Jane Converse graduated summa cum laude from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. She began her career in Chicago at J. Walter Thompson as a writer and moved into marketing at American Hospital Supply. When her husband, Ralph Converse, was transferred to Peoria, she kept her job in Chicago with a research and marketing consulting firm for almost two years – commuting from Peoria. When the Converse family decided to remain in Peoria long-term, Jane accepted the position of vice president of products and services with Multi-Ad Services, Inc., in 1981. She became vice president of marketing at L.R. Nelson in 1983 and worked at Nelson until she started Converse Marketing in 1990.
What was it like making a transition from marketing director of a medium-sized corporation, L.R. Nelson, to starting your own marketing business?
The transition for me was relatively easy, largely because I enjoy a challenge, including the challenge of change. The process was made easier when Michael Cook agreed to join me in forming the new business. He and I had worked together for seven years at Nelson, and respected each other’s capabilities and marketing philosophies.
In January of 1991, we picked up used desks and hauled them down the stairs into the basement of our home. Even in our humblest days of used furniture and a shared computer, we knew where we wanted to go, and were making plans to get there. We look back on those months as ones of maximum creativity as we studied our potential customers and formed our products around them. The transition was possible also because of my very supportive husband and family. They believed in us and in our long-term vision of a world class business.
Another milestone occurred a year later when Betsy McLean moved from a fine job in Atlanta to join us. To accommodate the rapidly growing business and other staff additions, we purchased our building in downtown Peoria and began the restoration into new offices in mid-1992.
What are some of the key differences between working for a larger, established company and working in your own small business?
When you work for a larger, developed company, you have the advantage of defined jobs and dependable schedules. There is more structure and definition in a larger company. You also can rely on the special skills of others. There were many things I took for granted like data processing, accounting and facility management – these were services that I didn’t have to worry about.
Of course, starting your own business requires a commitment of capital that you don’t have in a large company.
There are also many positives in a smaller business. You have the ability to utilize a very wide range of personal skills and work in a much more fluid organization. Your direct contributions to the success of the business is more visible and you have tremendous responsibility and accountability.
The ability to contribute to the quality of life of others in a very real way is important to me – providing jobs for people and service to others. I am able to make choice about how I give my time and resources to the community. That aspect of owning a business is satisfying.
Also, we can be very flexible to the needs of our employees. In a larger organization it is more difficult.
There is incredible variety in this business, with new ideas, challenges, and business problems to solve. The creativity and energy are intense. We move fast, make decisions, and are able to react quickly.
Can you give an example of a smaller client and a larger client, and some of the different things you do for them?
Our project with Computer Age is a good profile of how we like to work with clients, large or small. We started with a survey of customers and prospects. In the rapidly changing computer industry, it is particularly important to stay close to customers. Before we started a new identity and marketing program, we learned the wants and needs of their customers, the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the company, and what new product or service ideas existed as opportunities for the company from the customers’ point of view. We formed a marketing plan around that. We then developed a corporate identity program, changing their logo and look – the way they presented themselves – created their corporate brochures and product literature, and put together and advertising program to reach new customers and markets.
An example of a larger organization is Illinois Central College. We work with their marketing group on a variety of projects including research to keep in touch with ever-changing educational needs in the College District.
Another client – one of the nation’s two largest manufacturers of football helmets – asked us to study new market and product opportunities to smooth their production cycle and complement their manufacturing capabilities.
For another large client we have created a direct mail advertising campaign to generate repeat sales for a specific customer segment. If the test is successful in one city, we will replicate it in larger markets.
What have been the keys to the success of your business? What advice to you have for others considering the entrepreneurial life?
The key to the success of this business has been our experience working with people in other fine, well-run companies. L.R. Nelson and Multi-Ad provided me with a wonderful background for my own business. I learned all aspects of service and manufacturing businesses. They gave me real depth and understanding of what businesses need. Our people at Converse Marketing have strong business backgrounds, not advertising backgrounds. They have proved themselves as leaders – understanding business challenges – and are creative marketers and problem solvers.
