When "Crazy" Eddie Antar died this year, even those outside the New York area recognized the passing of an advertising icon. For years, the Crazy Eddie character -- portrayed by comedian Jerry Carroll -- both delighted and appalled audiences in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with his antics and promises of "insaaaaaaane prices!" Hyperbolic, loud, and perpetually running at a thousand revolutions per minute, Crazy Eddie was annoying in a familiar, endearingly New York City way.
Ads by national and global companies generate ubiquitous chatter. Who hasn't weighed in on Matthew McConaughey's nocturnal ramblings in service of Lincoln or the diminutive Darth Vader making us go warm and squishy for Volkswagen? Local ads, by contrast typically feel generic and are soon forgotten. When's the last time an ad for AAA Plumbers made you grin, evoked a tear, or planted a jingle in your brain?
Thales here.) Local and regional players, by contrast, wait for someone in need to come looking. "Global media companies have been working for decades trying to grab your attention without you previously deciding that you wanted to pay attention to them," Teixeira says. "Local companies are not as prolific and effective. They tend to work more when somebody decides, 'I want to discover a local bakery or coffee shop' and then actively searches until they find the advertiser."Teixeira, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, observes that national and global marketers produce slick or splashy ads for goods the public doesn't yet know it wants. (Read more on what make a great local ad
Local businesses, says Teixeira, tend to rely on price promotions, which are costly and less effective at establishing brand. "Local players give discounts to attract customers, as opposed to creating messages and content," he says.
Yet it is possible for local businesses to produce brilliant ads, in a variety of media, even some whose influence exceeds their target markets. For example, almost exactly a year ago, Frijoles and Frescas, a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, fell victim to a late-night robbery and vandalism. The business took surveillance video of the crime and overlaid it with captions characterizing the intrusion as a desperate quest for one of the restaurant's scrumptious tacos. The ad made national news.
Then there's the 2009 spot for Cullman Liquidation, a seller of used mobile homes based in Cullman, Alabama. The grim, darkly funny TV commercial might have been written by a novelist like Harry Crews or Dorothy Allison. ("A bouncer in Birmingham hit me in the face with a crescent wrench five times," says owner Robert Lee. "And my wife's boyfriend broke my jaw with a fence post. So if you don't buy a trailer from me, it ain't going to hurt my feelings.") Filmmaker Errol Morris called it "the best commercial ever made." There was talk of a reality show.
But broader fame should not be the marketer's first goal. The best local ads target not the faceless millions but actual customers and neighbors. They deepen the sense of community identity. "When you are in the community, these ad campaigns draw on a set of shared references" that everyone recognizes, says Melody Warnick, author of the book, This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. The ads also "create new references as people talk about them, and those become part of the city's narrative," says Warnick. "Everyone has seen them and can laugh about them together. You forget that if you go 100 miles away, no one has ever seen or heard of this."
Here are the stories of five successful local advertisers and the strategies they used to make a big noise in a small space:
1. Become an "in" joke
Driving down I-95, nonresidents of the Philadelphia-New Jersey-Delaware region typically do a double take. The billboard is black. Scrawled across it in angry white capital letters is the simple message "I HATE STEVEN SINGER."
Any local will tell you that Singer is the owner of a self-named jewelry shop in Center City, Philadelphia, who has reveled in hate for more than 15 years. Around here, the story is legend. Around 1999, a guy bought his wife a Steven Singer diamond ring to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Nine months later, he returned with a newborn baby and some loud invective about the business he blamed for his unplanned, late-in-life fatherhood. A delighted Singer thought the contrarian message of hate would stand out in an industry soggy with declarations of love.
At first "none of the radio or billboard companies would take our ad," says Singer, who opened his store in 1980. "When one of the radio companies did, it made me pay in advance, even though I had been advertising with them for a decade. They thought we were going to go out of business so fast they might never get paid."
Singer started with one billboard to make it seem like the work of a single irate customer. (Today, he typically has 10 or 20 billboards at a time.) The first radio ad featured the guy who inspired the campaign telling his story. In a bit of luck, that guy happened to be Dennis Steele, recognized by locals as the actor who does ads for the Phillies, the Pennsylvania Lottery, and the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. Steele remains the company's voice.
Over the years, Singer has changed up the campaign with different haters and motivations. Husbands hate Steven Singer because their spouses get angry when they offer anything other than one of Singer's diamonds as a gift. National competitors (Singer names them on the billboards) supposedly seethe when Steven Singer beats them on price.
