Marketing: Creating Buzz for your Small Business [Case Study]

Mike Sheldrake of Sheldrake's Coffee Roasting

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A lot has been written about all the ways you can get buzz for your business – from putting discounts on your Facebook page to reaching out to bloggers and influencers to offering Groupons.

You don’t create Buzz by being Santa Claus with your profits.

The way you get the buzz, which is sustainable and leads to higher profits, is to be a business worthy of buzz.

That means you have to earn it.

When I am asked by consultants what it takes to create a successful practice, I always tell them they need to hit it out of the park because that is what happened to me when I worked with one of my first clients, Polly’s Gourmet Coffee.

This is their case study.


In the late 90s, reading about the big boxes putting many small businesses out of business was commonplace. From the arrival of the Home Depots that threatened the small hardware stores to the Staples that were putting office supply businesses under, the business media was salivating for the “going out of business” stories. (Well, they still do, but that's another story.)

It was easy to paint a picture of a retail future where our choices would become limited, and there was no room for the individual customer or business person.

In short, it was hopeless to try…

That’s why, with a stagnant economy, the story about a possible second Starbucks going in about 100 feet from Polly’s, which had been in Long Beach, California, for twenty years, got ink.

Lots of it.

Editorials were written decrying the death of the independent; worried letters to the editor were published about losing the smaller retailers, but the lease for the second Starbucks was signed, and their opening date was announced.

I had to see what all the buzz was about.

I visited Polly’s on a chilly January night and found the place a mess. The trash hadn’t been emptied, the patio was dirty, the creamers were empty, the merchandise was dusty, and half the overhead light bulbs were burnt out. You get the shoddy picture.

While waiting for my cappuccino, one of the employees told his co-worker, standing right in front of me, that he had written on an employment application for another employer that he was Polly’s store manager because “…like, who would check?” The other said that when the second Starbucks opened, “Polly’s is going to be gone.” That’s why he had his resume out too.

When I met owner Mike Sheldrake the next week, I asked him, “What will you do when that second Starbucks opens up?” He answered, “I will send them back to Seattle.” I replied, “And how exactly will you do that?” Mike took off his glasses, looked at the coffee roaster, and said, “I haven’t got a clue. Where do I sign?”

Getting to Work

Mike was one of the founding members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA). Retailers from around the country came to him to learn how to roast coffee in their stores. Customers from around the country came to swap tales with Mike and share a cup of joe while gleaning some of his tasting secrets. Mike was the rock star of the coffee world!

Despite that, I learned that Polly’s was hemorrhaging cash. We needed to turn the negative buzz about his viability around if he was to stay in business.

And quick. Polly's had been losing about 10% each month from the previous month since the first Starbucks opened ten blocks away.

Mike’s sleepy coffeehouse was ready for a reboot to become the preeminent choice of coffee connoisseurs, and we’d make those customers our evangelists who would market Polly’s to their friends.

Lesson: You may already have buzz others have created for you - as a loser or place to avoid. With social media like Facebook, Yelp, and Google Reviews, you can get a bead on this fairly easily.

The Challenge

Polly’s had gotten ink before the second Starbucks opened, but it was a story of the little guy losing against the big powers. It spread organically through word of mouth and the papers.

We would drive the story we wanted to tell - a tale of success, not woe.

We had to get the buzz right with the customers first, then amplify it with limited money for paid ads, brochures, direct mail, and bumper stickers.

You don’t invite people to a party or a show you know is no good.

One day, I sat in front of the counter and acted like I was working on my laptop. I saw and heard people ordering drinks and bakery items. The coffee order was called out, but as the cashier placed a bagel or other bakery item in a bag, only the drink was rung up. Happy customers were putting large tips in the tip jar. By the end of the shift, the tip jar was filled with lots of $5 bills. These employees were raking it in at Mike’s expense because most of what they collected should have been his.

A meeting was held at a local restaurant. I put up a picture of the Titanic. When everyone was seated, I not-so-subtly said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on the deck here, and it’s not going down on my watch. I know you’re stealing from Mike, and that stops right now.” Two girls said I couldn’t talk to them that way and stormed out the door. Sensing that I was usurping Mike’s familiar relationships with them, another got up, started to cry, and said, “You can’t do this, Mike! We’re family!” Mike acknowledged her feeling but said he brought me in, and this is what he would do, right or wrong.

The following week, we saw sales rise 11%.

Lesson: Look to your crew, facility, and customer experience before trying to get buzz with your advertising.

Phase 1

retail ad example pollysWe had to give customers something to discuss because being “in the know” made them more attractive to their friends.

When those “in the know” customers brag about an establishment, those friends and family naturally believe. It is the heart of word-of-mouth marketing.

