anything else.

So a good campaign, Klapow points out, will also be about how you interact with customers—and the image that you give them about your business in the process. “Digital marketing is on everybody’s radar these days,” says Area Director of Marketing for The Westchester and The Galleria at White Plains Paula Kelliher. On the other end of the scale, she points out, good marketing can be based on something as simple as the retail salesperson’s little black book. “For an apparel retailer, that might contain the customers’ names, their sizes, their favorite lines, whether they want to be notified when new lines arrive or when items go on sale. That’s been around for a very long time.”

The goal of good marketing isn’t just to make a single sale. It’s really to build brand equity—to develop a competitive advantage that matters to your best customers through thick and thin. “It costs much more to gain a new customer than to nurture an existing one,” Berger explains. “If you can build a business where there is brand loyalty by taking care of your customers, your business will be able to hold on even through difficult times.”

Regardless of the tactics you use, Parkhurst says, it’s important to have patience. “Companies often have a strategy and execute it, but they expect returns much too quickly. Then they give up before they really should.”

Since marketing is what you do to create or increase sales, everything the business does is related to it. As O’Mahoney says, “Everything comes down to the sale. You want them back, whether you sell steaks or mufflers.”

Illustration by Robert Pizzo

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