When Big Ideas Come from Small Companies

Some of the Most Ingenious Marketing Is Created by Entrepreneurs Doing Their Best With a Limited Budget

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The freshest marketing ideas don't necessarily come from people working?in marketing departments who hire ad, media, digital and PR agencies. They come from entrepreneurs with smaller budgets who use their ingenuity to stand out.

The first business people to see the potential in social networking were garage bands using MySpace. Taco trucks were among the first to employ Twitter to reach a broader customer base in real time. Perhaps the most progressive brand builder I've ever encountered was Kimberly Caldwell, my dentist in Chicago. She generated word-of -mouth recommendations for her practice by figuring out that treating a dental visit more like a spa appointment could make drilling teeth an (almost) enjoyable customer experience.

So check out these hugely creative brands, run by people who aren't submitting case studies to marketing conferences and award shows. (And frankly, aren't we all a little tired of seeing the same brands in the same decks over and over?)

Michelle Phan. She has racked up more than half a billion YouTube views of her beauty and makeup tutorials. With more than 1.9 million subscribers, she's got significantly more fans than the YouTube channels of Nike , Old Spice and Google combined. Not bad for a 25-year-old who makes her videos on iMovie. Study her channel and you'll learn that delivering useful, timely and topical content is a more reliable way to build an audience than just posting random funny stuff.

Warby Parker Eyewear. Cool glasses online for only $95. While the company has come up with a hugely disruptive production model, it is also bursting with fun ideas on the marketing side. In addition to hip frames named after literary figures, Warby Parker has a $50 prescription monocle -- "the perfect accessory for budding robber barons, post-colonial tyrants and super villains." Their annual report is a beautifully designed experiment in radical transparency. You'll learn the market size for monocles (252 sold last year) and the new benchmark for customer satisfaction and advocacy.

The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. If the Dos Equis guy were to watch a movie, he'd watch it at the Alamo Drafthouse. This Austin-based movie theater puts on funky events that make going to the movies 400 percent more interesting. A champagne brunch viewing of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," for example, with poached eggs on toasted brioche. Or "Heckle Vision," where you can text in heckles during bad movies, and your comments will appear on screen alongside the action. Watch Alamo's video "Don't Talk-Angry Voicemail" on YouTube. It's perhaps the best example of a brand living up to its principles that you'll ever see.

Saddleback Leather. Their rugged products look like something Indiana Jones would use. And founder Dave Munson reinforces that notion with masterful storytelling. One product demonstration video shows a backpack getting speared by a Masai warrior in Africa. Another features no product, just a personal story from Munson about the proper way to snake his vintage Land Rover Defender between two semis on a highway in Mexico. Saddleback publishes a list of competitors right on their site, challenging any visitor to find a better value. Their slogan? "They'll Fight Over It When You're Dead."

826 Valencia. When author Dave Eggers started 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to help students with their writing skills, his landlord said they needed to sell something because the building was zoned for retail. Eggers turned that challenge into an opportunity by transforming half of the office into San Francisco's only independent pirate supply store, where you can find everything the working buccaneer needs, from peg legs to scurvy pills. Other 826 Valencia locations include the Superhero Supply Co. in Brookyln, and the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles, which "sells everything you need before you take a road trip through the fourth dimension." All proceeds support kids' learning.

Go to any community and you're bound to find entrepreneurs like these, making do with what they have. The next time you're stumped for a big idea, do it like they do: think small.
Scott Redick is director of strategy at Heat, a creative agency in San Francisco.
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