Mike’s ads in the local community paper were small, but because he had purchased them weekly from the outset twenty years prior, he enjoyed premium page-three placement.

We tripled his ad size but discontinued the discount coupons that blended into the other clutter. Those discounts had only added to his debts.

We were going to raise prices and make everyone pay their fair share.

Lesson: When you feel discounts are the only way to bring people in, you are often blinded to why you are not attracting people to pay full price for your products.

For another marketing story regarding Polly's, go here

Picking the Fight with the Giant

We had to stand out. To pick a fight. To define Starbucks on our terms, not theirs.

While Starbucks had brought specialty coffee to the masses, they were not the same as a shop that roasted coffee every morning, carried more exotic blends, and sourced coffees among the best; that had beans so fresh they were still warm when you purchased them.

We had to draw the line. We were extraordinary; Starbucks was, well….ordinary. retail consultant case study

The tagline was created, “Down the street from Ordinary.” We couldn't drive a trial of Mike's products unless we changed the buzz from “Oh, poor Mike” to “Winner,” we couldn’t drive a trial of Mike’s products.

Instead of pitching everyone to try our fresh roasted coffees, which didn’t translate on the page, we’d take advantage of his relationship with the local paper. We would run a different ad each week. We’d have “fresh content” that mirrored Polly’s fresh roasting of their coffee daily.

We used direct mail extensively five miles around the shop. And it always was based on emotion and having fun, never discounts. The first example was a shot of Mike in front of the coffeehouse with the quote, "Rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated. - Mark Twain 1888, Mike Sheldrake 1999."

Lesson: Crafting your business as the angel to a competitor’s devil can galvanize responses from loyal customers and give you many possibilities to explore. In those days, it was Starbucks; today, it is Amazon for many businesses.

Upgrading the business

We purchased new patio furniture to place on the newly enlarged city sidewalks providing more places for our customers. Nothing attracts people like seeing a busy shop.

coffee cup example insulairTo build a buzz in the neighborhood, we created a contest for a new brand of coffee cups with a coffee jacket between the liner and the cup. This meant you didn’t have to double-cup hot coffee and provided a backdrop to custom print our design.

We wanted local artists to create iconic paper cups that immediately show the bearer as “in the know” and spread our message. We wanted our customers to become our salespeople via the unique coffee cups as they walked around the neighborhood. We wanted the employees to talk up working at Polly’s as a warrior – not a survivor – or worse. They loved working at “that coffeehouse.”

To build more community, we formed a panel of judges made up of the Dean of the Art School from the local university, various business leaders, and our customers. This was an early example of crowd-sourcing back in 1997.

Since our customers contributed to the success of our outcome, our iconic artwork was going to be chosen by them. If we succeeded, so did they. One of the final designs came from Lomonoco Design, coffee-colored collage of photos of Mike, the crew, and the coffee roaster. We liked it so much; it was made into t-shirts fans could purchase.

Lesson: Involving customers and your community in your business builds the web of community in a very real way. Nowadays, Facebook can help, but customers' feelings when they are in your business will determine whether they want to get involved with you.

Merchandising the store to sell

fresh roasted coffee at pollysThe roaster was painted navy blue, and additional lights were added to draw attention. Brochures were created to describe the taste profiles of each coffee roast, blend, and strength.

Dull 25-watt light bulbs in the vintage stained glass lamps were refitted to 150-watt lights to shine brightly. Additional lights were added to shine from inside the store onto the sidewalks to make the store stand out at night.

The counter areas were moved, and display areas were added at various heights. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, a $50-a-pound coffee, was packaged into blue foil single-pot servings and featured at the register along with new custom red logo’d mugs.

visual merchandising exampleThe most expensive coffee machines from Capresso were displayed, complete with beans and signage that explained why the $300 model was the best and what to be wary of in cheaper models.

(Hint: bitterness is leached into the cup since the water never gets hot enough to release the best oils on the bean.)

Sales were climbing…

Lesson: Organizing your products and increasing the light levels in your store promotes the discovery of your products and spotlights your unique features and most expensive items.

But having a positive buzz where your customers own your success also can be fraught with dangers.

What if people came in and didn’t get a wow experience?

Upgrading the Crew

I interviewed every one of the applicants. All but one employee had quit or was let go, so we could start fresh and create an exceptional coffee culture.

A comprehensive sales training program was developed that took Mike’s passion and comprehensive knowledge about our coffee and culminated with a 100-point test to certify all employees knew what they were talking about.

marketing tips for retailersWe hired a mystery shopping company to judge how well we were delivering an exceptional experience independently. Our last questions were heavily weighted, “Would you drive past a competitor to come back to Polly’s?” and “Would you go out of your way to tell friends and family about Polly’s?”

