Five years ago, Barry Kindt had just about given up on the service industry. SECCO, Inc., his Camp Hill, Pa.-based commercial electrical construction company, had always provided residential service, but the work was becoming a burden and the revenue it generated wasn't enough to justify the effort needed to keep it going. “Financially, we were in a great position to just not worry about residential service anymore,” Kindt says.

Despite what his accounting sense told him, though, he wasn't ready to give up. So he went on a “quest” to figure out how he could make the work worth his while.

He started by reading. He pored over books by business gurus like Tom Peters and Jay Conrad Levinson, and they each stressed the same thing: use a focused advertising campaign that starts small and builds momentum to develop a brand that will ensure customer loyalty (Sidebar below). So instead of scrapping the division, he put all of his effort into rebuilding it. He re-named it SECCO Home Services to distinguish it from the construction business, and with a firm idea of where he wanted to take it, he mapped out how marketing would help it grow. That was in 2000. In 2004, SECCO was a $10 million company, $1 million of which came from electrical service.

Messages with meaning. Kindt is the first to admit his first ad was awful. By spotlighting a product, it put the focus on the manufacturer, not his company. But more importantly, it didn't contribute to the overall branding of SECCO Home Services. He learned the hard way that effective advertising required planning and careful consideration of the way each ad built on its predecessor's message. “It's so subtle, but there's a momentum that you build up from day one,” he says. “What you do at the beginning impacts what happens a year, two years, or three years later. It might not be the right direction, and you might be promoting something totally different and will have lost that residual value of yesterday's work.”

Finding the right direction, he says, starts with establishing your company's core values and mission statement. Everything you do after that should forward those goals. And that begins with selling your own employees on your brand, because ultimately, their commitment to it will play a large part in its success. If they believe in the ideals you've established, it will show in their appearance and their approach to the customer, which can be some of the most effective forms of advertising you may not have considered. “A lot of [service managers] don't realize the value of the customer's perception,” Kindt says. “Our people — their cleanliness, their ability to look the customer in the eye and talk intelligently — go a long way to developing that brand.”

A marketing program is still built on the ads themselves, though, and they cost money. Kindt spends 10% to 12% of his yearly budget on advertising, including yellow pages (a must-have in the demand service world, according to him), direct mail, radio spots, and even broadcast TV. If that sounds aggressive, it's because it is, and he says any company in a growth mode has to be willing to make the investment. But it's possible to get more for your advertising dollar if you know what you're doing.

Kindt advises starting small. If you don't have many trucks, you won't be able to efficiently serve a wide area anyway, so you have to use a targeted approach. The yellow pages and direct mail are the obvious first steps, but then he suggests jumping to TV. In particular, cable TV will allow you to place ads that reach specific segments of the viewing public (Kindt has six to choose from in the Camp Hill area alone). Where you go from there is up to you. “Hopefully your efficiency will get good enough to continue building your work radius,” he says. “Then you can think about turning off the cable TV and switching to radio and possibly broadcast TV.”

Regardless of how big you want to get, though, you can't ever let up. Even if you've captured as much of the market as you can handle and you have no plans of expanding, you run the risk of falling out of the public's mind and losing momentum by pulling TV and radio spots altogether. “You might be able stop for a little while, but if you let it slow down too much, it's going to take a major push to get it going again,” Kindt says. “It takes a lot less to keep the ball rolling than to get it started.”

Most importantly, remember that the message in your ads — whether they're print, radio, or TV — is your chance to sell the customer on what you have to offer. Big companies can use oddball campaigns that say nothing about their products, but their brands are already so recognizable they don't have to worry about reinforcing them. For a specialized product like electrical service, on the other hand, Kindt says the message has to be simple. “Your advertising must represent you,” he says. “An element of intrigue is fine, but you need to get the message out there in as straight-forward of a manner as possible or it's a waste.”

Sidebar: Barry's Top Five Business Books

  1. The Brand You 50, by Tom Peters — “It explains that the more clearly you define your brand from the beginning, the more mileage you'll get from every advertising dollar you spend.”

  2. Guerilla Creativity, by Jay Conrad Levinson — “I'd never heard of a ‘meme’ before, but this book discusses these ‘mind viruses’ and how to create and use them in your advertising.”

  3. What Clients Love, by Harry Beckwith — “The question he asks that sticks with me the most is ‘If we're competing against us, where would we attack us?’”

  4. Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout — “This book is simply a must-read if you want to be heard in the overcrowded marketplace.”

  5. Rapid Response Advertising, by Geoff Ayling — “He discusses the distinction between a ‘jingle’ and a ‘melodic mnemonic.’ Without it, the jingle becomes music for music's sake.”