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Advertising is a reminder — selling is the real issue

It’s tempting for an entrepreneur to dump a bunch of money into advertising to tell the world about his new product. And though I agree that it is important to spread the word, a ton of great ads won’t help if your product isn’t front and center on the shelves where people can buy it.I learned this right from the start with my Kitty Litter, which was a totally new concept back in 1947. I couldn’t afford advertising, but it wouldn’t have helped anyway. Much as I believed in my product, merchants perceived it as “dirt in a bag.” They regarded me as sort of a P.T. Barnum, who took them and their customers for a bunch of suckers. They regarded Kitty Litter like the caterpillar that looked at the butterfly and said, “No way I’m going up in that thing.”

Since I couldn’t get my product in the stores to sell, I started giving it away, just to get people to try it. I drove to every cat show I could find, setting up booths where I cleaned peoples’ cat boxes for free, substituting Kitty Litter for the sand or shredded newspapers most people used. This wasn’t exactly the “sweet smell of success” that I had envisioned! But I was doggedly determined to penetrate the cat market.

Seeing is believing

I also made the rounds of pet stores, asking owners only to watch my demonstration. Using a shot glass, I poured water on a bed of Kitty Litter so they could see how well the granulated clay worked. They never failed to be impressed. I left them a supply of my product to give away to their customers, as well as the shot glass so they could repeat my little performance.

It was an offer they couldn’t refuse. Cat owners watched the in-store demonstrations, used their free samples and came back for more. Before long, store owners who had scoffed at the notion of selling 5-pound sacks of clay for 65 cents were actually calling me to order them. By 1955 those “bags of dirt” reached $1 million a year in sales — and that’s when $1 million was a lot of money!

Expanding into supermarkets

I did pretty much the same thing in the 1960s to get my Tidy Cat brand into national supermarkets. They had never sold anything like this in grocery stores, and like the pet-store owners before, they were skeptical. But once again, seeing led to believing and sales soared.

I advertised a bit in later years, but not nearly as much as some of my competitors who jumped on the cat-litter bandwagon. I already had the support of retailers who knew my products and stocked them. All I had to do was remind cat owners that we were around. Even without much advertising, the Kitty Litter brand has become the generic term for cat-box filler, just like Kleenex or Band-Aid in their product lines. This drives my lawyers nuts, but to me, it’s the kind of recognition no amount of ad money can buy.

So before you blow your budget on a big advertising campaign, spend some time beating the bushes face to face with distributors, retailers and purchasers. Make sure they understand and support your product, even if you have to give it away at first. To doctor up the old adage, you can lead a horse to water, but you better make sure the lake isn’t dry when you get there!

This column is one in a series that will explore the thoughts, ideas and unadorned advice of an entrepreneur who made it, Edward Lowe. When he “brought the cat indoors” with a revolutionary cat-box filler, Kitty Litter, he created an industry that changed the lives of millions of cat lovers, not to mention cats. During his life, Ed Lowe used “plain talk” to speak about the bottom line from the bottom of his heart. We believe these writings, revised and updated after his death, truly offer something of value, not only for your business but also for your entrepreneurial soul.

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