We started free Coffee 101 events where Mike shared his knowledge about coffee, from how to grind it to how to brew the perfect cup. The store was packed with novices who wanted to learn from the expert. We added Coffee 102, which covered espresso drinks.

Something was going on at Polly’s.

Lesson: Until you get the crew up to speed so customers will figuratively crawl over broken glass naked to return for that experience, your marketing means nothing.

Proof of Marketing

People had stopped noticing Mike’s ads each week because the coupon rarely changed. Each week I came out with a new ad. We deliberately skipped a week between weeks 40 and 41 to see if anyone noticed. That’s when customers called to ask what happened. They were reading and noticing.

If no one had called, I’d have been surprised.

By the second year, I’d gone from being referred to as “El Diablo” by customers to the “Category-killer Killer” in stories about the little guy fighting back. We’d had stories written about us; I was featured in The New York Times and was doing business makeovers for the Los Angeles Times.

A business professor at California State University in Long Beach asked if his MBA students could do a marketing project to see if all the rumors and stories about Polly’s now thriving business were true.

After a student from the group perused our sales figures, she asked me point blank, “How do you know how well your advertising is working without a coupon?” I replied, “Are they still teaching that crap to you?” She answered, “Yes.” I shook my head. Our sales are up 50% over last year, that’s how I know. But don’t believe me, do your own study.”

So they did.

From a sample of over 1000, they found that 80% of respondents knew our tagline and where we were located.

retail makeover pollys long beachWhy was that?

Because we all love a good underdog story. That’s how I originally pitched The New York Times reporter, “Would you be interested in an independent coffeehouse going up against two Starbucks, yet they still grew their sales?” We were poster children for their David and Goliath resilience stories.

The press loved the idea of the spunky independent winning against the mass marketer. Controversy sells!

Lesson: Positive buzz is something you have to work at. You can buy it, but it won’t stick. It takes hearing back from other people who had not been your customers and who are now happy brand ambassadors to know your buzz is working.

The results

A 52% increase in sales in the first complete year of the program, with an additional 40% increase in sales the following year.

Now that we had our buzz, Mike wanted to grow his wholesale business. What better place than the SCAA Expo in Long Beach that April? Thousands of local coffeehouses and restaurants would be there looking for new suppliers.

But how would we bring our battle cry of “Ordinary Coffee” to a trade show?

Upping the Ante

We purchased a bag of Starbucks Espresso roast and poured some into a coffee tray. I filled another with a sample of Polly’s Espresso roast. You could see the tips of the beans were burned in the Starbucks beans but not in ours. Many of their beans were chipped and broken, not ours. So I made signs showcasing the differences and clipped them to the trays.

That day, we took off for the convention center. It was just Mike and me at our less-than-stellar location. We set up our samples, rolled out our banner, put out our coffees and brochures, and waited. Mike was the rock star, and many people stopped to see him.

A couple of Starbucks executives with their minions came over. One said, “You can’t display our coffee that way.” We told them we purchased the bag of coffee at the grocery store and could do whatever we wanted with them. The minions took notes and slowly moved on. They didn’t like us.

What would a publicly-traded, world-class business care about one little coffee house in Long Beach? A lot, I guess, for I was told much later that a regional Starbucks guy had gone to the local paper and asked to see every one of our ads.

We had good buzz; they didn’t.

retail makeover resultsThe US Postal Service had been watching our efforts because they wanted to feature Mike in a special mailer on some of our strategies, mainly how we used direct mail.

I must acknowledge that many things happened to make this success, beginning with the fact that Mike had a great product and was a great character to market.

Without that basis, all the buzz we were after might have backfired.

"I wouldn't be in business if it weren't for Bob." - Mike Sheldrake

Final lessons for you:

  • The media will pick up a sob story if you let them. Are you listening bookstores, toy stores, and electronics stores?
  • Word of mouth, your positive buzz, has to be created on your terms
  • Pick a fight. Your employees, customers, and the media love a good underdog story.
  • Get the basics right first. Clean out, close out, and keep out the junk.
  • Make shopping an exceptional experience with exceptional products that stand out and deserve the full price.
  • Ask yourself, how high is up?
  • You can do this.

If you'd like to listen to Mike tell his story on The Retail Doc's podcast, Tell Me Something Good About Retail, you can do that here.

About Bob Phibbs, the Retail Doctor

Companies, from some of the very largest to some of the smallest, from luxury brands to startups, franchises to regional chains, contact me as a retail consultant because they seek results. Their successes are all theirs.

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