WHAT’S WARM, FUZZY and the perfect recession-era pitchman for everything from iPhones to laptops to credit cards? If you ask some of the country’s big advertisers, the answer would be: the entrepreneur.
Trying to tap into the popular belief that entrepreneurs are somehow more authentic — and more innovative — than big corporations, a handful of the country’s highest-profile employers are tapping small businesses as spokesmodels.
Dell’s (DELL) new “Take Your Own Path” print, online and billboard campaign features 40 entrepreneurs in eight countries. American Express’ (AXP) “Anthem” campaign, which ran through early October, featured six small business owners in a television advertisement and a series of vignettes that ran on AmEx’s OPEN web forum. Also in the mix, Intel (INTC), which gave five entrepreneurs the chance to describe their business in videos and online questionnaires at an Intel micro-site.
“Coming out of troubling economic periods, small businesses usually reignite the economy,” says Deb Curtis, the vice president for global advertising at American Express who helped develop the company’s “Anthem” campaign. “We partnered with businesses that knew how to reinvent themselves,” she says.
AT&T produced a 30-second commercial that featured Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes.
Spotlighting their own customer base not only generates heaps of free publicity for all participants, it can also firm up loyalties, and increase business by extension — if small entrepreneurs do well, they give business to larger firms. The big companies get points with consumers just for acknowledging entrepreneurs. “It’s like innovation by association,” says Paul Kurnit, a clinical marketing professor at Pace University in New York. The big firms don’t have to do anything innovative; in fact, during a recession, they are often doing the opposite — pulling funding for research and development and marketing.
AT&T (T) recently produced a 30-second commercial that featured Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS Shoes, a Venice, Calif.-based shoe maker that donates shoes to needy children. In the spot, Mycoskie shows how he uses the AT&T network in his travels. Just after it first aired nationally in April 2009 during the Masters Golf Tournament, the commercial received so much attention on Twitter and YouTube that AT&T decided to make a special, 60-second version, which premiered on American Idol.
TOMS Shoes benefited, too. “Our daily online traffic has nearly tripled; blog mentions about TOMS have more than doubled; and we’ve attracted a growing number of supporters on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter,” says Mycoskie. Informally, he adds that during public appearances he typically asks his audience whether or not they’ve heard of TOMS Shoes. About 25% of audiences had heard of his company before the spots ran. Now that number is closer to 80%, he says. “There can be no doubt that AT&T is responsible for this increased exposure,” Mycoskie says.
Warren Brown, the founder of Cake Love, a regional chain of sweets shops based in Washington, D.C., had a similar experience. The attorney turned entrepreneur, was doubly featured in campaigns from American Express and Dell. Those appearances both boosted online cake sales, and his ego. “Someone was acknowledging in the midst of this terrible season that we can make it through this,” says Brown. “I was happy to participate.”
And of course, using little-known entrepreneurs in marketing materials can cost a lot less than celebrities—like nothing at all. Like A-listers Tina Fey, Martin Scorsese, and Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Zane is a spokes model for American Express. The only difference: Zane, the founder of Zane’s Cycles in Branford, Conn., worked for free. While American Express declined to discuss the cost of the ad in which Zane was featured, the shop owner says spotlighting small business people is a safe bet. “Unlike celebrities, entrepreneurs are generally trying to play it straight,” he says. “The entrepreneur isn’t going to embarrass the brand. They can trust that their investment isn’t going to go to waste.”
—Write to Diana Ransom at firstname.lastname@example.org
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