Steve Hutcherson despises marketing. The president ofElite Heating & Air, Wahpeton, N.D., Hutcherson deemed marketing as nothing but a necessary evil in the recipe of running a small business.

“Marketing is a booger,” Hutcherson said. “I don’t care what market you’re in. It really is. It’s expensive, and it’s hard. When you do it, you have to know your community and know what you’re selling. You have to understand the community you’re in and how they receive information.”

Whether you’re soliciting to a smaller rural audience or canvassing a metro area filled with millions of people, marketing details and strategies can be quite different.

Build a Reputation that Sells Itself

Marketing is defined as the act or process of selling in a specific market.

“Interestingly, the rural and the metro have similar tasks, but different angles,” said Adams Hudson, president of Hudson, Ink, a national marketing firm. “The rural contractor must portray his business to be professional beyond his scope, and ‘difficult’ to market against by outside competitors. The metro contractor must redefine their large area into smaller communities and appear more personable and approachable.”

Hutcherson said he’s tried just about everything in his town of about 8,000 people, including advertising on the backs of receipts, which he claimed was a flop. But, more than anything else, he stands firm that remarks of a job well done travels quickly in rural areas.

“In small towns, people still feel that they don’t have to lock their doors or take the keys out of their trucks. It’s all about trust,” Hutcherson said. “Word of mouth is driven by the performance of your company and the mentality of the people who work for you. If you’re doing well, it’ll get out there.”

Amy Turnbull, general manager, Blue Flame Heating & Air Conditioning, Mountlake Terrace, Wash., a highly populated suburb 13 miles north of downtown Seattle, said the metro areas offer more people to help spread the good word.

“I think the core essence (of marketing) is connecting with people and getting your name out, whether it’s going to a community meeting and meeting leaders, churches, just connecting,” she said. “That’s the first thing we’d probably take a look at. We’ve been involved in the community here, with the chamber of commerce, so other businesses know about us.”

Hudson said reputation ranks very highly in both rural and metro areas. “In a rural area, reputation is still garnered via word of mouth, and depending on town size, how the family is regarded,” he said. “Do the owners attend church, and where? Are they flashy, reclusive, generous, charitable, or seen as community participants? All this matters — a lot.”

In metro areas, Hudson said, a reputation is built more broadly with awards, commendations, chamber membership, and most importantly, with an online presence.

“The metro marketer is wise to utilize awards and association memberships, pound for testimonials, and showcase positive reviews,” Hudson said, noting it is far more important for metro contractors to keep in touch with customers due to constant competitive pressure.

No matter what type of market your business is in, word of mouth is something that can certainly make or break a company’s reputation.

Using an Agency

Both rural and metro contractors agreed: Using an ad agency is not the way to get the best results.

“We’re not using an agency now, though we have in the past,” said Michael Rosenberg, president, Rosenberg Indoor Comfort, San Antonio. “Now we do some television, and we’ve booked the ads directly with the TV station, which seems to work better than using an agency. When you’re working direct, they seem to care a little bit more about who they’re dealing with.”

Tim Funke, owner, Aire Solutions, Poplar Bluff, Mo., said radio advertising has offered him his greatest return.

“Like with everything, the more you buy, the cheaper it gets,” Funke said. “When I go up to the radio station and personally buy $1,200 per month in ads, and then we have a manufacturer’s program that buys another $1,200 a month in ads, the radio station becomes very accommodating. But if I come in and buy $1,200, and the media company buys $1,200, the only thing I’m getting credit for is the $1,200.”

Turnbull said her company has dabbled “here and there” with using an agency, but not recently.

“I feel a lot of those agencies just put all of their marketing into a box. It’s pretty ugly stuff, to be honest,” she said. “It’s the same message, just insert a different contractor. I could basically do better myself. We’ve seen a lot of people waste money on ugly marketing.”

All About the Brand

Most major manufacturers offer marketing programs to help contractors regardless of location. However, those programs are not always the right answer for every contractor.

Some contractors in rural areas find great value in brand exclusivity. “In our rural market, I don’t have another Trane dealer within 50 miles of me. So my company and Trane become pretty much synonymous,” said Funke. “If I build my business, then Trane is going to be the benefactor of my equipment purchases.”

Funke admitted that his preference is to market his brand name over the manufacturers.

“We stress to Trane that we will likely have more success promoting the company itself. If I run a bunch of Trane ads, I’m not saying they won’t do any good, but I think it’s better to market myself and my company, then go out and sell the Trane product. My name is important, so we protect that reputation and take good care of people. Regardless of the brand I’m selling, the customers know they’ll get taken care of.”

Turnbull said she hasn’t been impressed historically with manufacturer programs, but said the company has used them in instances when they’d benefit from a large amount of co-op dollars. Despite the promises, the return, in her experience, has only been “so-so.”

Rosenberg said his company is most concerned with promoting its own name.

“We stay far away from (things that mention manufacturer brands) because we want to brand ourselves. We want people to know about us, not about the manufacturers,” he said. “You see a lot of manufacturers that come out with commercials that give you five seconds at the end to cram in whatever it is you want to say, and the rest is all about their brand. It’s not worth it. We never do those. Our ads are 99 percent about us and 1 percent about the manufacturers. Most of our commercials don’t ever mention the manufacturers.”

Making an Impact

While difficult, and elusive, marketing is a necessary aspect in business. While Funke says he gets his message out “any way we can,” the message, and how it is delivered, is constantly evolving. What worked six months ago might not work tomorrow.

“It has to change all the time,” Turnbull said. “We have to think of the messages we’re sending and the offers out there. As a company, we’ve been heavily reliant on utility rebates. They do a lot of the advertising themselves, and we’re one of the master installers on their list. That in itself is a great marketing tool for us. So, when those come to a close, whenever that is, that’ll be a huge shift for us.”

And, with so much market saturation, sometimes the only way to make your company name stand out from the rest is (surprise) through even more marketing.

“If I did not market it, the residential side of my business would not grow,” Rosenberg said. “It would decrease. If you don’t proactively market your business, there’s no way it will grow. It’s something that has to be done.”

Publication date: 10/14/2013