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In face of competition, local BBB turns to marketing: Thirty billboards proclaim agency's trustworthy nature

June 11, 2007

The Better Business Bureau of Central Indiana this year launched an aggressive billboard advertising campaign to fortify its brand and boost membership, which BBB officials said already is on the rise.

In late March, 30 billboards popped up around the city proclaiming "BBB = Trust." The local Web site, www.indybbb.org, also is featured on the billboards.

The campaign cost about $16,000 and will stretch through the summer.

Officials already are crediting the effort with a strong uptick in calls to the local BBB, though numbers are still being compiled. The campaign has been so successful that several other BBB offices nationwide have asked permission to copy it, said local agency CEO Linda Carmody.

"This gives people a fresh look at what the Better Business Bureau is all about," she said. "It reinforces what we've always done."

Aaron Baar, an AdWeek reporter based in Chicago, called the campaign "bold" but necessary in today's changing consumer market.

"If this wasn't true, people would be laughing at us," Carmody said. "Our information is based on fact. It's honest."

The BBB, which has served central Indiana since 1916, is a not-for-profit organization that sets ethical standards for members, registers and investigates complaints, generates thousands of monthly reports, and coordinates legally binding arbitration hearings-all with a staff of about 25.

The agency's marketing initiative is part of a two-fold strategic plan, said Jeff McKinley, who is on the executive committee of the local BBB's board of directors and aids with advertising and marketing. McKinley also is president of Clear Channel Outdoor's Indianapolis division, which helped put together the campaign.

"We wanted members to benefit from the billboards by being associated with the Better Business Bureau and what it means to be a member," McKinley said. "Secondly, we wanted the consumer to remember to see if the businesses they were patronizing were members of the BBB. The billboards were a great way to brand the Better Business Bureau."

The BBB was founded nationally in 1912 and has long been the country's chief consumer watchdog. But over the last decade, the agency has lost some relevance, consumer experts said, as other organizations such as Indianapolis-based Angie's List have cropped up to offer similar services.

"The thing you have to realize is that many organizations like Angie's List are for-profit businesses, and they can afford a lot of advertising," Carmody said. "We're a nonprofit organization and we simply can't afford that much."

Carmody said carefully planned, targeted advertising is critical for the BBB.

"Our message in this campaign is simple, and we thought it was translated very well through the billboards," Carmody said. "We also think that this campaign gives us maximum exposure with the people we're trying to reach."

The BBB relies almost entirely on business membership dues to survive. Dues are based on the size of the company and start at $395 per year. Many of the services to consumers are offered for free.

The most current BBB marketing campaign comes as no real surprise to local business leaders. Under Carmody's leadership, the BBB has improved its status and reputation, colleagues said.

She was instrumental in organizing the Membership Approval Committee, which focuses on making BBB membership more exclusive, while vice president of the organization in the mid-'80s. Businesses, including corporate giants, that fall short of the agency's standards find their memberships promptly revoked.

When she became president in 1993, the BBB began publicizing its exclusivity, publicly reporting the number of memberships revoked and the number of applicants not accepted. Carmody attributes the remarkable growth in BBB membership during her presidency-from 1,666 to 4,434-to that strategy.

The local agency also has increased its level of service to the community. Its service tally, which counts things like the number of complaints processed and reports issued, rose from 131,634 in 1996 to 450,937 last year.

Carmody hired a public relations firm-locally based Coles Public Relations in 2000-to increase media relations, public awareness and membership, thereby making it one of the more forward-thinking BBB models in the Midwest, colleagues said.

"As you look at BBBs nationwide, you will find that Indianapolis has been an innovator in a lot of areas," said Steve Becker, a past president of the Character Council of Indiana, an organization that helps communities reinforce character among their citizens.



Editor's Note: Greg Andrews is on assignment this week. His Behind the News column will return June 18.
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