Put that in Your Pipe

Guerilla Marketing

By Russ Ouellette
I’ve been involved in sales and marketing for over 30 years, sometimes for small local firms, sometimes for large national or multi-national companies, and I’ve seen, and been involved in, a fair number of marketing campaigns with varying amounts of advertising.
I’ve worked for retailers that ran weekly Sunday newspaper inserts, have done TV spots, radio and magazine ads, billboards and more. All of these types of marketing have their place, and the return on investment has ranged from spectacular to horribly disappointing, without any way of knowing how successful the advertising will be.

When I came to work at Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe, we did a variety of local advertising, all of which worked pretty well, and we did some magazine and online ads for PipesandCigars.com. Our campaigns were pretty much "fly by the seat of your pants", and we always saw a response.

After almost a year of working on the retail floor and eventually managing the store, I was called upon to try putting some blends together, which I had done in years past. I came up with six mixtures and brought them to our pipe club meeting to have the members sample them. We have a nicely diverse group, so I knew that I could get feedback on all of the blends. The response was remarkable, and we decided to try selling them on our tobacco bar. We gave samples to anyone who routinely purchased something similar, and in no time we had a steady following. Scott, the owner of the company decided that we should list them on our website. In a rare example of prescience, I thought that we should give the tobaccos an all-encompassing brand name. After thinking about it for a bit, I realized that I wanted to project an image of comfort and solace, so the name "Hearth & Home" came to mind. We put the blends on the site, and we started to do a decent, if small, amount of sales. Then came the online reviews in the forums.

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We noticed that people frequenting sites like pipes.org and usegroups like alt.smokers.pipes were commenting on having tried our tobaccos, and the posts were mostly positive, so all of a sudden the demand increased and we figured that we might have something here. Like many other people, we realized that we might benefit greatly from using this almost-free resource, and I began to cruise the various forums, occasionally chiming in to help folks where I could, without being overly commercial about it. As people got to know me a bit, they would begin to email me, and often would place an order. We had proof of the power of the internet, so we started to plan ways to make use of what was available.

There were a number of pipe-related websites popping up, and some wanted original content, so they began doing things like interviews with people in the business. I did a couple, and even did a few that were video interviews (like I have done on PipesMagazine.com), and each time they hit the web, we would see a spike in H&H sales. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I can see trends fairly well.

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The beauty of this type of marketing is that I had to do little or nothing to get the ball rolling. Someone would call or email me with positive comments about one of our products, and I would reply that I would appreciate it if they would spread the word by posting a review on one of the sites. Many of the folks who would take the time to write or call were internet savvy and would go to a review site and post or would start a thread on a forum, which would lead to people asking questions about the tobaccos, our company and our website. All the while, the demand kept growing at a steady pace.

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We began to back up our guerilla marketing plan (I didn’t know that this kind of "advertising" even had a name until a couple of years ago) with print ads and paid banners on some websites, and then we saw another jump in sales.

The first big surprise was when our blends were first reviewed by Pipes & Tobaccos magazine, and we saw a marked increase in the two months following the release of the issue. Then came the comments on forums about the reviews, and then interviews based on the chatter on the forums. You can see the snowball effect that was trending.

The term "guerilla marketing" seemed to imply aggressive action on the part of the promoter, but in our case, it was actually very passive. All we did was to respond to what other people had started and the result was amazing.

The next uptick occurred a little over a year ago when I had a conversation with our esteemed commander-in-chief at PipesMagazine.com, Kevin Godbee and the remarkable Bob Tate. It was at the Chicagoland show in 2010 that we talked following a three-part interview I had done with them, and I casually mentioned that I had done some writing for trade magazines in the past and the chat turned into a discussion about having me write a column for the site. Although this wasn’t the impetus behind my writing, it turned out to be another boost for our products, since people who had never heard of us began sending me emails or calling me, and we’ve seen a number of new customers as a result.

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I find it surprising that this relatively new media has had the impact that I’ve been seeing for the last six years, and much of the exposure has been entirely unintentional, but there might not even be a Hearth & Home product line if it weren’t for the power of the internet.

What does this have to do with your enjoyment of our hobby? Just think about how much more you know about the pipes and tobaccos you use than you would have without the web. Now if we can just keep them from taxing the hell out of the internet, we’ll at least have one place to go to for free information (and advertising, too).

