Marketers pursue small businesses

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Marketing to small businesses is heating up this year as companies recognize the sector's spending power. Among those stepping up their marketing efforts are Visa USA, eBay for Business and Office Depot.

Total nonpayroll spending by small businesses in the U.S. will increase 5.4% this year to $4.7 trillion, according to a forecast released last month by Visa USA.

The report found that spending by small businesses, defined as those with less than $25 million in annual sales, accounts for one-third of all expenditures by businesses in the U.S.

"These numbers represent how powerful small businesses are in the U.S. and what a significant opportunity the small-business market represents," said Dave Costa, VP-Visa Commercial Solutions at Visa USA.

In 2004, Visa's small-business debit and credit card business increased 32% over 2003, Costa said.

To capitalize on this growing market, Visa has introduced several products, services and incentive programs for small-business card holders, including a discount program called Visa Partner Advantage and an incentive program called Visa Extras.

Visa is also rolling out new advertising aimed at small-business owners. Last month, Visa introduced a new TV spot, developed by BBDO West. It is a continuation of Visa's b-to-b ad campaign with the tagline, "Visa. It's everywhere you want your business to be."

"The goal is to extend the strength and power of the Visa brand to small businesses, with the end game of driving business to our member banks," said Elyssa Gray, VP-advertising at Visa. "We want to demonstrate to small businesses that Visa has products and services designed to suit their business needs."

The new commercial, called "Drycleaner," is running on national TV and cable networks, with a broad awareness message aimed at small businesses.

Visa will launch an online campaign this month, developed by AKQA, San Francisco, extending it into radio in April and print in May that will drill down further into specific products and benefits for small businesses. BBDO West develops offline advertising.

EBay Business, the b-to-b segment of auction company eBay, this year is targeting small-business sellers, in addition to small-business buyers.

"Business buying on eBay is one of the most rapidly growing areas of commerce on the site," said Jay Fiore, senior manager of business marketing, eBay Business.

In January 2004, eBay launched a major awareness campaign aimed at business buyers on eBay, with the tagline, "Dream big, save big." Slack Barshinger, Chicago, developed the campaign.

Since then, eBay has seen a 30% increase in awareness of business categories on eBay among its own user community, and it has added more than 1 million new business buyers.

The campaign featured testimonials from business buyers in different industries, including construction, agriculture, manufacturing and restaurants.

EBay has seen significant growth in the high-priced capital equipment market, such as construction and manufacturing equipment, and is adding new categories and features in those areas, Fiore said.

In new print ads that launched last month, also developed by Slack Barshinger, eBay profiled a buyer on one side of the page and a seller on the other, using the testimonial approach to talk about a product that was sold.

According to the company's research, more than 430,000 b-to-b sellers make all or a significant portion of their income from the site. "Sometimes buyers have questions about the people who are selling," Fiore said. "We are using print ads to shine the spotlight on some of these equipment dealers."

The ads are running in vertical trade publications serving the construction, farming and manufacturing industries. The campaign may expand into new categories later this year, Fiore added.

In addition to advertising, eBay is boosting its outreach to small businesses through events and educational programs.

For example, it is partnering with IDG World Expo on a new event called Small eBusiness World, which will be held in Chicago May 6-7. As part of the event, eBay is hosting a two-day seminar called eBay University, during which it will train small businesses in how to buy and sell on eBay.

Office Depot is boosting its small-business marketing as well, with a new ad campaign and a major NASCAR sponsorship this year.

Small business makes up 80% of Office Depot's overall sales through its retail, catalog and direct sales channels, said Tony Ueber, VP-marketing strategy at Office Depot.

In January, Office Depot launched a major repositioning campaign with the tagline, "Taking care of business," developed by BBDO New York, to focus on its commitment to business customers.

"The TV campaign was a big departure for us," Ueber said. "We had relied on humor, as did our competitors. We made a very concerted strategic decision to walk away from humor, and instead have true insights about our customers and the challenges they face."

TV spots show small-business people making their dreams become a reality through Office Depot, such as an architect and a designer who bring their plans to life. The campaign also includes print, radio, e-mail and direct response.

As part of its NASCAR sponsorship, Office Depot is giving small businesses a chance to become the official small business of NASCAR through a special promotion.

The winning small business will be able to use the NASCAR logo on promotional materials, have its name displayed on the race car that Office Depot is sponsoring and win a $1,000 Office Depot shopping spree.

The winner will be announced May 7 at Darlington Racetrack in Darlington, S.C.

"We believe that this promotion has tremendous appeal for our core customers, many of whom are small businesses as well as NASCAR fans," Ueber said.

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