Talk it up!

March 22, 2006

No denying it, word-of-mouth marketing is a business's best form of advertising. But too often professionals use that tool only to draw attention to their products. They overlook—and sometimes deliberately avoid—the chance to promote their pizzerias by promoting themselves. Creating a unique public persona through increased visibility in community leadership and the media is a crucial brand-building element, experts say.

"You have to make a conscious effort to put yourself out there and become recognized with your brand," said Suzanne Bates, a Boston-based consultant who coaches executives on developing their public personalities. "When people recognize you, like you and trust you, that generates positive word of mouth about you and your business. That's a crucial part of branding."

So why don't more business owners do this? Bates said many simply don't know how, they shy away from the spotlight or they fear being viewed by their customers as overly self-promoting. They don't see themselves as natural promoters who command attention, seemingly without even trying, wherever they go.

"Some of the themes discussed in my book ("Speak like a CEO") are authenticity, being yourself and projecting who you really are. It's about telling your story," Bates said. "As long as you're out there as yourself, people want to know you as a person. If you like to have fun and have a sense of humor, that's great. But you don't have to be a funny man or a clown to be successful in becoming a recognized personality in the marketplace."

Part of building public awareness for your business begins with service to others, said Sadie Peterson, president of SD MarCom, a small-business marketing firm in San Diego.

"The real kicker is to get the locals on your side," said Peterson. "Being part of the community, part of fundraisers for schools and charity events, those things get people talking about you and your business."

Contributing product to local causes is one thing, but showing a personal interest by helping execute the event is exceptionally valuable, Peterson added. "When you're active in events, it

What's Important

Driving word-of-mouth marketing through product promotion is logical to everyone. But experts say putting personalities behind the products is equality important.

The best way to promote oneself is by taking leadership positions in community activities. Such efforts show the owner cares about locals.

Giving you and your business a higher profile also includes becoming an expert resource for the local media.

gives people the impression you care about the community. That's invaluable."

But getting the most attention results taking a leadership role in those functions, Bates said.

"You're the one at the microphone, and that means people know your name and your business," she said. "People like to do business with people they like and know and trust. They look at the leaders in the community and think, 'Oh, I know him, he's president of the Rotary Club,' or 'She's the president of the school board.'"

An operator's public visibility also grows when media outlets learn her name as an expert in that field. Getting calls for quotes from news reporters keeps that business's name at the front of readers'/viewers' minds.

Personality plus

Great business owners are passionate about their products, and even the shiest of promoters open up when handing out samples of their pizzas. Peterson said when the owner shows up at community events with free samples, it makes a much stronger impression than sending staffers because people make a personal connection with the mind behind the creation. If they decide to visit that pizzeria and they see the owner, the impression is much more powerful.

"People are naturally interested in who's behind a business," she said.

How a pizzeria owner dresses in public can further wed product to personality. Michael and Meredith Wickliffe, owner of four-unit Wick's Pizza in Louisville, Ky., wear their highly recognizable rainbow, tie-dyed T-shirts at many public appearances. The core of their restaurants' color theme is purple—a shade so beloved by the couple it also dominates their home's décor. When a local daily paper did a feature story on their home, readers immediately understood the connection.

"I think that can be a great way of standing out, especially when you're talking about your business," Bates said. "If you're in a setting where others are talking business, like at a chamber meeting, you definitely want to show up in a white chef's jacket if that's what you're known for. Branding is so visual, and that's something very powerful people sometimes overlook."

Knowing when to turn off the visual effects is equally important, Bates added. When attending a non-business affair, business owners should recognize the spotlight isn't on them. Bates recommends they "do more to fit in" by not wearing their trademark clothing.

But that doesn't mean they eschew the opportunity to talk about their businesses.

"Having what I call a great 'elevator pitch,' that 15-second speech about what you do, is so important," she said. "You need to be able to articulate quickly and clearly what's important or unique about your business." Keeping it brief also allows the listener to ask questions and can stimulate further conversation.

Memorable giveaways

Going to public events and handing out samples is a great way to generate buzz about your business, said Peterson.

"I work with a restaurant whose owner goes to this big farmer's market and hands out samples along with a coupon or a business card," she said. "If it's something your business is known for, that's even better. If your place is known as 'Home of the great gorgonzola pizza,' put it on everything and hand out samples. It makes people think, 'That sounds interesting. I'll try that.'"

Bates said that same client typically hands out its most unusual offerings in public because they're menu items competitors likely don't sell. Plus, she said that when people get it for free, they're much more inclined to be daring and taste something unusual.

"I really love the idea of coming up with a product that makes people say, 'You put what on pizza?'" she said. "We have a restaurant here that serves sweet potato fries, and I heard people saying they're unbelievably good. I'd never had them before, and so I had to go try them."

Luckily for that restaurant, Bates loved the fries. But she said being too daring with a freebie could backfire. "Whatever you give them has to be good, or it'll become a truth-or-dare thing for frat boys. Not a good thing at all."

One of the most unique food promotion tools Bates saw used was a fan placed behind a pizza at a local shop.

"What it did was blow the scent out onto the street, and people stopped because of the smell," she said. "Of course, there was somebody waiting at the door giving them free samples."


The old-fashioned way

Of course, when a product or service is good, customers will spread the word voluntarily. Make it a freebie, and they'll tell everyone within earshot. Giving away $6 in food turned into $50,000 shot in the arm to Andy Sears' catering business. He took the pizza-and-salad meal to a Department

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of Social Services office in Leominster, Mass., which in turn started calling his company, C&M Pizza, on a regular basis.

"The DSS had been giving us a lot of praise, and they told the Department of Youth about us," said Sears. "They hold training a couple of times a week, and they've been calling us for food for that. That's become a big piece of business for us, and it came from giving out $6 in food."

With prom season on the way, Sears is using business cards and boxtoppers to cross-promote C&M and a tuxedo rental service. The tuxedo shop owner hands out the business cards to all his customers and C&M puts the boxtoppers on its pizzas.

"Lots of parents have after-prom parties at their houses, and sometimes the schools have them, too," he said. "We know they'll be eating late and we'd like to get some of that business. ... That's been a very cheap way to get the word out. I doubt I have $100 in it."

Topics: Independent Operation , Marketing

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