Smart Campaigns: A Hard Sell in Family Firms

By David Schiffer

My company creates and places advertising for a number of small to medium-sized industrial firms. Since IBM and AT&T already have ad agencies, I look for clients in a tier that happens to be filled with family owned businesses.

Most of the family businesses I have worked with are ethical, practical, and unencumbered by layers of management that slow down larger businesses. On the down side, these firms sometimes feel that they are guarding a sacred tradition that outsiders can never fully appreciate. That often keeps them from seeking help from qualified professionals.

Often their understanding of advertising reaches back to the days when you could make an earnest claim and expect people to come in and buy. They tend to view advertising as a low priority—far behind getting the product out, grappling with suppliers, and controlling the work force. Indeed, it is frequently dumped into the lap of a junior family member, usually a son or daughter who was "artistic" and took a few advertising courses in college. An outside graphic design and advertising firm is called in only as a last resort.

Unfortunately, young family members often make a botch of it. That's because there is no substitute for thorough study of marketing, media placement, graphic design, copywriting, and photography. No matter how talented family members may be, there's no way to fake it.

I don't let my clients write their own copy. Family business owners are close to their product and have a fierce pride in their company's reputation. But they always write the same ad! The typical ad written by an owner extols reliability and tacks on dependability for good measure. Amid the clangor of advertising in the media, such claims go unheard.

The client, however, is the final editor. He always knows what his market demands. I have found that many successful business owners have a built-in bull detector. They don't like fancy copy that obscures their vital message.

Generally, older owners don't like to take big chances. I'm sure they are familiar with the bold ads for larger companies such as McDonald's and AT&T. But closer to home, they are wary of anything that seems too unusual and risky. It's the younger family members who are most willing to try something different.

The family member who's best able to describe the attributes of the company's product may not be the founder. During a recent meeting with a furniture maker to discuss a new advertising campaign, the two founders, husband and wife, did most of the talking while their son-in-law remained in the background. Sensing his strong feelings during the discussion, I drew him out and found he had a more detailed and current working knowledge of the company's manufacturing process than they did; his perspective strengthened the factual content of the advertising plan.

I have always found it fascinating how two brothers, or peers who are also close family members, can work through a problem in advertising. In 1988, 1 was called in to work for the Franklin Company, which makes a component for jewelry manufacturing. I met with two men in their mid-thirties, Jim and Pete (not their real names), who appeared highly intelligent and well informed about their business. As we talked, however, I was surprised that two men with such different philosophies could run a company together.

Jim was very concrete, straightforward, and venturesome. He was the one who persuaded his brother that, because the company had been losing ground to competitors, they should push their products through advertising and trade shows. Pete approached problems in a much more abstract way and seemed to have a subtler way of viewing things. Fittingly, Jim was the outside man, the salesman, and was also in charge of buying equipment. Pete, a third-generation member of the family, clearly ran the business and set policy, but not without his partner's advice on the nuts and bolts. Only later did I learn they are brothers-in-law.

Jim and Pete had to choose between two logos that my firm designed for them. One displayed the company name in a simple rectangle that was the shape of one piece of the product; the other had the name and several product shapes arranged like a hand of cards. "This is very exciting," Jim said when he looked at the second, which reminded him of what the various pieces of the product looked like "when you first open the box."

But Pete seemed to realize intuitively that the design Jim liked was too "kinetic," that it would jump off the page in an advertisement and be too complicated to print on product labels. Eventually, we went with his choice.

Jim and Pete had achieved a felicitous balance in managing the company. Jim would push Pete to take a chance; but Pete would not let Jim take an idea too far without pulling it back to the center.

In some family situations, however, it's clear that an outside advisor will end up in the middle of a battle. A third party touted one such company to me. "They're doing great," my source told me. "Their showroom has just been designed by a top designer, but their ads aren't working. Perhaps you can help them."

My contact went on to warn me of some sticking points. The father, who had established the company, was reluctantly phasing out. The two brothers who were to succeed him were quite different and constantly at odds. The older brother seemed to dominate, but neither had a clear mandate to run the company.

When I showed up for the first meeting, the younger man described to me the origins of the company and what it expected to achieve next. When the older brother finally arrived for the meeting, the atmosphere promptly soured; their rivalry continually intruded—and was finally turned against me. The company had run an ad from a previous campaign only twice, but when I suggested that the brothers continue to run it until I could develop a new campaign, they resisted.

I related a David Ogilvy anecdote about how Henry Ford wanted to discard a fine campaign because he was afraid customers might be tired of it. Someone pointed out that although Ford had seen the ad for months, he needn't worry about its reception—it still hadn't been in print!

"The point is, fellas," I said, "how long before you get tired of an ad?" They immediately began arguing. The aggressive tone was so shocking I was afraid it might eventually wreck the business, and I didn't pursue the account. (Today, almost three years later, the business thrives and, I have to confess, their ads are excellent, which clearly means someone was able to work with these brothers.)

Isolation hampers the growth of family companies in other areas besides advertising. I was astounded recently to find that one of my long-standing clients did not have a network of sales reps in place. A new ad campaign for the company had brought in a wave of sales leads in the architectural and interior design markets. But the leads were being neglected. When I asked the client about this, he responded: "Our business is different. The long lead time between the sale and installation of our product makes it impossible to credit the proper sales reps, because of the high turnover of reps." The company's own sales force was pursuing local responses to the ads, but expressions of interest from outside its home territory were relegated to a desk drawer. When I investigated the matter, I discovered that other companies in the same business had been able to work with reps in distant cities despite the lag between sale and installation.

An outside professional can help a company reduce its isolation and offer simple remedies for common problems. If you plan to hire an advertising agency, here are a few suggestions:

  • Know what you want to accomplish before you call the agency in.

Nothing hampers an ad agency more than a management that is vague or uncertain about its goals. It is your agency's job to help achieve your objectives, not to set them. Only you can decide whom you want to reach and why.

It is perfectly reasonable to state specific goals for advertising. Even if the advertising falls short, articulating your goals will sharpen your focus and improve your chances of success. For example, let's say that if you can get 25 widget customers, you would bring in significant new revenue. Assume there are 25,000 widget buyers in the United States, all of whom read Widget Monthly. Figuring that you'll get a 2 percent response from your ad, you would pull in 500 potential customers. You therefore need to sell 5 percent of them to make your quota. If your ad doesn't bring in exactly that number, you are still ahead. Why? Because the exercise forced you to think about how to position your product, target your customers, and find the best media for reaching them.

  • Figure out how much you can spend.

I tell smaller firms that 2 percent to 5 percent of gross sales should be spent on ads and promotion. Larger companies may spend more, but for a firm doing from $1 million to $5 million of business, this is enough to produce quality ads for the trade press, in color, at a frequency that will penetrate the market. Some of that money must also be spent on brochures and catalogues to follow up the advertising.

  • Plan carefully and stick to your objectives.

Client and agency both hope for dramatic advertising that brings an immediate boost in sales. However, creating the ad takes time, and there is an additional lag before it appears. I tell clients not to expect results until at least six months after our first meeting. Some clients, impatient for results, think about pulling out midway in the program. Of course, advertisements that aren't working should be pulled or fixed. But it takes time for a campaign to build market awareness. So have confidence in your plan, and sit back and wait until the last returns are in.

Article categories: 
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Issue: 
March 1990

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