Promotions for Pennies

You don't need a Madison Avenue budget to turn heads, explains Debbie Patt, whose cheesecake outfit is thriving on free publicity

How does a small business with a limited advertising budget get noticed amid the myriad media messages that barrage U.S. consumers every day? How can independents hope to compete with corporations, chains, and big-budget franchises?

The answer: a combination of creativity, relationships, and hard work. One entrepreneur taking that formula for success and running with it is Debbie Patt, of Clarendon Cheesecakes, in Clarendon, N.Y. In her two years in business, Patt has devised some excellent guerrilla marketing strategies that she shared recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein.

Q: You've found some low-cost marketing avenues that are working well for your company. What kinds of things are you doing?


Fundraisers, for one thing. After September 11, I wanted to do something to help, so, last October, we sold small, heart-shaped cheesecakes for $10 and donated $6 from each sale to the Red Cross. We found out that HSBC Bank had a matching-funds program, so we brought them in and they were generous enough to take orders for us and let us distribute in the bank lobby. We also got our small-town fire department and Town Hall involved, so naturally I had to call the press and we were featured in several papers.

This past spring, we held a cheesecake-eating contest as a fundraiser for the Rochester Epilepsy Foundation. The foundation's marketing company did the press releases and contacted local television stations. I contacted several other local media and asked the entertainment critic from our local talk-radio station to be the emcee: He talked about the event on the air every day for several weeks! I contacted local businesses, asking for prize donations, and gave each business I spoke to an invitation to the event for all of their employees.

Between the three television spots, five newspaper articles, being mentioned on talk radio every morning, the contestants, and the audience that came to watch -- some came just to see the entertainment critic -- we had a very successful fundraiser. We raised more than $1,200 in four hours, and Clarendon Cheesecakes became a household word.

The foundation made money. We made money. Everyone knows who we are now, and we felt great being able to give something to the community. The small amount it cost us for cheesecakes we earned back in new orders, and we plan to make this an annual event.

Q: What other ways have you found to combine community service and marketing?


We do fundraisers for dance schools, sports teams, and kids who want to earn money for soccer camp, hospitals, churches, and other organizations. The local school football team sells slices of our cheesecakes at each home game, and the Orleans County 4H Club sells slices at the county fair. We created a new mint/chocolate-chip cheesecake flavor that is available only through 4H fundraisers. We supply the individually packaged slices, banners, and signs. They do the work and we get a great reputation -- as well as make some money.

Another way we garnish tons of attention is through donations for special events being held by churches, schools, the chamber of commerce, hospitals, and other charitable groups. We donate huge party platters of bite-sized cheesecakes that we call Itty Bits, and they are always a show stopper.

Q: How about guerrilla marketing? What methods are working for you?


I am always thinking up marketing stunts. For instance, I place our brochures on top of the cheesecakes sold in the supermarkets. I include our brochure in every piece of mail that leaves my home or office -- including utility bills! I make all my family and friends put magnetic signs on their cars and wear company-branded hats and shirts. I also have had everyone I know call their local stores several times a week, inquiring if they carry Clarendon Cheesecakes yet. Not only does this kind of thing get our name out, but we now have stores calling and begging is to let them sell our cakes!

Q: You started out selling cheesecakes online, and then you branched out. What have you done to expand sales, and why?


When we started almost two years ago, we sold online and to people who heard of us through word of mouth. Some days, we had very little activity online and I realized that we needed multiple streams of income.

I started looking at logical partnerships. I went to a local bakery that was well-known for decorating and we began selling wedding cakes with them. Then, I spent a few minutes talking with local store and restaurant owners, and the result is that our cheesecakes are now being sold in 14 stores and numerous local restaurants. We also are introducing our own blend of coffee, specially roasted for us by a local coffee roaster.

Along with selling on the Web site, we drop-ship for other Web sites. When we have a slow season in the stores, we have weddings and fundraisers to carry us through. When Internet sales are slow, we have store and restaurant sales to rely on. I am convinced that these multiple streams of income are what's making us successful. Even in this economic market, we've had to hire seven employees.

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