Zen and the Art of Advertising

I run a martial-arts school. I have tried all the traditional types of advertising -- TV, radio, newspapers -- and the only thing that works for me is word of mouth. Is there any way to maximize its effect?

Kevin Castelle
Hopkins Martial Arts
Hopkins, Minn.


Charles Hillestad, co-owner of Queen Anne Inn, in Denver, knows the feeling. "We tried advertising and it flat out didn't work." He's found better uses for his money: generating news stories instead of ads, and turning the customers he already has into walking advertisements.

Hillestad has gotten 157 publications, TV stations, and radio stations to praise Queen Anne Inn in some way, and he's done it on his own. Yet advertising and public-relations pros we spoke to said company owners would be crazy to try PR without professional help. Hillestad disagrees. "If you've decided marketing is important and you're willing to do it, ideas will continually present themselves to you."

When Hillestad spotted a movie crew in Denver one day, he found the location assistant and told her to look him up if she needed a Victorian backdrop. When she took him up on it, Hillestad sent out a press release to the local media. He thinks it's important to devote at least one hour a day to such work. Some of that is spent at the library, where he researches publications in standard references that index by subject -- the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media and Bacon's Publicity Checker are two. He doesn't look just for travel magazines; instead, he looks for an angle. "We've been in business publications, like Inc. ['Rooms with a View,' May 1988], health magazines for our nonsmoking policies, art books because we did some trompe l'oeil." Recently, a college business textbook featured Queen Anne as an example of effective marketing. So far, five people who have used the textbook have booked rooms.

Hillestad's loyal customers also work hard to promote Queen Anne. Such loyalty comes from making their stay memorable. For instance, "The Queen Anne University" awards a tongue-in-cheek "master of romance" to guests who stay in 8 of the 10 rooms at the inn. "Guests remember it," but, Hillestad says, in addition "you can improve your odds by reminding them that you could use their referral, and thanking them for it."

In our April 1991 feature on Intuit, the makers of the briskly selling software Quicken (" Customer Service: The Last Word"), president Scott Cook explained his marketing success: "We have hundreds of thousands of salespeople. They're our customers." He keeps them selling by providing "legendary" customer service in an industry where that's rare. Every company has "an opportunity to amaze the customer on the first impression," he insists. Intuit does that by making its software incredibly easy to install.

Cook recommends you use a similar approach. "When I was younger, I was intrigued by martial arts, but I didn't sign up, because I didn't want the embarrassment of losing interest after a lesson." You could set your academy apart by setting up a get-acquainted program that people can attend without making a commitment. Then, Cook says, "take advantage of the first lesson, when the customer is feeling most ill at ease, and turn that into a wonderful experience. Give each new customer special attention, and call afterward to ask how it went."

Such special attention has paid off for Intuit. "We're so much better than what they expect that it takes customers by surprise," Cook boasts. "When you do that, you give them something to tell their friends about." -- Michael P. Cronin