When Small Companies Find a Niche

by Shel Horowitz

Running an “edgy” ad agency has given Darby O’Brien a definite marketing advantage. “Normally in advertising, to win new business, you’re competing against 6 agencies. But people know who we are, know what we do, When we are called in, normally we’re not up against competition.” And Darby O’Brien Advertising, Inc., his 25-year-old South Hadley-based agency, gets another account.

Much of his high profile stems not from client work, but from some of his outrageous pro bono community oriented campaigns: the “Fishing Buddies” drive to open up reservoirs for recreational use, the “Mount Tom…I Don’t Dig It” effort to restrict quarrying.

“Most agencies don’t advertise. If they did, they’d play it safe, wouldn’t want to offend, wouldn’t take a stand. Wouldn’t take on the establishment. We’ve done exactly [the opposite] since the beginning. If something matters to us, we take it on. We took on the city of Springfield to beat back casino gambling, twice. As volunteers. We were told not to because clients were n the other side and we may lose the business. In Holyoke, we developed Fishing Buddies, where we tried to open closed reservoirs, with Bobby Kennedy, Jr. of River Keeper. The key was to get city kids outdoors and in some kind of mentoring program. “We did open a reservoir in Springfield.” O’Brien cited studies that only 2% of prisoners had significant outdoor experience as children. “If it mattered, we jumped in. Advertising has the potential to initiate change. We’re like the actor Tom Arnold, you love us or you hate us.”

O’Brien was one of three panelists at the Family Business Center’s September gathering, addressing the beauties of a niche approach. His co-panelists were Faith Williams, dairy farmer and CEO of the local dairy cooperative Our Family Farms, Inc., and Dave Williams (no relation), the back-office partner at Judie’s restaurant in Amherst.

For Faith Williams, a personal, hands-on approach and a willingness to make things personal are essential to her company’s success. She put on a cow suit to address the group, noting wryly, ” If you look at the two major competing brands, you’ll never see the CEO in a cow costume!”

More to the point, she looks out her window at her own herd of 50 cows; those other CEOs are not working farmers. And in its marketing, including its well-known spotted-cow milk containers, the company consistently tells personal stories about the seven member farmers that joined forces to form the cooperative a few years ago.

And when Williams makes deliveries herself, as she sometimes does, store managers will ask her how the cows are doing in the heat, or the snowstorm – and, having started her morning in the barn, she can tell them.

Our Family Farms’ 1997 launch was well-researched and well-timed, harnessing a movement toward locally grown, high-quality food – but a big part of the launch was Williams’ gut feeling that local consumers would, in fact, support a local brand emphasizing quality and freshness. Its product differentiation is obvious; consider this excerpt from ourfamilyfarms.com’s About page:

We are a group of seven dairy farm families from Western Massachusetts. We have joined together to form the Pioneer Valley Milk Marketing Cooperative. Together these seven farms:

  • Milk over 320 cows
  • Farm over 1620 acres
  • Have Been Farming over 767 Years
  • HAVE NOT and WILL NOT use rbST

The page links to profiles of each farm, and then concludes,

Our Family Farms milk is fresher because it’s local.

Our Family Farms milk is rBST-free because we care about the health of our families and friends.

For Judie’s, launching in 1977 in a local restaurant scene that consisted of “the Lord Jeffrey and a bunch of frat bars,” going for upscale nouvelle cuisine where none had existed was also a risk. But like O’Brien and Faith Williams, passion is a major driver of success. Dave Williams approached Judie Teraspulsky with a proposal. “I told her, ‘you could sell a dead man an insurance policy, let’s do a restaurant.’ Three months later, we were in the business.

And the restaurant has managed to grow by about 6% every year, even as the Amherst restaurant scene matured. Now, there are dozens of choices, but there’s usually a wait to get a table at Judie’s.

Yet, the restaurant evolves with the times. Williams’ motto: “be flexible, look at where you are and not be stuck there. In a small business, you can walk in every day and make changes. We gave up the folded white napkins and went for something more trendy.

When we started, Judie said, ‘there will never be a steak and there will never be a French fry.’ But now we sell both and steak is one of our top sellers.”

And the restaurant still reflects Judie’s personality. When TV’s Judge Judy came for the first of many visits, Judie not only came over and introduced herself (against her staff’s advice), but walked Judy around the restaurant to meet some of the regulars. Says Dave Williams, “No matter what your business, entertainment and hospitality are a part of it. We have ‘Judie’sisms,’ like ‘if you can’t smell the coffee, get off the pot.’ There’s a humor there. And people liking you as a person. If you see yourself as just changing tires or pumping gas or selling milk, you’ve missed the point. Cover a whole range of areas, love your customer and love what you do.”