3 Small-Town Marketing Lessons that Madison Avenue Tends to Forget

By | March 4, 2014
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Todd WolfenbargerThis is a guest post from Todd Wolfenbarger, who has more than 25 years of senior marketing experience with Fortune 50 companies in various industries and with his own marketing consultancy. He currently serves as president and partner of The Summit Group, an award-winning marketing communications firm located on West Temple in Salt Lake City that specializes in the healthcare, franchise marketing and consumer retail sectors.

There is a notion that life on Madison Avenue moves infinitely faster than in a place like Salt Lake City. Having seen both sides of the street, I agree; in some ways, this assessment couldn’t be more true. Salt Lake City—affectionately dubbed “Small Lake City”—has wide pioneer streets built on a grid and will never be known for a dramatic skyline or for three-martini lunches where big deals are sealed.

That said, I’ve worked in two major U.S. cities with Fortune 100 companies for more than 20 years, and from an agency’s standpoint, to say that business moves slowly in a small town couldn’t be less true. Small towns simply beat to a different cadence, and there are a few tactics that the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue could stand to learn from them.

Below are three simple, but important, small-town marketing lessons I had forgotten before opening an office on West Temple—a smaller, lesser-known “avenue” in Salt Lake City.

1. Meeting Your Customer at the Cash Register is Everything

There is nothing more “West Temple” in approach than a local franchisee running a small business. These “marketers” work behind the counter in their restaurants and storefronts themselves. They see, and hear, what matters most to their customers at a crucial moment—right when they are deciding to make a purchase.

Every good marketer knows that the point at which a customer votes with his wallet is the single most critical moment, and that details of it are often hard to come by when you’re sitting on the 95th floor, thinking grand marketing thoughts.

In today’s marketing environment, analytics are all the rage—and they matter. However, the most crucial pieces of information a marketer can earn are uncovered when you are close to your clients’ customers during critical moments in the selling process.

2. In Marketing, Pain Sells More Than Inspiration

Madison Avenue agency professionals love creating inspirational advertising. It wins awards and recognition, and every once in a while, it sells a lot of products and services. Nike’s swoosh inspired millions to compete and be fit. The Steve Jobs era of Apple advertising helped reshape several industries. When a Madison Avenue marketer’s big idea delivers, it really works.

The problem is that it rarely delivers.

What works more often is what many West Temple marketers depend on. They work with their clients to provide “pain relief” to customers—something that creates much more consistent sales. When Americans struggled with a pain-free way to eat fast food, Subway introduced them to Jared Fogle, who explained that you could eat fast and healthy. The result? Subway is a category leader and is now the largest franchise in the world.

Inspiration is dramatic, and it produces dramatic sales and huge results—about 10% of the time in my experience. Eliminating pain is more straightforward and sells 80% of the time. West Temple marketers build marketing programs around the idea of creating pain relief and producing consistent sales for their clients. And yes, they find that inspirational!

3. Businesses Must Be Able to Pivot Quickly

Small businesses understand the concept of failing fast and adjusting quickly because they don’t have the deep resources of larger companies to muddle around in the marketplace. They don’t have the bandwidth to sit on a bad strategy, so they must have the flexibility to pivot quickly.

I’ve watched with great interest the rollout of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle drink machine. This is an innovative product from a great company, but for more than a year now, I’ve heard dissatisfied rumblings from businesses using the dispenser. This is despite Coca-Cola representatives claiming over and over that it has the same quality output as fountain equipment. While the “research” says everything is fine, the customers’ story is different.

When problems trickle down to West Temple businesses—as Coca-Cola’s did with a friend of mine—this sort of denial is simply unacceptable.

My friend owns a chain of successful Italian fast casual restaurants. He had been receiving complaints from customers about the taste of the soda coming from the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine and had tried (unsuccessfully) to get the Coke representative to take the machine back.

One day, I walked into his restaurant to see a regular fountain Coke machine sitting right next to the Freestyle. As the person dealing with the customer at the cash register, he’d had to make adjustments. His ability to pivot, in this and many other instances, is the reason his business is growing so quickly.

It’s easy to get caught up in the Madison Avenue hustle and forget what matters most in advertising: the end customer. By taking these small-town lessons to heart, agencies can begin to ground themselves and bridge the gap between the customer and the brand.

What other small-town marketing lessons have you seen? Share your suggestions and experiences below.