 

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here

 

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    Jud
  • December 5, 2011
Russ, The "new media" has had a huge amount to do with my return to the hobby. I had smoked a pipe for a long time, but finally put it down in exchange for cigars, pre-cigar boom. This was primarily because I wa smoking only a single blend form my B&M - a rather full English - and had gotten tired of it.
Then, while in a JR retail shop, I purchased a tin of C&D Strathspey, and went "wow". Totally different from anything I had smoked before. I found the Yahoo Pipesmokers2 group, and became an active member. (This was about 8 years ago.) That group, and Tobaccoreviews.com, became my guide to exploration. Earlier this fall I joined the forums here, too.
I have returned almost completely to my first love, the pipe, and smoke a wide variety of blends, 90% of which I buy online. Loving it.
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Great read - I could probably use some of this :)
Moral of the story for me is - great products will sell and word of mouth is still one of the best ways to get your product "out there".
I love a number of the HH blends and if it wasn't for the forums and the review sites, I most likely would never have tried them.
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    brewshooter
  • December 5, 2011
The net chatter is all good, but, without a great product, it can die pretty quickly. I don't think the H&H brand is going to have that problem though.
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    Chris
  • December 5, 2011
I think a good product will naturally generate net chatter - especially in such a niche market like pipe-smoking.
Another good item mentioned here (but not necessarily as a part of the 'guerilla marketing') is that you're accessible. When you talk about reading and replying to emails, as well as participating in the forums it shows that you're involved in the community quite a bit as well as keeps your product name in front of your customers (or potential customers).
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    chrono
  • December 6, 2011
I think that the current uptick in pipe smokers and related sales shows the power of this type of passive marketing in the internet age. It is a good way to start up sales and word-of-mouth by letting your product/work speak for you. It is time for manufacturers and retailers to go beyond this, though, and expand the market by advertising to the general public. Yeah, that will bring more scrutiny/criticism from the the antis, but businesses with the courage to face that will see another wave of new cigar/pipe smokers, in my opinion.
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    baronsamedi
  • December 6, 2011
I think there is a lot of merit in coming out into the open (where you stand the risk of being attacked from all sides) and saying, "Yeah, I'm the guy who did this and I put my name on it because it has value. If you disagree, well, here I am. Throw down the gauntlet and let's go." I knew your name before I really knew jack squat about tobacco. I smoked a bowl of Magnum Opus and said, Hot Damn! And the guy who threw this together was WHO? OH That Guy! Since most of us are thousands of miles away, being active and sometimes even personal on the forums builds trust.
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    Chris G
  • December 11, 2011
Great story Russ! We don't have a single pipe shop in our state and unlike cigars, pipe smoking requires a little knowledge and the net has brought our fraternity together. Thanks to a review site, I found H&H and Anni-Kake , then Virginia Spice, Stogie, Larry's, and Magnum Opus, Black House and........well you get the idea!!!
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    oldmaus
  • December 12, 2011
Thanks for the history lesson on how it all took off!!!
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Great article enjoyed the lesson
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    dubinthedam
  • December 26, 2011
Great read and insight. Interesting to me as I work in graphics and advertising. Unfortunately there is a bad side, elitist types are very quick to spread overly base, personal and unfriendly critic of companies that they, for some obscure reason, feel do not match their standards.
The anti-aromatic, or anti-drugstore blend are two such camps that spring to mind. It is unfortunate that some feel they do need good manners on forums. Few blends or pipes are nasty, if only we could claim the same as pipe smokers.
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    Funn
  • December 28, 2011
Great article Russ as per usual. I agree with Chris, in that accessibilty is the key. Particularly being able to meet you,Craig,Patty, Greg Keith and many others at the CORPS Show and other shows and being able to discuss our mutual likes and dislikes. Also the availability of getting samples and hearing our likes so a blend can be recommended. There's nothing like hearing what goes into a blend, why and how the tobacco is toasted,air cured or cased to achieve a certain taste and smell.
The other factor is if you have a fantastic product it will sell itself. That's been proven by you and the afore mentioned folks. All in all I feel as if I have my own personal blenders at work. Just like a new Stevie Wonder record back in the day..people would buy it without listening to it first...they knew it would be a quality product.
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    bgbarcus
  • December 29, 2011
Smart use of the Internet is a good start but even more important is providing good customer service. PipesAndCigars.com does both right.
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