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Breakaway Marketing

Forget costly banner ads, massive mass mailings, mind-numbing cold calling, and that cavalcade of rubber chicken no-host networking dinners. One of the best (and cheapest) ways to stir up a big honking wave of good buzz is to try your hand at a little rebellious street marketing, the sort of thing only a free-thinking, insurgent professional can pull off. (We all know that big companies like to act counter-cultural, babe, but you can smell them a mile away. As if!) These campaigns work precisely because they're cool, handcrafted, individual, and concocted on the fly -- they're never slick or planned to death. More than big bucks, they require cleverness and ingenuity in large supply. Who can say, for instance, what business-building potential might be lurking in that dinky sweepstakes entry form you almost tossed out with the underwear ads? Consider now the multitudinous merits of breakaway marketing. Try enlarging your world -- and getting new work -- by firing up a good old grass roots campaign.

Let's start with something funky and competitive. How about... contests! Hollywood, for instance, has discovered that flashy screenwriting competitions are a superb way to flush would-be storymeisters out of the woodwork. There are dozens of screenplay contests (most carry entry fees of $30 to $100 or more and make you hang on months for an answer), but winning one can change your life: the prize might be a fellowship, a stipend, a movie deal, or the Really Big One -- Being Discovered. Even modest contests -- far away from Hollywood hype -- can earn the winner bragging rights and open a few doors, as newly independent architect Alice Dommert found out, pretty much by accident.

Dommert left a supremely successful career in a high-profile Philadelphia design firm to team up with her architect-husband so they could concentrate on the projects they really cared about, on their own terms. With next to nothing to spend on promoting their new venture, Dommert-Phillips Architecture longed for more imaginative (read: cheap) ways to get the word out and maybe snag a client or two in the process. As they read the paper one night (market research), they learned that the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Pennsylvania would be sponsoring a contest that Dommert thought had their name on it. Entrants would have to build some kind of structure made from the famous G.S. cookie boxes. The winning design would be featured big time in the paper, along with a profile of its creators, and every entrant would get at least a little ink.

What to build? Then inspiration hit: nothing goes with a pile of Thin Mints and peanut-buttery Tagalongs better than a humongous glass of ice cold vitamin-D homogenized milk, right? Why not make a big glass of milk? It was an especially witty choice, because it referred subtly back to that easy-on-the-memory tagline -- "Got milk?" -- and, even better, it worked. "We took the blue ribbon," Dommert reports. The enormous glass, which was constructed entirely without glue or tape (Dommert further wowed the judges by putting an environmental spin on the design), beat out a Ferris wheel, Girl Scout City, and an over-the-top re-creation of the Ben Franklin Bridge. And it netted Dommert-Phillips a mention (with photo) in Philadelphia Architect, the well-read newsletter of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Buoyed by her success, Dommert tried something equally uncommon but goofily apropos on April Fool's Day. She designed and constructed an April Fool's Hat -- an extravagantly eccentric thing, made from a tangle of textures, fabrics, and oddities -- and sent it, along with a letter, to an independent management consultant she didn't know personally, but whose work and reputation she admired. She'd done her homework, though, and she knew the consultant's projects always had a quirky, arty streak. In her letter, Dommert explained that the hat would be great fodder for some of the consultant's creativity seminars, or perhaps they'd be the ideal take-home memento of a client's experience in a training seminar. At the very least, she thought the hat would be a good way to introduce herself and make a career-boosting impression. She followed the hat hoopla with a phone call (basic business-building never hurts), and was thrilled to hear that the consultant wanted to meet her.

So did the hat trick generate tons of new business? Well, no... and yes. "I visited the consultant's office, and they said they'd call. I haven't heard from them yet," Dommert says. But she says something much more valuable came out of it. The hat trick gave Dommert the confidence to launch "fabulous relationships with other, more established design firms who find our special skills complimentary to theirs. The collaboration helped us both: we've brought them on projects and they've done the same for us."

Dommert rose above the noise partly because she relied on a tried-and-true marketing strategy: by shipping her hat to the consultant, she was giving away a "sample" of her work, the way See's still does with its marvelous chocolates and Starbucks does with coffee. But you can do it with ideas, too, by, say, sending to influential colleagues and clients really early versions of your latest project. If they like what they see, they'll spread the word for you, which only fuels demand for more. A newsletter -- the more uncontrived, hot-off-the-presses-looking the better -- can be a superb way to keep your name in front of your clientele, to hold up your end of the conversation and let them know you're alive. Even a stunt, if that's your style, can work sometimes. You can try sandwich boards, the old standby. Or you can be coy and whip up interest by holding out on some essential element, like your product's availability. The scarcer something is, the more valuable it becomes. People go loopy for what they cannot have.

Even these homegrown strategies are not for the faint of heart, because they carry risk. Your idea might simply flop; there's no craze and no contagion, because nobody noticed.

It all boils down to a few key elements to keep in mind before you break away and kick off your own underground marketing campaign:

Keep it local and small, like Dommert's Girl Scout contest. If she'd failed, it wouldn't have been the end of the world, or her professional life. Follow her example. Create a small victory, and build from there. If you go too big too soon, you're asking for an audit (at the very least). You don't want to invite that kind of attention right off the bat. Go slow. Start small.

Build good word of mouth by offering a little taste. The infamous Dancing Baby got its start as a lowly email attachment; Heather Howitt handed out free samples of her Oregon Chai straight from her backpack to willing tasters; best-selling books started out as articles in well-read magazines; and celebrities with a high profile weakness for lollipops turned the obscure Chupa Chups into the hottest suckers on the street. Ditto pashmina; the wraps and scarves are everywhere.

Get somebody with clout to recommend you. Build your professional reputation with a little directed help from your friends. Note: this only works if you've done a decent job of keeping in touch with said friends. You can't spring your wonderful self on people and expect them to be delighted. This kind of respect you have to earn. Back to square one.

Be good. Before PR comes the Work, and it'd better be good. Worth talking about. Good press does not make an accountant's botched tax return okay. It does not take the place of really genuinely outstanding work on your part, and it's not some psychological spackle that can smooth over the rough spots in your expertise. No shortcuts here.

Pull a stunt if it's really you, but be careful -- stunts can backfire. Also consider your image. Will your clients (and potential clients) really want to see you making a scene -- even a good-natured one? Unless you're in Silicon Valley, where this kind of thing is part of the whole geeky cachet of the place, it's déclassé. It may be better to throw a fun and tasteful party to launch your cool new service.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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