Make an Impact With Your Image

We hope your potential customers are bracing themselves--because your business is about to make some serious noise.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the October 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Fifty thousand years ago, a meteor landed. About half the size of a football field, it collided into what are now the plains of northern Arizona. "It penetrated so hard that it moved thousands upon thousands of tons of sandstone and limestone," says Eduardo Rubio, lead tour guide for Meteor Crater, a major tourist attraction in Arizona. The force of the explosion created winds of 2,000 miles an hour, and everything within 40 miles of the epicenter felt the blast. The resident animals-mammoths, bison and giant ground sloths-never knew what clobbered them.

That is impact.

Just as the meteor did, you want your business to leave an impression-on your customers, your employees, your suppliers and the public at large. Leaving the right impression translates into clout, credibility and loyalty.

"When we speak, we need people to follow. If you or your brand have credibility and clout, it's easier for that to happen," says personal branding expert Peter Montoya. "It's the ultimate currency."

While making an impact may not be easy, it can be done. And you don't have to have a meteor handy to do it.

Impact With Image
There are many ways to make an impact, and you already know how to use at least one of the most effective methods. You probably just need some reminding.

Think back to high school, when you were just a hapless nobody. Who were the coolest kids? And weren't their friends automatically cool? "It's all about perception. Perception is reality," says David Kinard, a Seattle marketing consultant who runs Access Marketing Solutions. "If I perceive you as a small business, I'm going to perceive you as having a limited pool of resources."

Which is why Tory Johnson found a cool friend in Cosmopolitan magazine. Johnson, 32, is CEO of New York City-based Women for Hire, which connects high-profile employers with high-profile female employees in major markets nationwide. In her company's first year, Johnson approached the women's fashion magazine (it helped that she had a friend in the marketing department) to see if it would be interested in sponsoring her career fairs. She pointed out that the career fairs targeted women in the magazine's demographic, and Cosmopolitan agreed to be the sponsor.

Johnson was given free advertising in the magazine and Cosmo goodie bags to hand out at the fairs, and she was allowed to use the magazine's name and logo in her marketing. Voilà. The association created instant impact at Women for Hire's career fairs. "It was more valuable to me than cash," says Johnson.

She's worked tirelessly to keep the clout gained from the Cosmo alliance, going after big-name clients and landing interview spots for her company on The Today Show. This year, the company expects to bring in more than $1 million.

You don't get that kind of exposure by waiting for it to happen. In Johnson's case, she knew a lot about the media-she used to work at ABC and NBC News-but she still had to work her contacts and go after what she wanted. "There's no substitute for professional networking," says Johnson, "and the more your name gets out, the more clout you'll have."

Image Can Be Everything

Improve your business's image with advice from these articles:

Impact With Expertise

As we mentioned, Peter Montoya is an expert in personal branding. We know this because his 30-person company, Peter Montoya Inc., puts out a quarterly magazine called Personal Branding. He also wrote The Personal Branding Phenomenonand co-wrote The Brand Called You(both self-published), and he's produced audio CDs and delivered seminars on personal branding.

Just as Montoya, 33, has created an impact by branding himself the premiere personal brander, you can brand yourself-not just your company-as the go-to person in the industry you hope to dominate.

"It's hard to have instant credibility, especially in this era. We don't take anything at face value anymore," says Montoya, whose Santa Ana, California, company brings in more than $3 million a year. "Everything a person does builds their image and helps them make an impact. It's not just your slogan. It's everything that you do."

So let's say your company makes ice cube trays. You could publish Ice Cube Tray Quarterly. You could start a nonprofit foundation to help wayward ice cube tray manufacturers. You could hold an international ice cube tray conference once a year. You could publish a book about the history of ice cube trays. Pretty soon, you're known as the King Kong of the ice cube tray manufacturers, which means you've already made an impact. And if you want to make an even bigger one, your international image will make it that much easier.

Impact With Others
Peter Abruzzo knew his $10 million company, Modern Tuxedo, a chain of 27 rental stores predominantly in the Indiana and Chicago areas, didn't have the visibility to compete with big national chains. So he formed the Tuxedo America Group, which brings together like-sized and like-minded tuxedo companies across the country. Because the companies are located in different regions, they don't compete with each other. The group provides, among other things, lower costs and better training for its members. For example, Abruzzo and his staff train member companies in the minutiae of measuring. And Abruzzo hand-picked each chain in the organization to keep out any weak links.

No longer is Modern Tuxedo a cute little chain with little impact. In a sense, Abruzzo has formed an entrepreneur's union. Tuxedo America Group now represents what he believes are 13 of the best smaller regional formalwear companies in the country, which collectively own more than 500 stores. The proverbial little guy is now big.

"It's helped with national recognition," says Abruzzo, 45. "We can share ideas with each other, and we have clout with buyers. Our purchasing power is tremendous; it gives us a national presence."

