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Enhancing Your Practice

In promoting your business, remember that the best messages come wrapped in timely stories.

By John Graham

Every successful speaker knows that you can hear a pin drop when he tells a story. Like nothing else, stories make ideas clear and compelling, even memorable. They touch us at a depth that facts and figures rarely reach.

At its core, marketing is about stories. The more we listen for the stories, the better we are as marketers. Here are four stories that tell the marketing story:

  1. Fun experiences get attention: Marketers know how difficult but critical it is to grab their customers’ attention. Always alert for a new attention-getting twist, my eye caught a patch of bright red in a used car lot one morning. Then, a few seconds later, it hit me what it was--an old fire engine. Later, I pulled in and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a 1923 fire engine that had been restored by Friendly’s restaurants and presented to none other than the famed Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops. On that magnificent hood were the words, "Fiedler #3."

    The old fire engine had been rebuilt with a row of benches along each side, perfect for taking people for rides. The bell was clear and the siren was exhilarating. Right then and there, I bought it and then added our company name on the side. Needless to say, the fire engine went to business outings, school and civic events, parades and parties. Everyone loved seeing it go by with the bell ringing and the siren going. Some just couldn’t wait and they jumped on for a ride. Instinctively, they connected a fun experience with our business. Here’s the point: if you start with the idea of what customers would like and not what interests you, you will get an explosion of possibilities.

  2. Take advantage of the power of marketing: The guy on the telephone was quite blunt. He said he wanted to meet in our office. As soon as he arrived, he handed me a sheet of paper. "I’ve carried this in my truck for the past seven years," he said. "I read it just about every day." As soon as I saw it, I realized it was one of my marketing articles that had been published seven years before. He explained that the ideas made sense to him and now that he was in charge of marketing for his company, he wanted to hire our firm. It turned out to be the largest account in our history. Here’s the point: the right ideas have the power to pull customers. You may not know who or where they are, but they’re out there waiting to connect with an idea that makes sense to them.

  3. Leverage your resources: Along with the marketing agency, we had a printing company, both located in a city of about 90,000, just south of Boston. One of our top objectives was to "take care of our front yard." It was always good to have business from afar, but cultivating the immediate territory also made sense. There was plenty of business and we wanted a good share of it. This meant that business owners and company executives needed to think of us when they were ready. To make it work, the message must be delivered consistently and in an engaging way.

    Whatever we came up with needed to let us leverage our capabilities, those of our printing company, mailing operation and the marketing agency. Considering the possibilities, we pursued the idea of "owning" the business news in the city. The daily newspaper seemed to be reducing its coverage of local business news, and the weekly paper and local radio station were focused heavily on community activities.

    That’s how we came to publish a monthly business newsletter. We gathered the information, wrote the stories, printed it and mailed it to 3,500 businesses without charge.

    Starting with the first edition, there were edgy editorials, rated restaurant reviews, attention-getting features about businesses, recognition awards and dozens and dozens of tidbits about people and companies. Some pieces were tongue-in-check, which added to the excitement.

    The publication was a hit from day one. We accepted ads, but didn’t push them. We didn’t want the readers to think that garnering ad dollars was the goal; we wanted the newsletter to be perceived as a business-awareness vehicle, which is why we bore more than 90 percent of the cost.

    The newsletter ran for 10 years and exceeded our expectations. Readers looked forward to receiving it, and after we ceased publication, they often asked, "When are you going to bring it back?"

    The point? Leverage a company’s resources in ways that will engage customers, send a consistent message, and let customers know what you can do.

  4. Do what’s unexpected: I was surprised when the executive VP of a regional bank asked if I could come to the bank ASAP. A federal task force was announcing the next morning that the bank was being indicted for improper handling of cash transactions of $10,000 or more and was being fined $50,000. "What should we say to the press?" was the first question that the bank’s executives asked. I suggested that they simply tell the truth. The next morning the president stood before a well-attended press event and said, "We were wrong." And then he listed the changes that the bank was making to avoid any further occurrences. "We were wrong" was the headline that night in the newspaper. And that was the end of the story. The bank owned up to its mistakes and put the event behind it. Later, a bank officer reported that deposits actually increased in the next few days. Here’s the point: Negative situations can have a positive outcome by doing what’s unexpected. Coming clean by saying "We were wrong" actually enhanced the bank’s credibility. Stories can dramatize a message and make it personal and compelling. It’s easy to talk, but it’s difficult to say what someone wants to hear. In the case of marketing, the best messages come wrapped in timely stories.

    John Graham, a marketing and sales consultant and a business writer, lives in Boston. Contact him at 617-774-9759 or at

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