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September 2011
Different Thinking Yields Different Results
By Sheila Neisler

     Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial: A woman, dressed in an orange and white runner’s uniform, hurls a sledgehammer at a screen in a dismally lit theater filled with a gray-looking audience. The screen explodes into a bright light giving the connotation she has saved all of humanity from conformity and sameness. That’s the mental imagery that comes to mind when you see the work and meet the team at Birdsong Gregory.

     If you remember hearing about, reading about—or even smelling—the grilled steak scent wafting from a ShopBloom billboard, if you’ve wandered into a Bloom Grocery Store and thought, “Wow, this is different,” if you’ve attended a car show and heard auto enthusiasts wax on and on about their car care, you’ve experienced the impact of Birdsong Gregory.

     Different thinking yields different results. In only 10 years, the two-person startup has gone from a spare bedroom to a burgeoning office with nine employees and over $3 million in annual billings. Revenues last year were up 90 percent from the prior year and, through August 2011, revenue has exceeded that pinnacle by some $500,000.

     Clearly Birdsong Gregory is doing many things right: Entrenching in a niche market with laser focus on the consumer. Approaching clients as partners. And developing a forward-looking talented infrastructure.


Looking Through a Different Lens

     Leslie Birdsong Kraemer and Jim Gregory Cusson meld their business and life experiences and take a yin/yang approach to running their company.

     Kraemer’s early interest in fine arts at Davidson College sent her along a path of an internship at Creative Loafing with stints on both sides of the advertising world, agency and corporate. Cusson’s education at Rutgers in New Jersey led him to his first job crawling through grocery stores to stock Keebler cookies, on to various stints in the corporate financial world, and eventually on to Charlotte with ad agency experiences. After working together and making money for other people, the duo decided to team up and hang their own shingle.

     Naturally, these diverse backgrounds manifest themselves in how the agency operates: Cusson handles the account management and relationship side of the business while Kraemer brings out the best in their collaborating design team. And this is a ‘marriage’ of business talents only, the answer to a question they get asked often.

     “We created named the company using both our middle names, thinking ‘Birdsong Gregory’ had a more memorable ring to it than Cusson Kraemer,” notes Kraemer, “and when you stylize the lower cases of our initials b and g, the design takes on the appearance of glasses. In reality, that’s who we are. We look at our clients’ business through a different lens.”

     It was a different lens that became the catalyst for their exponential growth. In the early years of their business, sales were steadily rising and they hired one employee and then another, as business came through the door. However, the team began to heed the advice of a business coach who provided them with an outside perspective.

     “We realized, like many small businesses, we were spending more time working ‘in’ the business versus working ‘on’ the business. We decided a smart move would be to specialize in one niche in which we had been very successful—Shopper Marketing—and become the regional market leader in that niche.

     “We then used that skill as leverage to get into larger accounts,” reflects Cusson. “There are lots of general agencies offering the same broad range of services and they all end up going after the same clients. When I used to make a call and introduce myself as a small ad agency in Charlotte, I would get a uniformly lukewarm response. Calling with an introduction of ‘I run an agency which delivers top-line results and specializes in Shopper Marketing,’ I get a markedly different reaction.”

     Specialization has also provided an unexpected bounce in uncertain times. “In the early days of our firm, we could never go head-to-head with the bigger shops,” explains Kraemer. “In lean times, marketing budgets are tighter and many companies are looking to purchase marketing services a la carte. Because our track record shows we’re working to own this niche, we no longer have to prove ourselves as a smaller shop.”


Focusing on the Shopper

     The goal of Shopper Marketing is to drive sales in an increasingly competitive, economically disruptive marketplace which is overwhelmed by both traditional and digital media. The solution is to improve the shopping experience by focusing on the shopper, first. Careful differentiation between the shopper insight and consumer insight is important: you buy the dog food, you don’t consume it.

     Notes Cusson, “We dust off a lot of companies’ marketing research reports and use them to better understand the consumer from a holistic perspective. The who, why, when and where that person is, determines the ‘what’ decision in purchasing. We are less concentrated on the brand or product and more concentrated on the shopper’s habits and lifestyles.”

     One of Birdsong Gregory’s early successes was Bloom Grocery Stores, division of Delhaize America. Though Bloom is no longer in the Carolinas, the store which prides itself on being “A Different Kind of Grocery Store” is showing bar-raising results in the mid-Atlantic market. Refurbishing former Food Lion’s and Bi-Lo’s, the store met with some pushback: shoppers didn’t think it was so different and their sales didn’t show so either.

     Enter Birdsong Gregory. Marketing, merchandising and research divisions came together and realized that the needs of their target market—young moms—were not being met. Young moms really wanted a difference: more organic options, locally grown food, chef-inspired ‘foodie’ choices (code for easy meal preparations to enhance their in-home dining).

