Turning coffee into gold

March 1, 2010
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There’s no high-priced Manhattan ad agency behind the marketing of Biggby Coffee, a franchise beverage retailer with 112 locations after starting in Lansing with two stores in 1995.

Bob Fish, the CEO who so loves interacting with customers that he personally buys them coffee once a week, came up with the 21st-century version of a folksy attitude for marketing a coffee place that’s designed for people who have never been to Seattle.

Fish spoke at the American Advertising Federation West Michigan’s Business Essentials Workshop, part of last week’s annual Ad Fair activities.

He laid out the seven core values of his business philosophy for the audience, but he tied it all back to his company’s vision and mission: have fun, be happy, make friends, love people and drink great coffee.

“In business, we have all kinds of limitations in front of us — created by who? You,” he said, urging his audience to have faith, confidence and courage. “The only limitation you can have in your personal growth or your business growth is you.

“You need to take profit in your company the way you create savings in your personal life, which is to take it out first. Without profit, there is no value.”

He also touted community involvement for business owners and entrepreneurs. “ROI: return on involvement,” he said. “The first thing I did was get out of that store, and it came back to me tenfold.”

In the early days when money was tight, he said, his contributions were in-kind. He was completely tapped out: “I didn’t have any cash,” he said. But he found other ways to say “yes” when community organizations knocked on his door. “It’s an important part of your business model,” he said.

Communications is part of Fish’s set of core values. He said he learned early on, when business cards were virtually his only marketing effort, that satisfied customers who shared their positive Biggby experiences — at the time the company was known as Beaners — were the best advertising in which he could invest.

Now social media is playing into that. Fish and Biggby are well-represented on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the latest darling, Foursquare.

Biggby — named after the company’s logo, a big B — often uses pictures of customers in its advertising.

Social media needs to have the same messaging as all the other routes Biggby uses for advertising, including old media such as print and radio. He said that is more important than choosing one medium over the other.

He said his favorite way to advertise is on billboards, where Biggby’s folksy, inclusive message can reach anyone passing by regardless of demographics.

“We made it up all by ourselves,” Fish said of Biggby’s advertising image. “I decided I wanted to do some radio, and I called a guy by the name of Wally Pleasant, kind of a folksy singer around the Lansing area. I said, ‘Hey, would you work with me on some songs?’ and he did.”

The company does have a marketing director, he said. “We’re chief cooks and bottle washers,” Fish added. “That’s who we are.”

“We always knew we wanted to be a multi-unit company; what we didn’t know is that franchising would be the model of growth,” Fish said. But people started asking to replicate the model. After consulting with the founder of Two Men and A Truck, he launched into franchising in 1999. Now all the stores are owned under franchise agreements.

The company even parlays its franchise nature into its image on its Web site by emphasizing local ownership.

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