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Red hot marketing: challenges are as unique as the businesses.

Alaska is hot. The signs are everywhere: in increased tourism, in the growth of new businesses, in television shows and best-selling books proclaiming the wonders of the 49th state.

Alaska companies, large and small, are riding this wave of success by effectively marketing their goods and services. Some firms use professional marketing plans. Others rely on simple, home-spun strategies. But the message for each is the same: when business warms up, solid marketing increases the heat.

Hot Is Not Enough

"Alaska as a destination is hot," says Karen Cowart, executive director of the Alaska Visitors Association, an association of more than 700 tourism businesses statewide. "We're positioned to become one of the most popular destinations in the world. Our initial challenge is to create a desire and get people here."

Nothing works better than television and magazines to create that desire. But these approaches require big bucks and a sophisticated marketing plan -- items which Alaska's hundreds of small tourism businesses can hardly afford.

However, the job gets done through the Alaska Tourism Marketing Council, a unique joint venture between state government and private industry.

To stimulate interest in Alaska as a world-class destination, ATMC places ads about Alaska on national television. These ads are supported by high-response magazines and direct mail campaigns.

Each year, more than 450,000 people respond to the television and magazine ads. Each year, the council researches and tests every concept and dollar it spends on advertising to make sure the approaches work.

"These strategies enable us to target our potential markets," says Johne Binkley, chairman and CEO of the family-owned Riverboat Discovery Cruises of Fairbanks. "It gives us the advantages of a national marketing program for a very reasonable rate."

Small companies such as Binkley's, which employs 60 people for four months every summer, also use local advertising, from television to brochures and newspaper ads, to reach their Alaska audience.

Buy Alaska Plays a Role

The challenge at Buy Alaska, a statewide program run out of Anchorage, is to "market Alaska to Alaskans."

"A lot of local business leaves the state every year to out-of-state companies," says Mary Rucker, program manager," and our program mission is to try to stop some of these economic leaks.

Through a "buyer/seller network," the program matches Alaska buyers with local companies that can provide goods and services.

In addition to being price-competitive, Alaska businesses "have to market themselves as world-class professionals because Outside competition will go that extra mile to get our business," she adds.

So far, 600 companies have enrolled in Buy Alaska. Though buying from local companies sometimes means taking a risk, "I believe Alaska suppliers are up for the challenge," Rucker adds. "In many instances, local businesses have beaten the out-of-state competition in every area of the marketing mix."

Taking a Conservative Track

Watching the recession that hit Alaska businesses a few years ago makes Gerald Myers, owner of GDM Inc., a Fairbanks architectural and engineering firm, admit, "Instead of growing by chance, I have long-range goals and want to know how I'll get there."

Myers' company has a hot product: a module for field work that is light-weight, transportable, self-contained and capable of providing warmth in weather ranging from 100 below zero to 115 degrees. Extensive research showed such a shelter didn't exist.

So GDM Inc. built one. "Our goal is to build these shelters in Alaska," Myers says, "and that's hard because it's expensive to manufacture things up here."

Finding a market for the hot product is the next challenge. Despite coverage in magazines like Popular Science and on television shows like "Discovery," Myers wants a professional marketing strategy.

"We're very comfortable bringing in people who are really knowledgeable in all aspects of marketing," he says. With the aid of an east coast agency, his firm is currently developing a business plan and identifying specific markets for the shelter.

How Sweet It Is

What do you do when your business gets too hot? "Our marketing is embarrassing because we've hardly done anything, and people are screaming for our product," says Marlene Cameron, co-owner with her husband Charles of Cameron Co., a birch syrup business in Wasilla.

When they first started selling the product, magazines and catalogs gave them exposure. Soon, retail outlets around the state and international markets began calling. Now, even before the syrup is bottled every year, "We're sold out," Marlene says.

With three other birch syrup producers, the Camerons formed the Alaska Birch Sugarmakers Association to promote research and marketing and to help other producers get started.

To get more people out tapping trees and to recruit more producers, the couple also gives demonstrations at fairs, presents papers at scientific conferences, writes recipe books and holds seminars and classes.

"We're in a very enviable spot," Marlene admits, "but we need to produce more, and we need to become a statewide industry that has clout."

Take Advantage of Change

Lloyd Harding, 66, of Wrangell, a supplier of cedar and spruce to American guitar manufacturers, found himself in the middle of a changing industry that not many people understood -- so he took advantage of it.

"The timber industry in Alaska is geared toward high volume, with a low end product," he says. "We need to go back to a low volume, high-end product because we're running out of wood."

Harding uses a processing technique that produces two to three times more product from a log than traditional processing techniques provide. The primary product he turns out is spruce wood, superior for acoustical guitars because of its fine grain, strength and superior vibrational quality. Wood unusable for guitars gets turned into other products, from kitchen cabinets to molding.

Harding took his idea straight to the guitar manufacturers. That effort taught Harding his most important marketing principle: "Get your market in place first. Then you can come back, put in your saw, and start worrying about where you're going to get your wood."

He sees a wide array of products coming from the wood he processes. "We're just doing the tip of the iceberg in this industry," he says.

Marketing Yourself

Occasionally an Alaska business finds success by just operating a quality establishment.

At least that's what Annie Kaill feels has happened in her Juneau gift store. "I haven't marketed," she admits. "I'm confused about the whole issue."

In 17 years, her store has grown from a one-person operation to a 1,600-square-foot retail shop with five full-time, year-around employees.

"Alaskans are my market," Kaill says. "We carry all hand-crafted items and create an atmosphere that is eclectic but not so unusual that it is avant garde."

When local college professors bring her to their classes and introduce her as a person who knows how to run a small business, Kaill gets tongue-tied. "What I do is pretty intuitive," she says. "Everything looks easy, but it's not. You've got to consider the time it takes, and don't expect to get rich real soon."

"And," she concludes, "do what you believe in and know how to do."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Woodring, Jeannie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:What attracts mining companies to Alaska? Mineral, human and governmental resources play key roles.
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