My advice to others considering the entrepreneurial life is “Stick to your knitting.” If you haven’t done it well for others, you probably won’t be able to do it well by yourself. For example, if you are going to open a restaurant, the more experience you have in the various operations of the restaurant business, the easier it will be to go it alone. Also, if you don’t’ have a very supportive family willing to tolerate 14 hour workdays and long weekends, stay where you are; entrepreneurship may not be right for you.
You started your business in your home, then moved to a remodeled, high-profile downtown location. Has that changed your business in any way?
Our base products, market research, marketing plans and high quality creative implementation came with us to our new location. For clients who knew us and were using our services, it didn’t matter where we were located. For new clients it has made a difference in the initial impression. As we continue to experience growth, our downtown location and attractive work environment has been helpful in attracting bright people.
What is your management style?
I am a member of our work teams – sometimes leading, sometimes assisting, but always available to do whatever needs to be done. I am ready to turn over as much responsibility to others as they demonstrate they can handle. I trust my employees.
I encourage people to work hard and take risks. I demand quality. We thrive in an atmosphere where laughter and fun are encouraged and rewarded.
What characteristics do you look for when taking on a new client?
We look for companies whose products and services we believe in. If we are going to give 200 percent of our talents and energies – as we tend to do for our clients – we need to be committed to what we are helping to sell.
We also look for companies that want to be leaders in their fields. These can be small companies or large companies – it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that there is a vision for leadership and a drive to become the very best.
What are some of your “philosophies of marketing?”
Our primary philosophy or creed is “Know your customers and cater to their different needs.” Marketing today requires strong linkage between what customers expect and the companies who provide it – in that order.
In recent years we’ve seen a tremendous shift from mass production of goods and services to mass customizing – because customers expect it. Niche marketing used to be a buzzword. Today it is a strategy that large and small companies embrace to remain competitive. Providing variety at the least cost is the name of the game.
Mass communications technology has created very sophisticated customers. They know what your competitors offer. They know what they want. They are discerning and demanding. The companies who keep their finger on their customers’ pulse have a real advantage.
Another force that impacts marketing philosophy as well as marketing strategy is globalization and the cost competitive environment if has created. There is overcapacity in many industries today. Everyone is looking to improve their utilization and to me more cost competitive – in healthcare, education, manufacturing, distribution, financing – you name it. Our philosophy is to use marketing tools to produce bottom line results. The old “What is your budget?” doesn’t play in Peoria or anywhere else in the world today. The real question that needs to be asked is “What do you want to accomplish and what is the least costly route to that goal?”
How has the concept of niche marketing changed the way companies do business?
Niche marketing is finding undiscovered or under-served customer needs and meeting those needs. An example would be our client Keystone Steel & Wire. Their wire products and fencing are sold very effectively to traditional agricultural markets. Keystone came to us hearing about the opportunity for a new profit center in emu and ostrich fencing. We studied the market for them and sized the market from a fence perspective – how many ranches there were in the U.S. where they were, how they were fencing their animals, how many feet of fence was being sold today, who was selling the fence, what the growth potential was, and what the customer profile was.
We determined that it was a very young market and very information-hungry. We decided the company would publish a book about the proper way to fence these animals – positioning Keystone as the experts in providing enclosures for these birds.
By placing ads in trade magazines with an 800 number to call to receive the free publication, a strong link was created with the potential customers. The program has worked very well for them. They have had the highest response rate they have ever experienced, and the fence machines are running 24 hours a day to meet demand.
Next year’s program is going to be another niche market program to sell a different type of fence.
What are some of the unique things you try to do to serve your client companies?
Our mission is to help our clients narrow their focus – to simplify and strengthen their messages. We live in an over-communicated society. We are bombarded with messages from magazines, books, radio, television, newspapers, newsletters, movies, videos, memos, junk mail, billboards, etc.
As Americans, we have 6 percent of the world’s population and receive 57 percent of the world’s advertising messages. The average mind is a dripping sponge that can only hold so much information.
Our uniqueness – something we work on diligently – is the ability to clarify and focus our client’s image and story. Less is more, if it is done well. We try to enable our clients to cut into their customers’ minds with a clear and simple message.
Our ability to “net it out” works well in our market research services. We have sophisticated statistical analysis and other important research tools, but our uniqueness is in our ability to translate the information into marketing strategies, plans, and actions which solve business problems.
