Get Smart Fast -- Or Else


In the seven years since Ellen Bristol started her sales-consulting business in Miami, Bristol Strategy Group, she never had a zero-revenue month. Until September. She had to postpone a large project because it required flying just a couple days after hijackers crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All the other clients she had planned to work with called to say: "'We're too confused, we're too frightened, we have to delay it.' What could I say?" Bristol asks.

Like many other small-business owners who are seeing revenue vanish in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bristol knows she has to get real smart real fast. Unlike some of her clients, she can't afford to be frightened. "Now, more than ever, I have no excuse not to sit down and design the best possible marketing campaign that I can possibly come up with. I have never had a greater need.... I can't be confused about this or not ready or ineffectual. That's pointless. That's wasteful."

Other small-business owners also say smart, focused marketing is their key strategy for climbing out of the sudden revenue trough and negotiating the recession and wartime terrain that now seem certain to lie ahead.

RIPPLE EFFECT. David Cohn, who owns seven restaurants in the heart of San Diego, is working on a new print and TV ad campaign with two main themes: "Celebrate life" and "Come to our house." Now that the tourists and conventioneers are gone (and not expected to return anytime soon), Cohn is trying to persuade locals to become tourists in their own community. The Visitors and Convention Bureau is taking a similar approach, says Cohn, one of its elected officers. "We're not marketing to Europeans and New Yorkers right now, but to people within a couple hours of San Diego, trying to get them to spend a weekend here."

Fear of flying is not what's hurting Edward's Steak House, a family-owned business in El Monte, outside Los Angeles. It's fear of spending money. The lunch business, which accounts for at least a third of the restaurant's revenue, is much slower since Sept. 11, says Ken Rausch, manager.

One group of Edward's regulars that's a lot less regular these days works for a company that heat-treats metal. A big chunk of their business came from Boeing, which is canceling business because plane orders are being canceled. Another group Rausch doesn't see as often employees of a construction company that specializes in digging trenches for fiber-optic cable. Its big project for AT&T has been put on hold indefinitely as the telecom company concentrates on restoring East Coast operations.

"It's a ripple effect all across the country," Rausch says, adding: "Anybody who doesn't think so is crazy." To fill his seats, he has resorted to traditional marketing -- a postcard coupon redeemable for a free pint of chili, which he expects will bring in 500 patrons over the next couple of weeks. Even so, he had to cut his lunchtime staff from seven waitresses to five. Overall, the National Restaurant Assn. estimates 65,000 restaurant jobs will be lost as tourism and the general economy slump.

STAYING AHEAD. Sheila Brooks says she has no plans to lay off employees at her TV and video production company, SRB Productions in Washington, even though a $500,000 contract was canceled the day after the attacks. However, Brooks has directed her business manager to prepare a recession budget for the fourth quarter and is taking a hard look at her marketing strategy.

"Instead of saying we're still going to cover the world, we need to see what's really going to sell in the next 3, 6, 9 months and focus on that," she says. That means letting people know about SRB's new interactive audio-video Web service, which permits far-flung people to meet via the Internet. "It's a good market right now for that," says Brooks, who founded her company 14 years ago. "The only way to survive bad times is to stay ahead of the business environment."

That's a tall order when business conditions are unlike any that company owners have ever been through. No one yet fully knows what it will be like doing business after such devastation. Many companies find it difficult, although necessary, to consider marketing at a time like this.

"No one wants to capitalize on this," says Brian Walker, head of marketing at Creative Realities, a Boston-based consulting firm. At the same time, he says, "certain things are happening to the American psyche that companies should be thinking through." Now, he says, people will want to be closer to home and will be embracing tradition, nostalgia, patriotism, charitable giving, and comfort food.

TOUGHEST CHALLENGE. Businesses in Long Beach, Calif., planned to have a firefighter or police office outside every business on Pine Street -- the main shopping strip -- the weekend of Sept. 28-30. "People want to give and they want to see you give," says Jeff King, a Long Beach businessman who owns 11 restaurants in California. In business since 1945, he has "never been more challenged" to keep customers coming in the door. "Any business that doesn't have a survival strategy will be gone by the end of the year," says King, whose receipts are off about 15%, forcing him to shed some part-time workers.

At Creative Realities, Walker estimates business will be off about 20% for the rest of the year as corporations slash budgets. The firm, which specializes in helping companies implement innovations, is tailoring its message to the times. Innovation, Walker is emphasizing, isn't just about new products or services -- it is containing costs while doing things better, quicker, and cheaper. Heeding a page from its own play book, the firm is finishing the redesign of its Web site to make it more interactive and give potential clients an opportunity to sample its services. That redesign, talked about for some time, became a higher priority after the mass murders in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Those attacks, says Walker, "raised our awareness of the urgency to focus on doing a few things well."

Procrastination, like confusion, is an unaffordable luxury right now. As Bristol, the Miami sales consultant, puts it: "Right now, people need to climb out from underneath the bed. Then they need to realize it's going to be tougher than ever."

The stereotypical entrepreneur is a gutsy, creative risk-taker. Ready or not, many are finding it crucial to live up to that image. By Theresa Forsman in New York


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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