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CASHING IN ON THE LIMELIGHT ENTREPRENEURS ADVISED TO GET PUBLICITY SNOWBALL ROLLING

Loretta Kaminsky hit the publicity jackpot twice.

The co-owner of Lou-Retta's Custom Chocolates beamed into millions of homes in May during a prime-time public television special about woman entrepreneurs.

Before that, the Cheektowaga chocolate maker demonstrated truffle-making technique on "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" in 1987.

The payoff?

Ms. Kaminsky said the exposure can't hurt. She's an adherent of networking, be it a business mixer or an actual network with a three-letter acronym. But her appearances at trade shows have had a bigger bottom-line impact than those on national television.

"I don't think the ripple effect from that show will be in terms of business," she said of the special, produced by WNET-TV in New York and aired by public stations nationwide.

Lou-Retta's is the exception. Small businesses that get big exposure usually pick up a nice boost in business, marketing experts and celebrity entrepreneurs said. But the link between exposure and sales isn't always firm. And fame is indeed fleeting, sometimes leaving unexpected results after its light dims.

"I'm a firm believer that awareness translates into sales," said Robert Grede, a marketing consultant in Milwaukee. "But it might happen that your message doesn't go to its target."

A client who sells malt to home brewers got a boost from a trade magazine article, Grede said, riding a wave of interest in microbrewers. But the same story in a bigger, general interest magazine would have gone flat, he said. "It's really a small group that brews in their home -- it's critical to target the right people."

Take Buffalo Style Foods. The maker of "Authentic Chicken Wing Sauce" was launched in 1995 on the strength of a brief appearance on cable's QVC. Five minutes of fame, with Niagara Falls as a backdrop, was enough to sell 7,000 bottles of sauce for about $35,000 -- QVC got an undisclosed fraction. The fledgling company was one of 20 regional businesses chosen for the cable network's spotlight, out of 1,400 entries.

The take "was enough for us to launch a business confidently, and not have to spend our own money," said co-owner Sasha Yerkovich.

QVC's straightforward, buy-it-now approach did all it could to translate exposure into dollars. Ms. Yerkovich pitched the gourmet wing sauce to QVC's shopping-oriented audience while a toll-free order number appeared on the screen.

Now, Ms. Yerkovich wishes the company had put its own toll-free number on the labels of those first 7,000 bottles. Once QVC's pitch ended, it was difficult for viewers to contact the company again, she said.

Who gets to bathe in the publicity spotlight? A unique story, an already-hot topic and maybe a pinch of controversy are what grab the attention of the media, according to Grede. Buffalo Style Foods "was fortunate that '95 was the height of the wing sauce craze," Ms. Yerkovich said.

But while some small businesses are catapulted into the national consciousness, it's a long march for others.

As famous as it is locally, the Anchor Bar didn't get national attention as the traditional birthplace of the hot wing until a recent Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial was filmed on the premises, manager Ivano Toscani said.

"This is much broader than anything before," he said.

Toscani credits the spot, filmed in January, with a 35 percent pickup in business over the previous year. People from as far away as Mexico stop at the Main Street establishment and tell Toscani they recognize him from the ad.

Who knows how many more people would arrive if the brief appearance gave the bar's address. "People call asking how to get here from the airport -- they call from their car," Toscani said.

While publicity may not guarantee a lift for sales, it does seem to generate more publicity. Entrepreneur magazine called Ms. Yerkovich for a story after her QVC appearance. And Ms. Kaminsky's previous television experience -- including a monthly cooking spot on a local morning show -- didn't hurt her selection as a profile subject on public television.

"Success begets success," she said. "People feel you're qualified to do the next thing." Entrepreneurs who never carve time from running their business to market it are making a mistake, she says. Her own business is organized so that her partner and daughter, Ellen Bradbury, can run operations while Ms. Kaminsky takes on outside tasks.

Once a publicity snowball starts rolling, Grede said, there's no telling where it will stop.

One of his clients, a personal injury lawyer in the Midwest, ran a print ad depicting a man dressed in black before a church, touching a boy standing next to him. "Children need support, not exploitation," the ad's headline read.

"It was so controversial, it ended up being on Oprah Winfrey," Grede said. The publicity did bring the lawyer a flood of cases accusing church figures of sexual abuse, but it also brought an outpouring of angry letters and phone calls.

"We joke about what a good campaign it was, and how we don't want to do it again," Grede said.

At the Anchor Bar, national publicity is having a milder side effect. Besides tourists and out-of-town curiosity seekers, the television appearance is also bringing in Buffalo expatriates, hoping for a glimpse of their own past.

"An older couple came in, looked around," Toscani said. "The man said, 'I met my wife here 45 years ago -- it hasn't changed.' "

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