Small Brands Teach Big Lessons

NEW YORK Big company efforts in social media have mostly failed to this point. Facebook’s application platform has become a graveyard of failed attempts to harness the platform, while other brands have suffered embarrassments at their ham-handed attempts to influence the blog world.

Yet for some small companies, social media has proven to be a godsend of low-cost, effective brand building. Take Bacon Salt, an unlikely product dreamed up last year after a night out drinking by two Seattle buddies. What began as a half-joking idea — what if there was a spice that made everything taste like bacon — soon became a bustling business that’s sold 600,000 units in 18 months, thanks mostly to the harnessing of the word-of-mouth power of social media.

The Bacon Salt marketing story begins actually before the product existed. In July 2007, Dave Lefkow, a former executive at online employment company Jobster, posted a MySpace profile dedicated to Bacon Salt. He and partner Justin Esch then spent countless hours mining MySpace data, sending messages and friending anyone who declared an affinity for bacon in their profiles. (They found 37,000 MySpace members mentioned bacon in profiles.)

The “spamming,” as Esch initially called it, generated a surprising result: not only were people adding Bacon Salt, they were ordering the product even before Lefkow and Esch had ramped up production. Their “cute side project,” as Lefkow described it, suddenly got serious.

“It was one person telling another person telling another person,” he said. “It was amazing and scary at the same time. We weren’t prepared for the onslaught.”

The partners found that what began on MySpace quickly jumped to other venues, some decidedly strange. One of those friended on MySpace wrote a lengthy post about the product on, a message board for University of Kansas sports fans. The one post alone drew over 2,000 comments — and another spate of orders.

“We didn’t even have any product yet,” said Esch. “We bought cheap spice bottles, printed out Bacon Salt logos and Scotch taped them onto the bottles.”

Bacon Salt is not the only small company to thrive in harnessing the power of social media while larger brands stumble. And not all the small players are producing sexy products like up-and-coming musicians. Other examples include blender manufacturer Blendtec. Its “Will It Blend” video series has been a long-running hit on YouTube. Midsize brands like Zappos have also thrived, using social media channels like Twitter as a rolling focus group and customer service channel.

But can these success stories translate to companies with set marketing processes, watchful legal departments and little appetite for the hurly-burly of the social Web?

Size alone makes it hard to pull off. Lefkow and Esch blog on the Bacon Salt site. That personal touch is missing from sprawling organizations, according to Augustine Fou, svp of digital strategy at MRM Worldwide.

“It’s acting like a small company,” he said. “The founder blogs in a small company. In big companies, it’s their PR department or worse yet their PR agency.”

Lefkow and Esch, out of necessity, provide the personal touch. They found the more they listened and engaged with their customers — each spends hours each week personally responding to e-mail messages and even don bacon costumes on the road to hand out samples — the more sales they made, the more buzz they generated.

“It’s the simple things people appreciate,” said Esch. “We always e-mail everyone back. We take the time to interact with them.”

While it now is nearly clich