Make a marketing splash

With competition increasing from all sides in the rental industry, your ability to get the word out about what you have to offer your customers can make or break your business. Simply listing your company name in the Yellow Pages is not enough. You need to define your image and then promote it to the right people. But where do you start? To help point you in the right direction, we've compiled this special report on marketing your business. Don't let your competitors get a leg up on you. Take a proactive approach and make your business the first thing to come to customers' minds when they need a rental source.

Consumers have myriad choices. There are products - at seemingly every price point - to solve every problem. There are countless sources from which to purchase them. In fact, with catalogs, home shopping channels and the Internet, consumers don't even have to leave the living room to get what they need.

But for as many choices as there are, there are only so many consumer dollars to go around. So anyone and everyone in retail is vying for the consumer's attention.

Rental businesses are trying as hard as anyone to generate awareness, floor traffic and ultimately, more rentals and sales. But with a limited budget, how do you know where your marketing dollars will do the most good?

By doing a little homework and a lot of careful planning, each business operator can find his or her own customized solution to that very question. The key is to know who your target audiences are, then find the marketing methods that work best in your market to appeal to those audiences. Put together your own campaign.

"The first thing to remember is not to think of each marketing function as a separate entity," says Larry Rivers, Sr. of Rivers Advertising in Lincoln, NE. "Everything a business does should be integrated into a marketing plan. All elements should work together."

Other experts agree. "Never rely on only one method at a time. Since marketing is an experiment, you could easily run out of money before you find out which methods work best for you. Allocate what money you have to several methods simultaneously to find out which ones produce the best results," say authors Paul and Sarah Edwards and Laura Clampitt Douglas in the book, "Getting Business to Come to You."

"It's important to make a plan," says Dean Skylar of Skylar & Assoc. in Grosse Pointe Park, MI. "Decide well in advance what to promote, why you are promoting it, and the best marketing vehicles for each promotion."

Make a name for yourself

Equally important to your campaign is to send a consistent message in every medium you use.

"A business must identify his position in the market," says Rivers. "He must formulate a unique positioning statement that sets him apart from his competition, and identifies his services to the customer. An example would be, 'Quality is job one.' We all know that means Ford Motor Co."

In fact, we can all think of positioning statements that help us identify with certain companies. "When it absolutely has to be there overnight" - Federal Express. "Delivered hot in 30 minutes, or it's free" - Domino's Pizza.

There are several elements to your business that distinguish it from its competition. Outstanding service. Premium product. Knowledge of equipment. Determine your positioning statement, then feature it on everything from your business card to your bill of sale. Everything that connects to your business should include that statement.

Toot your own horn

A crucial element of every marketing plan is to make a name for yourself in your community through networking and public relations. This is one of the least expensive and most effective forms of marketing.

"Let yourself be known to the media and your community as an expert who can be called upon to give advice," says Rivers.

Make headlines. Call the editors of your local newspapers and take them out to lunch. Develop a relationship. Add them to your mailing list so they can see what's going on at your business. Personally invite them to special events. Call them with story ideas that you can help with, such as a spring story on "How to get your yard ready for summer," or a fall story on "Six easy steps to fall cleanup."

Network, network, network. Join your local Rotary Club or the Chamber of Commerce. Go to the meetings and spread the word about your business. Always have business cards on hand, and make it known that you are the person to call when an equipment or service need arises.

Start a mutual admiration society. Don't just hand out cards, but collect them as well. Let the folks you meet know you're always looking for more business. Refer friends and customers to non-competing businesses. Those businesses will often return the favor. Keep in touch with the contacts you make. Every new relationship can turn into referrals or sales.

Be creative. Where else could you make a name for yourself? Volunteering for charities and local organizations is often another way to make contacts. Sponsorship of local sports teams can be another alternative. Are there any organizations you can provide services to that will turn into future referrals? Every community offers different opportunities. Just make sure your investment of time and funds is worth it to you and your business.

"The goal is to get others to become advocates of your products and services," says Skylar.

Set your priorities

Of course, the top priority of any marketing plan is to grow sales. But it is important to be careful about who you want to attract. Divide your budget for each customer segment into two categories.

"Part one should be for 'acquisition' (new customers) and part two should be for 'retention' (repeat customers)," says Skylar. If you are still developing a customer database, he recommends spending 75 percent of your marketing dollars on new customers. But once you have a well-developed customer database, you should spend 75 percent on customers you already have.

Skylar explains that "in the old days" there was no shortage of new customers. But today, it is more difficult and more expensive to bring new customers into the store. So it is wise to develop your existing customer base as much as possible.

"Your goal should be for customers to spend 100 percent of their available dollars in your store," says Skylar. "Right now, they are probably spending 20 to 25 percent. If you do your marketing job right, customers will come to you when they have a need."

Make a plan

What other marketing methods will complement your networking efforts? Experts say to take advantage of a few things to optimize your marketing dollars.

First, review the co-op plans offered by your suppliers. What will they help with? "Many businesses don't cash in on all they could for co-op funds," says Rivers. "They also don't utilize all the different marketing tools offered by suppliers."

Many manufacturers offer well-written, well-designed postcards, newsletters and brochures for a reduced cost to dealers. Buying these items in bulk is much less expensive than designing and producing them on your own. Be sure you know what is available.

Also, wheel and deal with your manufacturers for help on certain promotional materials. If you've got a great idea that doesn't happen to be in the co-op agreement, call your manufacturer and let him know what you are doing and that you'd like help. Manufacturers provide these opportunities because they're looking for sales to grow, too. If you're promoting their product, see if they'll supplement your promotion.

On the flipside, don't be afraid to say no to certain co-op deals or marketing materials if they are not a good fit for your business or market. Even a really good deal can be a waste of money if it's not tightly targeted to your audience.

"Too much money is wasted on advertising that won't be much of a benefit to the dealer," says Skylar. "Make sure any special advertising offers are part of your store's strategy and not just part of the media's."

Skylar also warns against spending too much money on "passive forms of advertising" like Yellow Pages and other directories. They are considered passive because you have to wait for the customer to come looking before you can give him your message. It is better to focus the dollars of a limited marketing budget on "active forms of advertising."

Get all your ducks in a row

Finally, before implementing your marketing program, make sure you "get your house in order." Before generating floor traffic, how does the store look? Are displays well-stocked and creatively laid out? These are common-sense details, but are important elements to your plan just the same.

Make sure your establishment exudes the image you portray in your marketing message. If you claim to be the "complete source for outdoor power equipment," make sure you have it all, including accessories and attachments. If you promise quick turnaround, make sure you have the staff to execute just that.

Make sure there are no empty promises in your marketing message. In the age of sensational advertising, it is tempting to promise the world to get the message heard. But be careful. "Some want to be everything to everybody," says Rivers. "It's better to promise, say, five important things, then deliver in spades on those five."