     Based upon their research, they recreated the store from the ground up and amplified these innovations visually and experientially. “We executed by integrating a traditional approach of direct mail, radio, billboard and print media.”

     Their strategy took a few non-traditional turns, too. For example, they employed an oversized grocery cart, large enough that their entire staff could fit in, called the “Bloom Mobile,” which travelled around Bloom’s markets bringing smiles and savings to harried and hurried mothers.

     And yes, the smelling billboard. Last year, Bloom introduced its private-label beef line using a Mooresville billboard equipped with a fan blowing a reproduced smell of a charcoal grilled steak. The novel experiment got mixed reviews locally with consumers barely able to catch the scent within the 30 to 50 yards promised, especially going 45 miles an hour.

     However, the smell actually wafted throughout the country with mentions on Good Morning America, CNN, Nickelodeon, Blondie Comics, CSI and even a question on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” The nose knows good public relations, too!

     While delivering budget-busting sales, they also earned some big fans with the Bloom marketing team. Senior Marketer Angie Hunter readily sings their praises, “In working with Birdsong Gregory, we’ve evolved as more of a business partnership versus a more traditional agency/client arrangement. This is their strength in my opinion.

     “Birdsong’s approach comes from not trying to change my brand but working closely to understand it and using solid research and market insight to help make sound decisions…not just award winning creative.”


More Shopper Marketing

     When Husqvarna, the world’s largest producer of outdoor power products including chainsaws, trimmers, mowers and garden tractors, was introducing a new riding mower platform, they tapped Birdsong Gregory to help shepherd the project from great idea to green lawns.

     Husqvarna’s research showed a significant gap between the high-end hand-pushed mower and the farmer-focused tractor. They also noted that many people enjoyed mowing their lawns, they just didn’t want to spend all day doing it. Utilizing a Shopper Marketing approached, they literally created a new category for the products: the Crossmower and the Weed Eater Smartcut.

     “With a global company, you may have access to big agencies and big resources, but you also have big layers to navigate to get the product into the stores,” notes Jim Parello, marketing manager for the company’s U.S. and Latin American headquarters in Charlotte.

     “The Birdsong Gregory team brought the same quality of a big agency’s well-educated, well-skilled and well-trained team with added benefits of close proximity, the nimble culture of a small agency and a great sense for our business. With their hands-on corporate culture, we were able to create solutions together which allowed us to achieve our targets and timelines. We got ‘big agency’ results using Birdsong Gregory. It was a win/win strategy and execution,” he says.

     Car aficionados have had a long, and sometimes expensive, bond with their cars. However, few national car care brands ever embraced the opportunity to appeal to that niche. Take an unmet market segment, mix with research and creative from Birdsong Gregory and some chemicals from a British company, and you have a whole new category.

     The company Croftgate, which primarily produces chemicals for the printing industry, had an intriguing past. The Queen of England had granted it the Royal Seal as the official polishing and cleaning product for the Royal Stables. The owner immigrated to the states with an entirely new idea: a revolutionary waterless wash and wax solution that delivers superior performance, saves time, and is eco-friendly.

     Birdsong Gregory met with car enthusiasts and learned that owners viewed their cars as investments as well as brand extensions of their personality.

     “Owners of luxury or high performance vehicles are passionate about preserving these investments,” explains Cusson. “We were able to translate a ‘royal relationship’ into a brand which resonated with their interest in heritage and using only the highest quality of car care products. Now when you go to car shows, you’ll see their pride reflected in the shine of their cars.”


Yielding Success

     Birdsong Gregory prides itself on its close-knit group of overachievers. As part of the Croftgate campaign, they literally went shopping themselves for the best and brightest in the Shopper Marketing industry. They landed a pedigreed professional, Jared Meisel, now the agency’s director of Shopper Marketing. With tours at such industry names as Draft FCB and Saatchi & Saatchi X (the latter considered the pioneer and now world leader in Shopper Marketing), Meisel brings a larger view to the collaborative and intimate organization.

     Birdsong Gregory’s hiring strategy is focused similarly. “We look for people with a passionate curiosity. We pride ourselves on being an agile shop that recognizes that change is always happening in the marketplace. We look to bring in the ‘best in class’ partners to execute in a dynamic environment.”

     Although still an intimate group, gone are the days of Kraemer and Cusson hollering across the room to bounce ideas off each other. In its place is a Birdsong Gregory team executing a deliberate strategy to position themselves as the go-to shop for Shopper Marketing throughout the Carolinas and a market leader throughout the country.

     Cusson voices his optimism about Birdsong Gregory’s prospects, “We’re just getting started!”





Sheila Neisler is a Charlotte based free-lance writer.
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