Make a Name for Yourself
If you want to make an impact, you have to give people a way to remember you, and a good way to do that is to give them one simple thing to keep in mind. Seattle marketing consultant David Kinard echoes thoughts from the 1981 classic Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. "Volvo owns safety. Wal-Mart owns low prices. Nordstrom, customer service. If you can find a concept you can deliver in the customer's mind, that's going to help you become number one," says Kinard.

If you're wondering how to find your concept, Kinard offers an analytical exercise. "I call it the boyfriend/girlfriend list," explains Kinard. "You know how you'll list all the reasons why you hate or love a boyfriend or girlfriend? Do the same thing with your company and your competitors. Write down all the qualities your company has and all the qualities your competitor has. Then cross out everything that is the same. If you have any words left over, that may be your concept."

Impact With a Purpose

Creating impact doesn't always come from smart marketing moves. You can make just as much of a difference by gathering enthusiasm and dedication for a cause that goes beyond-or sometimes has nothing to do with-business.

Years ago, Masood Vojdani, now 44, was a penniless college student. He had been comfortable growing up in Iran, but as a university student working on commission at an insurance agency, he was broke. He couldn't even afford gas for his car. So every day, Vojdani left his dorm at 5 a.m. and walked eight miles to his office. "I had no money," says Vojdani. "I used to eat one egg and stale bread each day for over 40 days."

Vojdani eventually started his own company, GV Financial Advisors, a full-service financial planning firm based in Rockville, Maryland. But he didn't forget what it felt like to be in need. "I've been lucky that success has come to me, and I'm grateful. I worked very hard to get where I am, but sometimes people don't get the opportunity to work hard."

Vojdani tries to impress upon his 54 employees the importance of making a charitable impact on the community. Once a year, he invites his staff and their family members to volunteer with him and his family, paying employees their full pay for the day. They have served the homeless at Thanksgiving, and they've painted and cleaned homes for people who are transitioning from life on the street.

Since starting the volunteer program in 1994, "We work much closer as a team, and everybody believes in a cause. They have more energy, and they know what the company stands for," says Vojdani, who notes that he and his employees volunteer in the community in other ways, such as being Big Brothers to disadvantaged kids.

Vojdani often packs his SUV with food, blankets, soap and other necessities, and drives to downtown Washington, DC, where he passes everything out to the homeless. Clients sometimes accompany him. Vojdani recalls how one wealthy client ("With one year's salary, he could feed a thousand people a day") reacted on one of the trips. "[He] was amazed, stunned, happy, sad, and thinking, 'Why didn't I ever look at the world this way?'" Vojdani is convinced he made an impact on his client. For other clients, GV Financial Advisors will match up to $50 of a charitable donation.

Vojdani doesn't do any of this to make money, but there's little doubt that it helps the company. In an economy that hasn't been kind to the financial sector, GV Financial is poised to bring in $7.5 million in 2002, a 17 percent jump from the previous year.

Learn More

Be a socially responsible business owner. Read on for inspiration:

Make It Genuine

But you can't do something selfless while looking for selfish gains. "Charity has to start from your heart," says Vojdani. "You have to feel you're doing it because you believe in the cause, and you want to make a difference."

Sam Christensen echoes that belief. The image and personal branding consultant in North Hollywood, California, who has worked with many entrepreneurs, actors and politicians observes, "The more genuine someone is, the more power we're willing to give them, and the more trust we'll give them."

The public isn't stupid. Fake your passion for an issue, and your lasting impact may be your last. But if you do something big and sincere when you're small and unknown, you won't be small and unknown for long. You'll own the world, or at least your piece of the universe. And your competitors will feel as the giant ground sloths must have when they looked up to see a meteor hurtling from the heavens above.

Down and Clout

Their heads are dropped on a steel plate. Their necks are flexed on a pendulum. Their rib cages are rammed with a 51.5 probe that flies through the air at 15 miles an hour. "The knees are impacted, the torso is flexed, and the hips are rotated," says Mike Beebe, general manager of Denton ATD Inc. in Milan, Ohio, one of the two companies in the world that make crash test dummies. Every day, the dummies are built to react the way a human being does upon a negative impact.

You want to make an impact in the business world, but in a good way. If your credibility is clouded by a potential scandal, don't be a dummy. Here's a plan for recovering from a negative impact, according to Joanne McCall, owner of McCall Public Relations in Aloha, Oregon:

1. Tell the truth-quickly. "If you try to hide something, reporters will figure it out, and you're going to look bad. At least if you tell the truth, you'll be perceived as someone who can admit a mistake and take responsibility for it."

2. Provide regular updates to the media. Show how you're dealing with the situation.

3. Assure the media and the public that it will never happen again.

4. "Develop good relationships with reporters at various media outlets. If there is a problem in the future, they may give you the benefit of the doubt."

Geoff Williams is a full-time freelance journalist in Loveland, Ohio. He was 16 when he visited Meteor Crater, but it made an impression that's still with him today.

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