Spokane Journal of Business

Market-research emphasis helps firm grow

7-year-old Focus Group now serves broad mix of clients, most near here

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Dan Mathews remembers how things were when he worked at an advertising agency before he and partner Jeff Culver started the Focus Group Inc. in 1997.

Mathews recalls that the agencys creative team would have its first meeting with a client, then return to the office and begin a rapid-fire exchange of ideas for an advertising campaignbefore team members had much information about the clients business.

The campaigns that resulted were like a match, he says. It flares up quickly, then burns itself out, and youre left with the crudthe smoke, the ash, and the burned-out match.

Focus Group, on the other hand, takes an ask-questions-first, shoot-later approach, Mathews says.

We felt everybody was shotgunning messages out there, he says. With all the messages out there, its not that easy any more.

The Spokane Valley company designs advertisements and ad campaigns, but says market research precedes everything it does. By doing our homework up front, we increase the effectiveness of your advertising and reach your audience more efficiently, its brochure asserts.

The company serves a broad mix of clients, mostly from the Inland Northwest. Examples include Washington Trust Bank, the Spokane Chiefs hockey team, and Landmark Restaurants Inc., which owns The Onion, Franks Diner, and the Italian Kitchen.

Teri Mathis, executive director of the Foundation for Deaconess and Valley Health Care, says Focus Groups methods helped the hospital fund-raising arm promote both events and the charity as an institution.

As the Focus Group got to know us and the work we do, they became close to the mission, Mathis says. They have an amazing ability to bring everything together to accomplish a particular program.

The company did research on the clientele of the Hot Rod Caf, a Post Falls restaurant that caters to car-club members and other auto lovers, before the eatery opened, Culver says. The one thing we found that they respond to is nostalgia, he says. Later, it helped the Hot Rod Caf launch its popular River City Rod Run, and caf owner Rob Elder has learned The Focus Groups methodology, weaned himself from the agency, and applies the methodology himself, Culver and Mathews say.

Not all of the companys research has to do with bringing customers in the doorsome of it has to do with how clients handle people after they get them to come in.

It has done research for Rosauers Supermarkets Inc. on the importance of calling customers by name. Theres a 70 percent response rate that someone will come back to your organization if theyve had a good time and youve called them by name, says Culver, a statistician whos also an adjunct professor at Eastern Washington Universitys College of Business and Public Administration.

The company helps clients devise ways to gather information about their customersfrom parking-lot license-plate surveys to learn where customers are from to setting up internal data systems that prompt employees to glean bits of information from customers by asking tactfully where customers are from, what they do for a living, and their ages.

We want to take the guesswork out of marketing: no more shotgun effect, Mathews says. Adds Culver, If Im not speaking to the psychology of your wants and needs, Im not getting through to you.

Company growth

Focus Groups annual billings have grown consistently and now are in the millions of dollars, Culver and Mathews say, although they decline to disclose more precise figures. The company has nine employees and plans to add one or two more in the next year.

Its located in a residence that has been converted into office space, at 12422 E. First, but it plans to build a three-story, 3,600-square-foot building just south of there, perhaps next spring, Mathews says. The new buildings site is located along what will be Appleway Avenue once the Valley couplet is extended.

The company does a considerable amount of work for Indian tribes, including the Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Nez Perce Tribe, in marketing their casinos and other tribal ventures. To reach more remote clients quickly, Culver obtained his helicopter pilots licenseand says flying a chopper can come in handy to do aerial traffic tours for clients and reach photo-shoot locations.

Culver oversees the companys marketing department, which handles market research, and Mathews manages the ad creation side.

On the front end of a project, the marketing department studies industry trends for a client and develops a market profile, which might cover factors such as customer demographics and a clients geographic reach.

In the economic downturn of the last few years, customers have had a greater desire for research that can stretch their marketing dollars, Culver says.

When the research is done, the companys creative department formulates an advertising strategy. It works with a variety of print media, outdoor advertising, and radio and television spots. It has won a number of awards for its work, but Mathews says, Were results drivennot awards driven.

Young divisions

Focus Group has started two new divisions that are expected to bolster its growth in coming years.

Earlier this year, the company launched a trade-allowance management division. Mathews says that through trade-allowance programs, manufacturers and distributors set aside money and products for joint advertising or promotional efforts with vendors that carry their products.

Small businesses that take advantage of such programs can bolster their marketing while highlighting a larger companys products, he says.

For example, a garden nursery that takes advantage of trade allowances from its suppliers might receive free seed packets from a seed company to give away at a weekend sale, and money from a fertilizer maker to advertise the sale, provided that the fertilizer companys logo appears in the ad.

Focus Group brought in a specialist in trade allowances to seek such opportunities for its clients. That specialist, Jeff Wright, joined the company in January, and Mathews says the division is growing faster than projected.

In the programs first four months, it rounded up $80,000 in advertising and promotional support for its clients, Culver says.

Well tell small businesses, If you dont have much of a budget, well go out and create one for you, Mathews says. Adds Culver, The more substantial you are in the marketplace, the more lubricated the mechanism is. Wright says, If youre a local business, you should be doing this because the big guys are.

Two years ago, the company established a promotional products division that specializes in developing for its clients everyday products adorned with a logo. Through that division, the company came up with a line of clothing and merchandise for the Hot Rod Caf designed to appeal to its car-nut clientele. One product is a line of flame caps, which sport a flame pattern similar to what might be painted on the side of a souped-car. The design includes the similarly-designed Hot Rod logo.

Linn  Parish
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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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