Marketing your company means more than Yellow Pages ads

I was knocking back a beer at a Super Bowl party 20 years ago when I overheard a conversation that shocked me. "My company's the best and you're an idiot if you don't agree," boasted one guest.

"How would you know who's got the best heating company?" the other said. "You wouldn't be able to find your boiler if your life depended on it!"

I found this fascinating. I'd never heard two people argue over who had the better heating company! "I'm in the heating business," I said to them. "What companies do you guys use?"

They both said different names, but both names were my companies. They were both my customers! Neither had a clue that the other guy's company was actually the same company.

My dad, my brothers and I believed that as we acquired new heating companies the new customers would feel comfortable if the name remained the same. So, we kept the familiar name on the trucks and the invoices. Now, it was becoming apparent that this was a blunder.

When I got to the office the next day, I told my dad and my brothers what had happened at the Super Bowl party. They couldn't believe that people were confused over our names. I told them to try to see it through the customers' eyes. Slowly, they all began to realize what I had realized the day before: We had to come up with one name and one image.

Once we realized this, my dad swung into action. "What are you up to? Who are you calling?" I asked.

"Just an old friend who owns an advertising agency in New York City," he said.

Up until then, our only advertising had been a modest ad once in awhile in a local paper and our small Yellow Pages ad. We let the people at the local paper write that ad. They would ask for a few ideas about what we were selling and that was that.

Dad's friend, Leo, worked for larger clients than us, but because they were childhood friends, Leo agreed to help. He asked that my dad assign one of the brothers to him for the duration of the campaign. Dad chose me.

Marketing And Advertising

Leo wasted no time in establishing the ground rules for our working relationship:
    Rule 1: I'd need to study what my competition did well. And, I'd have to tell Leo why I thought it was working.

    Rule 2: I'd need to understand what was unique about us and why it mattered to our customers.

    Rule 3: I'd have to trust Leo, especially when he wanted to do something new and bold.

"So, what made your dad call me after all these years?" Leo asked.

I told him about the conversation between the customers at the Super Bowl party. I emphasized that our goal was to clarify that we are one company. "And..." I hesitated, a little ashamed to finish my thought.

"Yes, and what else?" Leo said.

"My second goal is to convince all those people who don't use us now to start!" I said.

He laughed. "Why would you bother to advertise if you weren't interested in selling to everyone?" he said. "You need to say something specific to someone or you risk saying nothing to everyone. Alan, do you know the difference between marketing and advertising?"

"Aren't they the same thing?" I said.

"No," he said. "Advertising is a vital part of marketing, but just a part. Newspaper, radio, television, billboards and Yellow Pages ads are different forms of advertising. Marketing includes all of these, but much more. It is the image you project to everyone who comes into contact with your company. It's the way you answer your phones, the way your trucks look to the public, how your staff dresses and even more. Are you beginning to see the difference?"

I was.

"Good," he continued, "because we're not just going to advertise your new name and image; we're going to market it. That means you have to be determined to get the entire company to project the image that we'll be marketing. And the toughest part will be to keep it up."

At our second meeting, Leo unveiled his plan:

He'd tailor our message to the advertising vehicle we would be using. He explained that an effective bulletin board should be very visual and contain no more than five words.

He'd create an image and message that we would repeat in all that we did. He told me that when I got sick of the message, it would be just starting to sink into the minds of our audience.

He wouldn't write boring copy. But, he wouldn't get so clever that the message got lost.

He'd advertise intensively over a short period because that was better than to advertise too little over a longer period.

Leo and I discussed the budget. This would determine what choices he could make on where to place ads and how frequently. He settled on bus billboards, billboards at the railroad station, billboards on major local roads, a large newspaper that served our marketing area, a news talk radio station and ads on the back of milk cartons.

The Transformation

Since this was going to be, by far, our biggest marketing effort, we also allocated money to repaint our trucks, to supply uniforms for our technicians, logo shirts for the sales people and new letterhead, envelopes and stationery. We would train our staff on how to answer the phone with our new name. We created an on-hold message for each season.

Leo wrote a letter that we sent to our existing customers. He used a conversational tone. It explained how we were just changing the name, not the service they had come to love.

"Why are we using so many different ways of advertising?" I asked.

"The first time people see your name it doesn't register but it does go into their subconscious. And the more they see or hear your name, the more they'll remember it." I nodded. "Do you know the two reasons a company should change their name?" he asked. I shook my head. "Either to announce that companies are merging, or to distance themselves from troubles. Luckily for you, you're just getting all your companies married. The name should be something the customers already knew, something the companies have in common."

The names we were using were Morris Oil Services Inc., Mac & Mac Oil Services Inc., B & R Oil Services Inc., Hewlett Oil Services Inc. and Weyant Oil Services Inc. Leo wrote them down and played around with different choices. He finally settled on Oil Services Inc. -- OSI for short. And then he created a logo for us.

"Now, let's select a unifying new color for your trucks," he said.

"The law in NYC requires that fuel oil trucks be green," I said. "And not just any color green. Only one of these six will do."

"Okay," he said, pointing at one of the six shades. "This will do nicely."

"But that's the ugliest green on the page. It sticks out like a sore thumb." I said.

"Which is precisely why I picked it," he said.


"Alan, when you have doubt, remember Rule No. 3: Trust Leo. I'm not asking you to wear a suit this color. I want your trucks to be visible at a distance and this will do the trick. And when you paint the new OSI logo on your trucks, put it near the back off the truck, not in the center. And tilt it on a 45-degree angle. And you know how your trucks now have phone numbers, radio towers and boiler installation promotions? From now on, the only thing I want to see on your trucks is your new name and logo. If they're interested, they'll find your name in the phone book and call."

We used to cram a lot of information on our trucks. We figured we were paying for the whole space so we covered every inch. We listed every phone number (we had four of them), we showed the areas we serviced, we mentioned that we had 24-hour service, we had a painted radio tower to prove that we are radio-dispatched. We also had signs letting people know we installed boilers, water heaters and on and on.

I visualized this bright green truck with the off-center logo and I figured the staff would think I had lost my mind.

But I did trust Leo.

Once we had the trucks painted it suddenly looked like we had twice as many trucks on the road. While driving around town, people would see the distinctive green of our trucks with the new logo from blocks away. We were different!

Even my competitors called. They said they liked the new look!

Now the only name our customers see is OSI. And, OSI is everybody's favorite oil company at most Super Bowl parties around here.