I play golf with Steve, a guy who quit a white-collar job in finance 20 years ago to buy a snack truck -- not a gourmet operation that sells Korean barbecue or crepes but a quilted aluminum truck that pulls up to construction sites and factories. Best sellers include candy bars and bright orange peanut butter crackers. These customers wouldn't touch Starbucks; Steve can't buy coffee cheap enough to satisfy them.
He has done very well, but structural challenges are making it increasingly hard to turn a profit. The high price of gas tops the list. The continuing loss of manufacturing jobs has shrunk the market in New England. And in this economy, many potential customers have less to spend on snacks.
I like to harass Steve with ideas for bringing new life to his business. What about vitamin waters? Power bars? Hot food? Cold food? Advil? Socks? Golf balls? Jack , another agency golf partner, believes the answer is grilled cheese sandwiches.
Unfortunately, there is virtually nothing we suggest that Steve hasn't already thought about or tried. Bottom line: he thinks it's a dying business.
This is frustrating to a marketing guy, like myself. There must be a strategy that can help Steve sell more products, increase his market, and satisfy his shareholders (most notably his wife).
Steve's not short on research. He knows how many customers he has, what they like and how much they spend each day. He takes customer intimacy to a new level: he knows family histories and has gone to weddings and funerals.
Clearly, advertising is not the answer. The truck is already its own best ad. There's not a smart phone in the crowd, so we're not talking Groupon and Foursquare strategies. Customers may be online, but they're not tweeting about tomorrow's snack.
We might conclude that Steve has a mature business in a finite market, and has done everything possible to optimize his service model. But I'm not ready to buy that theory. He serves a captive audience that 's stuck at work, can't make a run to the local fast-food joint and, like all of us, needs a break and a snack. I see a glimmer of hope. I know little about running a snack truck, but here are a few ideas for Steve:
- Look for office parks without cafeterias on the existing route.
- Find a local gas station that will give a discount when the customer buys a hot dog and a drink.
- Arrange to sell premium brand products from Dunkin Donuts or Subway.
- Sell birthday and anniversary cards for guys who might otherwise forget to buy them before they head home from work.
When you think about it, Steve's situation isn't unusual. These sorts of marketing problems crop up regularly in everyday life. They might be hiding in a friend's business, in your children's schools, or at a little-known local non-profit. Maybe one of these institutions needs badly to raise funds, or to adapt to changing business conditions, or suffers from lack of awareness. It's easy to overlook or ignore them; they're not going to ever be a source of business.
They may seem irrelevant to how we run our agencies, but there is real value in devoting some time and attention on occasion to these problems. It keeps you sharp. It forces you to find a solution without all the resources that you normally get in a client engagement. It reminds you that marketing affects real people at the personal level and that it's not just about response rates and market share.
Most of us support non-profit organizations with pro bono work, but here's an opportunity to go one step farther and use your professional talents to make life a little better for some of the people in your world who will never have the resources to hire an agency. The costs to you are minimal and the value you provide to someone else can be huge. Not to mention that working on these problems is a good warm-up for all those paying clients