Entrepreneurs

$12K and a dream: How to build buzz on a shoestring

If you think it takes big money to get your company's name out there, think again.

For example, take bottled-water company Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water, which promoted itself with an initial marketing budget of just $12,000 or Kashi, a Kellogg-owned brand known for its cereal and granola bars.

A box of the Kashi Company's Vive probiotic digestive wellness cereal is seen on a grocery shelf in Chicago.
M. Spencer Green | AP
A box of the Kashi Company's Vive probiotic digestive wellness cereal is seen on a grocery shelf in Chicago.

When Kashi hired Greg Fleishman as employee No. 12, his task was to grow the then-private company with a total marketing budget of $10,000 in 1994.

By industry standards, that's peanuts, even inflation adjusted.

So how did Kashi do it? The key was finding key advocates or partners to help in marketing.

After contacting many companies in the weight loss and health industry, Fleishman and the Kashi team found a key partner — Weight Watchers. That company liked Kashi's product, and Kashi now had marketing access to millions of Weight Watcher participants.

"If you have a highly relevant item, it's just about connecting it to a key advocacy group or consumer group that you know can't live without this item," said Fleishman, Kashi's former head of sales, marketing and innovation.

Between 1997 and 2000, Kashi's annual revenue soared to $100 million from $1 million, he said.

Find key partners

As president and co-founder of Purely Righteous Brands, a marketing firm for healthy food and beverage items, Fleishman has moved on to be a key player in the marketing of Coca Cola's Fuze drinks and launching Suja Juice and Temple Turmeric juices.

Currently, he's working with "Real Housewives of New York" cast member Jules Wainstein to launch a new product called Modern Alkeme, a spicy green tea clearing tonic co-founded by Wainstein and Chloe Flower, composer and classical pianist. And though Fleishman has the benefit of the publicity that comes with working with a reality TV star, he's using a lot of the same strategies he used in the start-up world.

"In reality, all emerging brands can drive out broader trial by connecting with key advocates," Fleishman said.

Don't be tied down by industry standards

For Waiakea, learning from initial mistakes led to success. When Waiakea launched in 2012, the company allotted $12,000 for marketing and branding.

"We realized we were copying industry norms, big promotions and events," said Ryan Emmons, the co-founder of Waiakea who was 22 years old at the time. "Then we realized, we don't have to do it like this."

After that, 80 percent of its marketing went digital, with a special focus on social media. It also put extra emphasis on encouraging word-of-mouth recommendations.

Waiakea CEO and co-founder Ryan Emmons.
Source: Waiakea
Waiakea CEO and co-founder Ryan Emmons.

"We really transformed after the first year," Emmons said.

Now the bottled water is in Whole Foods, Albertsons and Gold's Gym locations, among other grocery and hospitality companies. While Emmons did not disclose revenue figures, he said the company sold approximately 1.8 million bottles last year.

Get creative

What does it take to launch a successful line of healthy dog-food products? Entrepreneur Michael Landa, founder and CEO of pet food company Nulo, had to think outside of the box. The biomedical engineer turned businessman found an unlikely consumer and marketing advocate in athletes.

"Athletes are passionate about nutrition, a lot of them have pets, and they feel the same way about their pets," Landa said. "We would go to triathlons, and people don't expect to see a pet company there. That helped us stand out."

When it launched in 2011, Nulo spent only $46,000 on marketing — a small sum compared to industry heavyweights — and has already surpassed $30 million in revenue so far this year.

Michael Landa, founder and CEO of Nulo, with his dog Max III.
Source: Michael Landa
Michael Landa, founder and CEO of Nulo, with his dog Max III.

"We could have tried competing against the big firms, but if we started showing up at pet events and pet expos, we knew we were just going to get lost," he said.

Nulo's nontraditional strategy paid off.

The brand is sold in 1,500 independent retailers and 600 PetSmart locations.

"We've become the Under Armour of pet food," he said.

With a lot of hard work, reaching out to others in the industry and being creative in marketing strategies, entrepreneurs can make every marketing dollar count.