Revlon, Neutrogena, Oil of Olay. Their ads are plastered across women's magazines, and daytime television is just as much a venue for their skin-care product commercials as it is for soap operas and Oprah. But when it came time to get the word out about her own line of skin-care products, Roxanne Quimby, the CEO of Burt's Bees, didn't fight fire with fire. Instead, she relied on good old fashioned word-of-mouth marketing to raise the profile of her products.
"We don't spend any money on advertising -- we rely entirely on word of mouth," says Quimby. It's not surprising that Quimby would employ a different marketing tactic than her competitors. She's always been frugal, and in her younger years, Quimby eschewed everything capitalistic and lived off the land in the backwoods of Maine. But after meeting Burt Shavitz, a reclusive beekeeper selling honey along the roadside, she was stung by the entrepreneurial bug, and partnered with him to build Burt's Bees, which is today a multimillion-dollar manufacturer of all-natural personal-care products (See "How I Did It with Roxanne Quimby" from the January 2004 issue of Inc. magazine).
Quimby admits that the cost of advertising is a bit prohibitive for Burt's Bees, but she fully subscribes to a more hands-on approach because she feels it sells products. The company invests heavily in producing and distributing samples and uses its retail locations as key figures in its marketing efforts.
Each year, the company distributes several million samples. It's no small order at a cost of $.25 to $.50 each, but Quimby guesses that around 95% reach customers' hands, while the rest are used by store personnel to get better acquainted with the products. The company also invests time in training the retail personnel on the advantages of natural products and the healthy alternatives they offer.
Another part of the Burt's Bees outreach formula is what Quimby calls consumer events. "We train the buyers and the clerks of the retail locations, and then we invite 20 or 30 customers to come in after hours or to some off-site location, and we teach them about our products and give them lots of free samples to try," she says. In any one month, Burt's Bees hosts about 10 to 15 events nationwide, and according to Quimby, retail locations see a boost in the sales of Burt's Bees products during and after the events. "[This way] the customer has a firsthand experience with the product instead of having a magazine article or an ad telling them you want to try this stuff," she says.
The way Quimby puts it, it's really the difference between the dinner you get at a fine restaurant and the one you get at a fast-food restaurant. "[At a fine restaurant] people care about the ingredients and that they are handled well," she says. Burt's Bees follows the same line in producing and marketing its products. "We put our money into the jar instead of into advertising, and have people try it firsthand." And so far, it's been working just fine for the company.