The campaign, says Singer, has a very local attitude. "It's representative of the atmosphere and the climate in Philly," he says. "The working man, Rocky kind of thing. If you are looking for Tiffany's, we're not that."
And the locals love being in on the joke. Every time Singer passes through the airport or takes out his credit card, people gleefully inform him of their animus. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney once interrupted a speech he was giving before the local Chamber of Commerce to announce, "I hate Steven Singer," after noticing the jeweler sitting on the dais. "Everyone thinks they are the first to say it, but I hear it 50 to 100 times a day," says Singer. "I love it."
2. Create a great mascot
We know sports team mascots elicit powerful regional loyalty. In Tampa, everybody loves Raymond. What Philly fan isn't a Phanatic follower? Truly clever mascots require the perfect balance of whimsy and attitude. That's what Eagle Steve delivers for U.S. Pest Protection, a 65-employee family business, based in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Steve is a three-foot-tall animatronic raptor covered in turkey feathers who sits at his desk, drinking coffee and reading the paper, until his red phone rings with a report of a vermin infestation. Then he's off and soaring, accompanied by a resolute-looking U.S. Pest employee -- with the benefit of a truck's worth of equipment and opposable thumbs -- to save the day. The TV ads, which rolled out in March, are genuinely funny, and the jingle earworm-quality. A Steve-themed website and logo debuted earlier this year.
Last year, U.S. Pest's second-generation owner, Erica Brister, hired local agency Bohan Advertising to help with a thorough rebranding. The Bohan team interviewed employees, observed the operation, and concluded, Brister says, that "we have a protective spirit and a fierce determination." Tradition and patriotism are important to the business -- which makes a point of hiring veterans -- and to the South in general. So the American flag is prominent in the ad, as are the colors red, white, and blue on the company's trucks and uniforms.
The commercial has garnered 125,000 views on YouTube. But its reception in middle Tennessee, where the company does business, is more important. Sales are up substantially since the ad debuted. "Our phones were ringing off the hook," says Brister. "People in the community were really paying attention." Drivers have waved over Eagle Steve decaled trucks to talk about their pest problems. "People call in and want to talk to Eagle Steve," says Brister. "We get emails for Eagle Steve." Acceding to demand, the company now sells Eagle Steve T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.
"A dad emailed me to say that his 2-year-old loves Eagle Steve and [on a car trip to Florida] they had to play the commercial on YouTube over and over again," says Brister. "It ended up with him having an Eagle Steve birthday party."
3. Enlist local celebrities
Jordan and Jake Sadoff recognized the power of celebrity endorsement when they hired Robin Leach to pitch their gold-buying business in the mid-2000s. The former Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host "helped us to change the stigma that existed in that industry. He portrayed a higher-quality caliber of life," says Jordan Sadoff.
The brothers faced a different stigma in 2014 when they opened Restore, a hair restoration business, in their hometown of Chicago. So who better to show off the manliness of a full head of hair than brawny athletes, especially in a sports-mad town like Chicago?
The first local hero the Sadoffs approached was Brian Urlacher, the retired linebacker for the Bears. Urlacher "is the most likable, most famous bald man in town," says Jordan. Shortly after forming the business, Jordan offered Urlacher a free treatment and a financial interest in return for the athlete representing the brand. Urlacher signed on and agreed to keep his cranium covered for the nine months it took for his upstairs to become fully carpeted.
The Sadoffs pitched the big reveal of Urlacher's new look to local TV stations. On the day their endorser made his first appearance on a Chicago morning show, his head became a nationally trending topic on Twitter. A video shot earlier of Urlacher pretending to work the reception desk at Restore -- and the reactions of real-life customers there -- attracted 18,000 YouTube views in 48 hours. Interview requests poured in from publications like Sports Illustrated and GQ. Also pouring in were inquiries about Restore: close to 1,000 that first day.
Like Steven Singer, the Sadoffs recognize the value of well-placed billboards. "Urlacher tackles balding," proclaim the ubiquitous signs featuring the newly thatched athlete. And the brothers have followed up by recruiting other local stars, including the Blackhawks' Eddie Olczyk and Bryan Bickell, and former Bear Jason McKie.
"Chicago athletes are revered, whether the team is winning or losing, and fans feel personally connected to them," says Jordan. "Seeing someone like Brian on a billboard taps into that pride and the sense that Brian is a trusted friend."
