Best of the Small Business Web: Raising the Bar
Company: Clif Bar Inc.
Revenues: $29 million
Web address: www.clifbar.com
Site launch cost: $5,000
Current technology profile: Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Quark Express, Macromedia Flash, Ipswitch WS_FTP Pro
Why we love it: Feel the warmth! Feel the energy! Most of all, feel the brand making a personal connection with its customers
Category of success: Design
Lisa Thomas and Gary Erickson assume that most of their site visitors are already fans of Clif Bar the Product. Now they want those visitors to be fans of Clif Bar the Company, as well.
After all, the two have built a distinctly lovable business around their energy-packed snacks, complete with a warm-and-fuzzy birth legend. (The original recipe was inspired by Erickson's mom, and the company is named for his dad.) The Berkeley, Calif., company also has a dedication to social causes and a corporate culture that provides employees with in-house physical trainers and climbing walls. By conveying those virtues to their customers over the Web, the founders hope that athletes buying a Clif Bar will feel a personal connection with its maker -- much as the less nutritionally virtuous feel when they select a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia from the freezer case.
Clif Bar's owners have done everything possible to make their site down-home and welcoming. The result is a work of branding so effective that after just two minutes on the site a visitor who had never heard of Clif Bars could produce a list of flattering adjectives about the company, beginning with authentic. "As a consumer, I always wonder when I'm buying a product whether there's a real person behind it," says CEO Thomas. "On the site, people can see that the Clif Bar community is real; it's not concocted. And they can be a part of it."
And they apparently want to be part of it. The site doesn't sell product, and until recently Thomas and Erickson did nothing beyond including the URL on the bar's packaging to advertise it. (In September the company began buying banners on Garden.com.) Yet Clif Bar on-line receives a million hits a month, and 25 to 30 people a day submit anecdotes about their first encounter/continued love affair with the energy bar. These aren't mere "like your product -- keep up the good work" notes, either, but the kind of testimonial -- detailed and personal -- that writers of advertising copy kill for.
Thomas can't explain why people are so willing to open up -- after all, the forum areas on many company sites are as untouched as an Egyptian tomb. But she circulates almost every message to the entire company and makes sure at least one person responds. "Sometimes a story is so touching that a lot of people write back. A customer submits something to a Web site and then suddenly gets these messages from six or seven real people," she says. Correspondents include the participant in a Clif Barsponsored AIDS bicycle ride, who described the prospect of nutrition-bar-enhanced pit stops as the sole thing that kept him going through 330 miles of rough terrain; and a recent stomach-surgery patient, who rejoiced at finally finding a snack that he could eat after five months of sweetlessness.