A Marketing Home Run

In baseball-crazed Boston, sponsoring the Red Sox earned Exotic Flowers a marketing award and a mass of new fans.

By Robert Jones

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Flowers run in Rick Canale's family, but baseball runs in his blood. By combining his passions, he helped the family business bloom.

For Boston's Canale family, the flower business is a labor of love--literally. In the 1940s, Sonny Canale, started working at a little flower shop called Lombardi's, where he eventually caught the eye of Marie Russo, whose family owned the flower shop across the street. Sonny bought out his employer in 1957, and two years later, in the ultimate merger of equals, Sonny and Marie married and consolidated their businesses.

While their romance is enduring--they are still in the shop every day--the business keeps changing. In 1993 came a new name, Exotic Flowers, followed by new locations, new competition and new technologies.

Inspiration From a Baseball Guru
There was a new generation, too. Straight out of Boston College, son Rick Canale joined the business as the managing director in 1993. A self-described "marketing nut," Rick, now 38, says his biggest influence was Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball owner who elevated publicity stunts to an art form (and carved ashtrays into his wooden leg).

"We bought a Hummer a couple years ago just for the reaction," Rick says, explaining how he tried to apply Veeck's marketing philosophy to an independent flower shop. "We do the small things like direct mail on a regular basis, but we also like to make a big splash occasionally."

Searching for a new idea to get the business noticed, Rick took a swing for the fences that would have made Veeck proud: He contacted the Boston Red Sox to inquire about a sponsorship. Rick sent the team an e-mail, they wrote him back with a price, and after a bit of negotiating, the little flower shop in the shadow of Faneuil Hall snagged a three-year exclusive as the "Official Florist of the Boston Red Sox."

Though Rick can't divulge exactly what the sponsorship costs, he says no painful budget choices were necessary. Exotic Flowers already was cutting back on Yellow Pages spending, and 20 percent of the stores' $125,000 marketing budget was earmarked for "trying new things." All of the company's baseball-related marketing efforts--including the sponsorship fee itself--comes out of that $25,000 pot, he says.

News of the Red Sox's newest sponsor spread like pollen on a spring breeze. Seeing the Exotic Flowers name in print and online was gratifying, Rick says, but he knew he'd need to do much more to make his investment worthwhile.

Marketing In-House First
To get employees onboard, he distributed free tickets, a precious commodity for a team that's sold out about 500 consecutive games. He plastered the Red Sox logo on employee uniforms, shop windows, delivery vans, business cards and even the cellophane wrap that goes around every bouquet. He added Red Sox merchandise like pennants and bobble-head dolls to his stores, and included a baseball card with every bill he mailed out. On opening day, fans were encouraged to bring their Red Sox cards into the store for free roses.

While some might see all the baseball tie-ins as overkill, Rick says business is up 10 percent since the sponsorship began--not an easy feat for a company that already enjoys a 50-year customer base. In 2008, Rick also won Floral Management magazine's Marketer of the Year award.

"To the Red Sox's credit, they really help," Rick says. "They have great marketing resources I can take advantage of, and I get invited to some unbelievable networking opportunities that I never would otherwise. So I'm tapping into a huge conglomerate as just a little guy."

For their part, the Red Sox insist size doesn't matter. "We don't look at someone's market cap to decide if they're going to be a good partner for us," says Joe Januszewski, the team's vice president for corporate partnerships. Still, he admits that not every small business makes the cut.

"I was surprised by how many great ideas Rick came to the table with. That really allowed us to move forward. He's constantly activating and doing new things around this sponsorship."

Rick promises more new things as Exotic Flowers begins the final year of its contract. One of these is a "Grow a Piece of Fenway" promotion, offering flowers in Red Sox-logo flowerpots filled with dirt from Fenway Park.

And when he contemplates life after the Red Sox, it's hard to tell if Rick is speaking as an entrepreneur or as a diehard fan. "How am I going to top this?" he wonders aloud. "That's a question I ask myself every day."

Robert Jones is president of Miami-based PenPoint Communications. He is a long-time freelance writer and recent Twitter convert (@PenPointer).

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