4. Play up your quirks
The Shed is probably a perfectly pleasant fitness studio, but you don't notice that first thing in the facility's online video. That's because you can't take your eyes from the damp stain spreading across the T-shirt of co-owner Spencer Lewin as he lifts weights, spins, and runs in place while strapped to a beam. A "sweat beard," explains Lewin, who goes unidentified in the ad, "is the moist triangle of awesomeness on your shirt, blossoming just below your neck. A full-grown sweat beard can reach all the way to your navel -- and beyond."
The ad ran on Facebook and YouTube last September and October, a notoriously poor time for gyms in Minneapolis, when the public packs in outdoor activities before the bitter cold descends. It was coupled with a challenge: Come in, work up a sweat beard, post a selfie featuring it on social media, and qualify for a drawing for three months of free membership at The Shed. A hundred people took the challenge and sales rose 17 percent over the previous September.
"I did have a little bit of fear that people would be like, 'Gross, I don't want to go there!'" says Katie Lewin, co-owner of the business and Spencer's wife. Katie also appears in the video, as the trainer who gives Spencer the wettest high five on record. "I think you gather that it's a comedic approach," says Lewin. "But if you do end up that sweaty, that's OK, too. Be proud of it."
Katie says the beard ad has had at least four times more views than anything else The Shed has done. It signals that -- in a market dense with boutique fitness facilities -- theirs is fun and unintimidating, The idea was pitched by a long-time customer who happened to work for local agency Preston Kelly. With the Lewins as its stars and thrilled-to-be-included customers acting as extras in the background, the ad's total cost clocked in at around $850. (That was not a bank-buster for the Lewins. A few years ago, Katie won $100,000 in the Minnesota state lottery, which she used to pay back the loan from her parents to start the venture and to expand the studio.)
The Lewins think they may revive the Sweat Beard challenge this winter -- perhaps shelling out this time for local TV spots. "People who come to our studio mention the sweat beard," says Katie. "We hope that with more exposure it becomes a common term."
5. Make it about the community
Local businesses are less polished and more authentic than large corporations. They have personal relationships with their customers. Yet companies that try to exploit the warmth of community in their branding often come off as schmaltzy as a Hallmark card.
The Spokane Teachers Credit Union gets it right. The organization, which launched in 1934 with a shoebox for cash deposits in a high school classroom, operates in an eastern Washington market that "has all the national banks but is not big enough for them to flex their muscles," says CEO Tom Johnson. "So it is an opportunity for a local hometown organization like ours."
STCU is like a locavore restaurant, sourcing everything from the community. Over the years, roughly 300 STCU members have appeared in its ads, which are produced with local marketing partner Corner Booth Media. "Spokane is small enough that everyone has a connection to someone who has been in an SCTU spot," says Dan Hansen, the organization's media and communications manager.
The credit union's current campaign, "Here for Good," draws storylines from local news and trends. For example, one commercial, which has run on television and in movie theaters, revolves around the redevelopment of the struggling neighborhood of West Central, referred to by locals as "Felony Flats." The ad acknowledges West Central's nickname, but showcases its small-business owners, teachers, and homeowners being cheerfully busy in warmly lit, inviting settings. STCU's support of their dreams is understood but never stated, and the organization takes just the briefest of bows at the end.
STCU likes to spotlight solo entrepreneurs, who virtually all see their businesses prosper as a result. Among the companies appearing in the current campaign is Indaba Coffee; founder Bobby Enslow has since opened a second store. Johnson says another star of the ads, Barb Mueller, co-owner with her husband Marty of the maker space Gizmo-CDA, "told me, 'You have no idea the impact that being in your commercial has had on our little operation." After it aired, he adds, "They outgrew their space and had to go to a new location."
Viewers of the "Here for Good" ads warmed particularly to Hobbes, the Muellers' golden doodle, who wandered through scenes shot at Gizmo-CDA. Choosing to waive the requirement that everyone in its commercials be a member, STCU created an ad that features a basket-bearing Hobbes helping out in the business and community, and receiving dog biscuits in return. Barb Mueller originally trained Hobbes to carry the basket so he could bear gifts for patients and families at a local hospice where she volunteers.
It all becomes part of the larger STCU story. And Hobbes, a new Spokane celebrity, celebrates the organization's brand every time he goes walkies.