What is unique about doing marketing in Peoria as opposed to Chicago, L.A., New York, etc.?
Not much. When we moved to Peoria 15 years ago, that may have been true, but today cities worldwide look very much the same. The shopping centers in London and Cologne have the same stores and merchandise that ours do. CNN is turned on in Pekin and Beijing. Being competitive in a global economy is the challenge of business and industry everywhere.
Since computers, fax machines, and other communications systems have shrunk the world, it is quite easy to serve companies headquartered elsewhere. We work with our clients in Chicago and Atlanta at very little additional cost. We have a client in Kentucky that we have worked with for almost three years that we have never seen. We communicate regularly, but have never had a face to face meeting.
If there were some particular message that you could give to Peoria area businesses, what message would it be?
Think big in terms of your potential to grow and prosper. Think small in terms of your different customers and their needs. Be aware of the trends taking place in your business. Let your customers help you plan your strategies.
How do companies lose touch with their customers and their needs?
They lose touch by getting so involved in running their business and producing their product that they forget the pace of change in the world today. They assume that the needs of their customers are the same today as they were yesterday, and they assume their competitors are the same. We say, “Don’t guess what your customers want; they are more than willing to tell you.” The biggest mistake companies make is not asking them – not asking them in a way that will get them good information.
Customers are very reticent to tell a supplier the truth, especially when they like that supplier. We find it helps to have a third party asking the questions. There are better ways to get information than the traditional mailed responses. We do in-depth interviews and ask a lot of “why?” questions. We try to prepare reports to our clients that tell them what the customers want them to do. We don’t just give them facts; we give recommended action steps. We put our marketing strategy minds to work in the analysis phase to try to come up with real courses of action.
What are some common mistakes that companies make in their marketing strategies?
Some companies don’t have any marketing strategies. It’s the old adage, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” You could expand that to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, you’ll end up somewhere else.” It’s the “how you’re going to get there” that is the marketing strategy. Companies usually have missions and goals, but sometimes they need help formulating strategies.
Another mistake is not being specific – having vague, general strategies. An example would be General Motor’s “Putting Quality on the Road” slogan. It’s doesn’t give a sharp focus. GM is a classic example of a company that was everything to everyone and lost market share to companies that really picked specific marketing strategies and focused on different customer needs. Fortunately, GM has some bright spots like Saturn, which has a strategy to be the “friendliest, best like car company in the United States.” It’s a very personal strategy.
Another common mistake is not changing strategies often enough. If it’s not working, fix it. Avis is an example of a company that fixed it. They lost money for years and years because their strategy was “Avis is the finest in rent-a-cars.” And they weren’t the finest in rent-a-cars. It was not only vague – it wasn’t true. It was not until they admitted they were not number one, and really claimed to be number two – positioning themselves very close to the leader – that they reversed the trend and started making money. “Avis – we try harder.”
Many companies don’t base their marketing strategies on their customers’ needs. U.S.A. Today is a good example. They have never had a profitable year. They have lost hundreds of millions of dollars. A national newspaper may never succeed in this country, because customers don’t need it badly enough. People get their news electronically, and the future says that it is going to be more electronic with interactive television and computers.
Companies need to understand that a strategy is a direction, not a goal; and activity, not analysis, proves its worth. You have to do something. It’s kind of like Sam Walton’s “Ready, fire, aim” strategy. Once you understand your customer’s needs, you can learn an awful lot by trying something and building on your successes. You don’t want to be so analytical and concerned about exactly the right strategy that you don’t do anything.
What are some popular misconceptions about the marketing function of a company?
There are several misconceptions. One is that advertising is marketing, or that sales is marketing. Another misconception is that marketing begins after the product is developed. To really work, marketing has to be way upstream. Some mistakenly believe that marketing is less important or more important than the other functions of a company – engineering, sales, manufacturing, or operations. It really only works if it’s integral in all functions.
The whole system has to be in sync for success. All people in all departments need to focus on customer needs. Markets are changing and needs are changing. The team concepts we see emerging in American business are strong ones. And to the extent that they bring people together to improve customer focus, companies will remain viable and become leaders. IBI