Entries in Business Advice (2)


Tricky Advertising and Marketing

*Do not misconstrue any of the following as legal advice.  Always consult with a licensed attorney when you have specific questions regarding statements made in your business advertising.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, and non-profit public interest group, has brought a lawsuit against Coca-Cola, claiming that the company's vitaminwater products make unwarranted health claims.  (Read about the details here.)

The really interesting part is that Coca-Cola's defense is this: "no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."  Uh, really, Coca-Cola?  I don't know if it's the word "vitamin" or the word "water" that is more misleading, but nevertheless, there you have it.  Coca-Cola doesn't even try to deny the claims that the beverage is unhealthy (in truth, the drink has 33 grams of sugar in it.)

So the question becomes: where you should you, a small business owner, draw the line in your marketing?

While you may never be as large as Coca-Cola, small business owners get themselves in hot water every day by making false or misleading claims in their advertising.  There can be some stiff consequences, not the least of which is some possible nasty publicity. 

Often forgotten is something as simple as coupons, commonly used by businesses large and small.  If you take a look at a large corporation coupons, you'll notice something common among every one of them -- fine print.  That's the lawyers keeping the corporations out of a hot mess.  So why wouldn't you, a small business owner, take the same precautions?  No, it's not silly.  The reason that you see statements such as "Cannot be used in combination with any other offer" and "One per customer" and "Expires XX/ XX/ XXXX" and "Only applies to basic service, not super-duper deluxe service" is because someone has tried to pull any and all of these shenanigans before.  The basic rule is that if a restriction is not stated clearly and simply on your coupon, then you will need to comply with any customer requests in regards to the coupon.

The same goes with your advertising.  If you are offering a special promotion, you can very simply state on all print advertising "Rules and restrictions can be found on our website at www.ourwebsite.com."  Then, add a page to your site with borderplate regulations, with specifications made to fit your promotion.  It's an extra step that you should take, because as soon as you don't, you'll get burned.

The thing is, people don't like to be tricked.  As soon as you appear deceitful, people will get ticked.  In Coca-Cola's situation, understandably, some people believed that they were being healthy by partaking in vitaminwater.  (It's not a huge stretch, based on the product name, even though I personally think people need to read labels!)

Be as honest as you can when it comes to your marketing.  This can be difficult because, after all, most advertising could be labeled as "slick" and "tricky".  But at the end of the day, if you're honest with your clients and customers, they'll thank you for it, and you'll be more likely to earn their repeat business.


The WORST Business Advice EVER

Flying home from NYC yesterday via AirTran, I took a look at their in-flight magazine, "Go".  Reading through, I happened to glimpse a short article that truly shocked me. 

Let me forewarn with a disclaimer: I concede that every private business owner has the right to run their business the way they want to- that's the most fantastic thing about living in this country- freedom!  However, the purpose of this blog has always been to provide tips, tools and education.  Along with that, you get my opinions.  So, the following soap box relates to how I run my own business, and the values we stand by.  (By no means does this mean we're perfect- but we DO know we don't want to be this guy!):

A business author, George Cloutier, recently penned a book and five bullet points were provided in the September "Go" issue.  (I would link to this guy, his book and this article, but I hated them all so much that I refuse to provide any publicity.  If you really want to find the article, you can Google with the key info from above.)

Here are the five bullet points, pulled directly from the September "Go" issue:

Leaving early for little Suzy's ballet recital won't cut it. She'll pout and stamp her feet now, but she'll thank you later when you can pay for college.

Never hand over the reins, no matter how senior the employee.

Tell your employees: "Don't think; obey." You want them to do what you say, not what they think.

Team meetings should be quick and informational, not motivational. Group hugs don't improve performance.

Stretch out payments from 30 days to 60 or 90 days. Your vendors are your best source of interest-free financing.

In my opinion, there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this advice that I can't even begin to scratch the surface, but here are my main three issues, and the meat of what I really want to convey:

Your family is not dispensable.  It doesn't matter WHAT life stage you're rolling through- building a business or otherwise- your family will a) be your biggest support system, and b) won't understand your absence forever.  There are few things as valuable as family, so you MUST make time for them.  (Let me make you a guarantee that you can take to the bank- little Suzy would much rather have a daddy or mommy around than avoid a few student loans in the future.) 

This brings me to delegation: if you don't empower your employees, they won't stick around.  EVERYONE hates a micro manager- trust me, the 9 months I worked for a man who REFUSED to understand that I had a brain and actually could do what he told me to do without status checks every five minutes were the worst of my professional career.  Give your employees CLEAR objectives, tasks and expectations so both you and the employee will know how to grade their performance.  Steadily increase responsibility within their comfort level, and see what they do with that responsibility.  It will satisfy them professionally, and will allow you to step out of your business and into your life more (thus, seeing little Suzy's ballet.)

Lastly, your employees are your number one public (and vendors follow closely behind!)  "Public" is a PR term that basically identifies the groups of folks who you should be influencing and talking to.  Employees, Customers and Vendors are usually the top three.  So, if your employees aren't happy, you're going to screw up your business's image.  They talk to family about how horrible it is to work there, and you can bet if your secretary isn't happy, she's not going to answer the phone with a smile in her voice!  As for vendors, you'd be stupid to think that they don't talk with your competitors (who they probably sell to as well!)  So pretty soon your competitors are going to hear about how you're paying late, and I'll bet you that they will share that with their (and YOUR) potential customers.  If you want to negotiate different terms with your vendors, have a straightforward conversation with them, prior to the day before a large invoice comes due.

I really thought all of this was pretty fundamental and pretty much a no-brainer.  I'm naive to think that everyone at least tries to operate their business with integrity.  The bottom line is- if you operate like money is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER, your customers, employees, family, friends and everyone else who you come in contact with won't like you.  But if that's how you want to play it...