These thoughts revisited me the other day as I listened to Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, explain his surging company's success at the Promotion Marketing Association's conference. When Stephens started out, his distinctive car was all his marketing -- he used to follow local TV news crews around and try to park within shot. Now he sees his employees are his biggest marketing asset: "You have to get people to believe they're special, then they act that way. Service is tough to be good at."
But who's the next Stephens? Here are my favorite small-brand heroes of the moment:
Crack Team is a Geek Squad in the making, albeit in the slightly more bricks-and-mortar business of fixing concrete. If you have a crack in your wall, floor, patio or, whatever, the Crack Team will fill it. The company created a fast, inexpensive service, based on the simple insight that other crack repairers are slow and expensive. CEO Bob Kodner says the Crack Team grew, initially, by simply "turning up when we said we would, and doing what we said we'd do. If you operate as a conscientious service business in this kind of market, you're already ahead."
Kodner branded the business, too: He got himself an 800 number; created an icon, Mr. Happy Crack; a slogan, "A dry crack is a happy crack!"; and built an entertaining website at mrhappycrack.com. When he realized people were picking up on the name and icon, he created merchandise featuring them. Today the T-shirts and so on are bringing in 5% to 7% of Crack Team's estimated $5 million-$10 million revenue -- with buyers as far afield as France and Greenland -- and Kodner thinks he's only days away from a deal with Wal-Mart and Macy's. To date, Crack Team has 22 franchises; by the end of the year that should be 40.
Jig-A-Loo is a lubricant that claims to differ from other lubricants in that it doesn't contain oil, grease, wax or detergent and doesn't stain or drip. It unsticks stuff, protects against rust and works as a water repellant. It's already big in Canada, and I'm guessing it won't be long before it's snapping at the heels of the impregnable-seeming WD40. Yes, in part, I am impressed by a silly name and some simple but good advertising. (AdCritic subscribers can check its ads out there.) But it's also the fact that the company recently completed a $7.5 million private-equity deal to take a shot at the U.S. market, and has hired Taxi, an agency that has a good record with these sort of brands. And there's one other thing -- my tests included preventing my shoes from being ruined on New York's dirty, salted, slushy streets last week -- it works. Taxi CEO Paul Lavoie says: "This stuff won't need to be advertised."
Premcal is a PMS cure. What would I know about that? I know that it'd be a good thing, and that, if it worked, was readily available to all and was marketed well, it'd be huge. The story behind Premcal is the story of a practicing endocrinologist, Dr. Susan Thys-Jacobs, who has spent 20 years researching PMS, and, along with a pharmaceutical giant, conducted the largest study of the effect of calcium on PMS -- a study that demonstrated that calcium can relieve the horrors of that time of the month. It's not only the type of good story that so often forms the basis for a successful product, but it's, well, true. Oh, and Premcal is now part-owned by ad agency The Brooklyn Brothers, which is another nice twist to the background tale about a female-focused product, and ensures it'll get all the marketing attention it warrants. And don't think they'll just target women, either; the shop won't shy away from saying what we all know to be true -- that we'd all like to see PMS alleviated.