Some local companies advertise themselves in unconventional ways
The shakers own this part of Northwest Avenue tonight. Tax season is over, and the wavers have gone home. Forest Henderson has been a shaker for about a month, and he’s considered the best, according to his manager.
Henderson, a 19-year-old college student, isn’t so sure he’s the best, but he likes his job at Little Caesars Pizza on Northwest Avenue — and he doesn’t mind that he is a human advertisement. A walking, dancing, shaking street performer with a sign attached to his hand. His sole task is to connect with customers and bring them in for some $5.55, hot pepperoni pizza.
Watching him move — a seemingly effortless motion that combines shoulder swooning, slight hip swaying and, most importantly, sign twirling in front of a live automobile audience — it’s obvious that this head-phone-wearing shaker knows what he’s doing.
“One guy said it was nice I could put a price on my dignity,” Henderson joked. “And I said, ‘I don’t have any dignity.’ I was just messing with him. I have dignity.”
Dignity and joking aside, companies like Little Caesars are utilizing marketing strategies in a unique way that, in a sense, steps back to a time when word-of-mouth advertising was all there was. While alternative marketing may not be the right fit for every company, proponents like what it has done for them.
Sam I am
Tim Dugan is one of those business owners who has taken an alternative path. He owns two Liberty Tax Service offices: one in Ferndale and one on Northwest Avenue just down the road from Little Caesars. Liberty Tax Service’s answer to Little Caesars’ shakers are wavers — employees who garner attention for the company by standing on the streets, waving, dancing and shouting at cars and pedestrians.
Female wavers are dressed as Lady Liberties, and the male wavers take on the role of Uncle Sam. During tax season, the corner of Northwest and Birchwood becomes Patriotism Place.
“It’s very easy to market Liberty Tax Service,” said Dugan, who opened the Bellingham office in 2005. “If you think of any of our competitors, it’s sort of hard to imagine how they would market themselves or differentiate themselves in the market.”
The company is the brainchild of John Hewitt, a tax-industry leader. After building a firm called Jackson Hewitt Inc. into the industry’s second-largest player behind H&R Block Inc., Hewitt sold the firm, resigned and later started Liberty Tax Service in 1997. The company now has about 2,000 franchises nationwide — which makes it the third-largest tax company after H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt — and it is growing fast, Dugan said.
“One of the things that appealed to me, ironically, was the marketing,” he said. “I could literally hang an American flag outside, and market Liberty Tax Services.” And of course, he’s got the wavers — the bread and butter of the Liberty marketing machine. In fact, Dugan said, Liberty doesn’t even attempt to use mainstream advertising such as newspapers or radio because they don’t seem to be as effective. He said the company knows this because it always asks customers how they found out about the company when they walk through the door.
“(The wavers are) something we think sets Liberty apart from our competitors,” said Dugan, who himself has donned the waver red, white and blue. “We look for people who have personality that is going to come through the costume. The costume is a gimmick to draw attention to ourselves, and it does.”
Being a good waver takes a lot of effort, which is why Dugan said he pays his employees $1 more than minimum wage. College students, parents looking for extra work and people of many different backgrounds have all been wavers, he said.
“The job is not just to stand out there holding a sign and looking bored,” Dugan said. “The idea is to try to connect with drivers in cars to make our presence felt in the neighborhood. I look for someone who has personality, and I hope that personality will come through the costume and reach out and touch someone.”
Henderson, the Little Caesar shaker, said this style of marketing works well, and often better than mainstream advertising in his opinion.
“I think it works a lot better (than just using normal means of advertising) because you get people who come by on the street,” Henderson said. “This is a main street here, and everybody is going to see the signs.”
Bellis Fair is a local clearinghouse of schemes and marketing ploys aimed at all the senses. Music pumps. Smells layer the air. Glossy posters, shiny neon and clever mantras such as “Just 2 Good” are everywhere.
Cara Buckingham, the marketing manager at the mall, is right in the middle of it all. This atmosphere, Buckingham said, helps drive the commerce machine for the mall’s vendors. She said alternative forms of marketing, or marketing not normally used by companies, is common practice at the mall.
“We do have some restrictions on that, making sure it’s a professional presentation,” Buckingham said. “We don’t like handwritten signs, little things like that.” Essentially, there are two mainstream ways to promote yourself in the mall: in the store and on the storefronts. However, many businesses attempt to get a little more creative, she said.
For instance, sampling — combined with ‘bounce-back’ coupons, or coupons that give the customer an incentive to buy products and services — has always been a good example of alternative marketing.
By offering samples, vendors are telling customers, “Now that you’ve tasted it, come over and maybe you’d like to buy it, and we’ll give you an incentive to do that,” Buckingham said. In addition to food-tasting opportunities, stores offer other sensory incentives, such as trying different lotions and perfumes.
“It engages your potential customer and lets them try it out,” Buckingham said. Mall mascots, such as Maggie Moo — the cow mascot of MaggieMoo’s Ice Cream and Treatery— are fairly common. In addition, she said, the mall also works with vendors on promotional activities.
One example of this is Jackson Hewitt, ironically the company started by the Liberty Tax Service founder. From January to April of this year, Jackson Hewitt had an office at the mall. As part of a cross-branding campaign, the company used traditional marketing means, such as hanging big signs and flyers. At the same time, Bellis Fair mall staff wore company buttons to increase exposure.
Buckingham said the mall also offers local companies the opportunity to brand baby strollers, rented by mall patrons, with advertising slogans and images.
“It’s a moving advertisement in the mall,” she said.
The front lines
Back on Northwest Avenue, Henderson is breaking out some dance moves in front of a stream of traffic with Tupac Shakur pumping through his ears. Earlier it was Garth Brooks. A broad, impish smile stretches across his face as he spins his big orange and black “shakerboard” around his hand — which is poking through a hole in the board — as if it were an airplane propeller. He seems to be enjoying it.
“I get people who come by and wave,” he said, adjusting his Boston Red Sox cap, which sits backwards on his head. “Some people blow me kisses. I get people who drive by and they flip me off. I just wonder why. If it makes them feel better that’s great, but it doesn’t really affect me.”
One person who doesn’t flip him off is James Wright, a 51-year-old retired appliance repairman. He was walking to the store to get some candy for his wife when he noticed Henderson.
“You know this could become a new art form,” said Wright. When asked who did a better job — the wavers or the shakers — Wright said he was a shaker man.
“When they first started doing the thing, yeah there was a lot of enthusiasm there,” he said of the Liberty wavers. “But it seemed to kind of wane toward the end of tax season.”
Wright said he thinks both wavers and shakers are effective, and he doesn’t think it’s tacky as long as their services and products are of good quality.
“If somebody’s gonna do taxes, let ‘em do taxes,” he said. “It’s a regular job. Everybody has to have a vocation in life. You either spin signs, you do taxes or you fix appliances.”
Dugan agreed. He said he’s not afraid that Liberty is perceived as tacky — although he did have reservations at first. Those fears were quickly washed away as his business grew, he said.
“People will come in here and say, ‘Oh gosh, that’s kind of silly, and that sort of thing. But they are still in here.”
And no, Dugan said, there is no tension between the shakers and the wavers.
“In fact it would be great if we could work together,” he said. “The whole idea is to draw attention to this corner and this spot.”
With April long gone, Henderson’s shakers are a solo act on Northwest Avenue. Not that he minds.
“I had a guy walk by the other day and say, ‘It looks like you’re alone now that tax season is over,'” he said. Henderson said waver absence hadn’t really affected him or the task at hand. “We haven’t really talked at all with (the wavers).”
After all, he’s too busy bringing in customers.