It was 8 a.m. and dozens of cupcakes were already cooling on Rachael Henderson's kitchen counter, competing for space with cases of sour cream and butter, gallons of cooking oil, three KitchenAid mixers and teetering stacks of empty cupcake boxes.
Henderson and sister Sarah Alsup, fueled by just a few hours of sleep and big bottles of Diet Mountain Dew, had only two hours to make dozens more cupcakes and get them all frosted and delivered for a charity event.
“We're running behind, way behind,” Henderson said.
As the sisters geared up over the past year to open their west Omaha bakery, Mockingbird Cupcakes, they looked to gain exposure by providing their product at charitable events, bridal fairs and school functions. It was just the beginning of their marketing efforts, which would later include a Facebook page, website, paid advertising, YouTube videos and press kits delivered to local media.
The Assistance League of Omaha's annual Christmas Caravan Tour of Homes was an opportunity to get their product in front of hundreds of women — women with disposable income likely to buy cupcakes later for a gift, treat or party.
In two days, they made a total of 30 dozen cupcakes plus four sheets of bite-sized pieces for the Christmas walk, spending $1,500 on supplies to bake the most cupcakes they'd ever made at once.
The only thing they didn't budget for was time. One of their two holiday flavors had turned out great, but for the other, they'd added too much butter, leaving the cake doughy. They cursed at the batch but didn't have time to do it over again.
“They'll be fine,” Henderson reassured her sister.
And she was right.
At the event, women swarmed their cupcake display, making comments like “They're good, very good,” and “Eggnog? That's wonderful.” The free tasters were gone in minutes.
But the shoppers hesitated when it came to spending $18 for a box of six cupcakes. “I just did Zumba,” one demurred.
Sales were so slow that later in the morning the bakers just started taking cupcakes out of the ribboned boxes and cutting them up for samples.
Even if they sold only about 10 dozen that day, “We figure we had about 1,500 people taste our cupcakes,” Henderson said later. “We told our story I can't count how many times.”
And several orders came in later from women who had attended the event.
Word-of-mouth advertising is one of the most effective tools for small businesses, said Karen Weber, lecturer in the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication.
“They have to keep cultivating their customer base and reaching out to the community,” Weber said. “You'd be surprised how word of mouth can help small businesses and build their reputation.”
Weber and her students in the university's Maverick PR student public relations firm helped Mockingbird Cupcakes refine its marketing strategy as it got closer to opening its shop. Maverick charges below-market-rate fees for its services to local businesses and community organizations, giving its students real-world opportunities to learn.
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Whatever a business's budget for marketing, it's important to have a carefully-thought-out plan, Weber said. A plan with measurable goals will prevent a business from wasting money on advertising to people who are outside its target market and direct efforts to where they are most likely to pay off.
“The small shops really need to focus on proximity and their audience,” she said. “It's not realistic that you're going to get a customer base from 25 to 30 miles away. Know your niche.”
Mockingbird got free consulting advice from Maverick about how to improve its Facebook page — treat it like a business page, with fewer family photos and more consistent brand message — but decided against paying a student to maintain the page.
The bakery paid for other services, including the creation and distribution of press kits, Web design services and the creation of several YouTube videos. The students also are going to write a feature article about the shop to pitch to magazines.
The sisters paid a recent Maverick graduate for a new website design with a more professional appearance. With most shoppers going first to the Web for business information, Weber said, an updated, easy-to-use website is essential, “especially if you're trying to reach a target audience of young families and the demographic of (ages) 18 to 35.”
For attracting media attention,Weber thought it could work to send boxes of actual cupcakes to local media. (The World-Herald started working on this series earlier and did not get a press kit.)
Weber also suggested that the sisters donate some of their proceeds to a breast cancer organization in honor of Henderson's recovery. The sisters decided instead to donate to the Colon Cancer Alliance in memory of their aunt.
One local television station attended the grand opening, and a local radio station mentioned the event on its website.
The store was busy with customers all day for the March 16 event. Not only did the sisters give away hundreds of free mini cupcakes (usually $1.75 each), but they also sold 900 full-price cupcakes. Alsup told their Facebook followers the next day she felt “thankful and giddy.”
Weber said one marketing advantage Mockingbird has is that cupcakes are trendy right now. “With so much emphasis on wellness, you want smaller indulgences.”
Being part of a trend is also a risk. Bill Jones, an Omaha native who owns Jones Bros. with his brother, said the local cupcake market is “probably pretty saturated.”
He noted that his and some of the other Omaha shops also sell other types of desserts or food. “We don't just do cupcakes, but we do hang our hat on cupcakes.”
Every shop is competition, Jones said, but each does different things. And he still plans to open a second location later this year, though he wouldn't say where.
Jones said he respects anyone who can open a small business and keep it running.
“I don't think people realize how much you can actually bleed money. It takes more time and more money than you think. It is hard.”
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