Laura Kimball was a writer and editor when she headed out to do a story about a Supply, North Carolina beekeeper during the summer of 2003. Little did she know it would change her entire career trajectory. Kimball fell in love with the bees and the “abandoned trade” of beekeeping, she says. When she told her husband, Jeff Otto, about her experience, he shared fond memories of a local beekeeper from his childhood. By the same time the following year, the couple had two active beehives.
As their bee farm grew, the couple began selling their honey and, eventually, beeswax products like lip balm and rub at local farmers’ markets. In 2007, they moved to the Nashville, Tennessee area and expanded operations. Today, TruBee Honey has distribution in approximately 30 states and has a brisk online retail operation. The company’s honey has received press coverage in major national magazines. As they’ve grown their business, Kimball and Otto also have been smart about scaling their marketing plan in a cost-efficient way. Here’s how they have increased promotion on a limited budget.
1. Growing the Shows
At first, Kimball and Otto sold their products at a local farmer’s market, where they developed a loyal following. However, as the business grew, that weekly ritual was too demanding, so they began showing at large regional festivals such as Nashville’s Southern Cheese Festival. In January 2012, they invested in branding overhaul and an exhibit at AmericasMart, a permanent wholesale trade show in Atlanta, Georgia. Their 10’ x 10’ booth was done on a shoestring with a large print of bottles of honey backlit to show their beautiful color, display shelves made of hive equipment, and a red table draped with burlap to give it an earthy look. Their local UPS Store location helps them ship products to various show locations and helps them fulfill orders they receive.
This evolution of showing at larger and larger venues helped them perfect their presentation while reaching increasingly broader audiences and expanding their national distribution. They have also begun sponsoring large events that appeal to their target market, such as Nashville’s Honeybee Festival. At each of these events, they use collateral materials, such as postcards created from Otto’s beautiful product photography. They work with their local UPS Store, to print collateral materials and other materials and documents. Their local UPS Store location handles a range of printing, from black-and-white copying to full-color brochures, postcards, and other collateral materials.
2. Focusing on the Target
The couple felt it was important to educate their audience about gourmet honey and keep a “personal touch,” Kimball says. During their farmers’ market days, they held honey tastings, serving tiny portions of seasonal honeys to show customers the flavor differences between them. Spring honeys have a light floral taste, while summer harvests are fuller-bodied with notes of clover and herbs. By perfecting their presentation at grassroots farmers’ markets, the couple was well-prepared to sell their product to retail buyers at AmericasMart. Listening to customers has also led to important market adjustments. Their 12 oz. jar of honey was the first part of the company’s rebrand, but customers wanted a smaller size that would work for gift baskets.
“We weren’t so sure about whether it was a good idea, but we ordered about 1,000 6-oz. jars for the holidays in 2012, knowing that one customer was interested in buying 300 already, and that 6-oz. jar turns out to be our best-selling size,” she says. Gathering this feedback via face-to-face interaction and social media has helped them develop their products and target their marketing to the upscale consumer.
3. Alerting Traditional--and Social--Media
Both Kimball and Otto, a photographer, had experience working with media and used that to their advantage. Otto shot beautiful photographs of the products and Kimball wrote concise, compelling news releases about TruBee, making it easy for media outlets to see a story with great artwork. This has resulted in coverage in foodie magazines such as Bon Appetit and Cooking Light as well as mass market publications such as InStyle and Country Living. It didn’t hurt that negative publicity about mass-produced honey from China made people more interested in locally produced honey. Capitalizing on that kind of national news is a good way to get attention.
While TruBee doesn’t use email campaigns, like many small businesses do, Kimball is a prolific Twitter user, and the company has an active Facebook page. Both of these outlets are free and give Kimball a way to interact with customers and get their feedback. Since she has limited time to devote to them, she often repurposes content, having her tweets automatically post to the company’s Facebook page. The company also has a robust ecommerce-enabled website and blog. The UPS Store acts as their external office center, receiving mail, processing documents, providing notary services, and taking care of their precious bee shipments.
“As a mom-and-pop business, we don’t have a staff. We like the fact that The UPS Store staff--particularly Forrest, Barbara, and Tristan--are so friendly and often have our mail waiting for us before we walk in, “ Kimball says. “They really care about our business.”
4. Finding Good Partners
As the company grew, Kimball and Otto needed to focus more on product development, promotion, and distribution, so they needed help. They hired seasonal employees--“about 10 or so” during harvesting season, Kimball says. They chose their local UPS Store as their outsourced office center, opting to receive their mail in the climate-controlled environment. Since they order bees, special handling is necessary, and The UPS Store receives the packages, which are literally buzzing when they arrive, Kimball says. The staff knows how to handle the bee shipments and contacts her immediately to retrieve them. In addition, TruBee uses its local UPS Store to ship some of its products and print documents. Finding the right help has been invaluable as the business has grown, allowing the couple to focus on developing products and reaching new markets, Kimball says.
“We have always felt that if we build a loyal, local following that’s passionate about what we do, our brand will expand its reach as our local customers talk about it and buy our products for friends and relatives. While this makes for somewhat slow growth, it also makes for affordable growth. I mean, we’re beekeepers! It’s not like we’re a tech start-up in Silicon Valley, and we’re going to wake up overnight millionaires,” she says. “We didn’t invent honey, but we have been at the forefront of honey’s involvement in the gourmet food scene, and we emphasize the ephemeral nature of a honey harvest and the nuance that each vintage contains.”