By Pete Van Baalen

It isn’t everyday that you get to spend the day at a Hoosier icon’s house. While officially it wasn’t the actual house of Barbara Bradley Baekgaard or Patricia Miller, I did get to spend the day at the corporate headquarters of Vera Bradley near Fort Wayne and learn about their legendary business.

Founded in 1982 by the ladies with a $250 loan, the women’s handbag and accessories company now rakes in over $500 million in sales annually. In their 35 years of business, these ladies have learned a thing or two about how to run a successful business. Some of those key points are quickly translatable to media companies, who can learn from today for a better tomorrow.

Vera Bradley had a very simple beginning. The two founders were neighbors and struck up a friendship and business partnership based on a simple housewarming gift. Later, the two were traveling and noticed the selection of women’s handbags was limited to black and brown. They introduced fun patterns and bright colors, revolutionizing the handbag and backpack market.

Turning a good product into a sustainable business is not easy. They lean heavily on research, design and customer feedback to keep their brand fresh and growing. Vera Bradley doesn’t look at their internal goals and then try to create a product that works at achieving their goals. They interact with their core and potential customers, and determine what they can create to excite their target and score sales.

Too many times, newspaper companies do just the opposite.

The challenge for media professionals is to is to be different enough to customers to be fresh, but not so radically different that they are turned off. We accomplish this through special sections, product roll outs and sales initiatives.

It is May now, and Christmas feels forever away. But it’s not. At the event I attended, Vera Bradley gave us a sneak peak of their back to school and fall / holiday TV commercials. They’ve planned their marketing that far out. Within our organizations, we need to take the bull by the horns and plan ahead for the remainder of the year. Now, or at least in the next few weeks.

If sales specials, kick offs, sales rep incentives and special sections are thought out six months ahead instead of thrown together at the last minute, you have the chance to research, innovate and refine the plan. Remember, Vera Bradley’s success comes from interacting with their customers and prospects to find out what their goals were, and then building the product line with that in mind.

Vera Bradley identifies their target very specifically, and they have named her “The Day Maker”. A part of their philosophy is to have empathy towards this target. “Design with a deep understanding of our consumer, not a focus on ourselves.”

Every special section and sales initiative should be thought of as a new product roll out the way they would at Vera Bradley. Find the needs in the marketplace, the desires of the target audience and then carefully determine the strategy you can implement to satisfy those needs and desires in a effective and profitable way for your organization. If we took that same approach with our special sections and sales initiatives, the results would be better; better received by our customers and better performing financially. And that’s a goal we can all take to the bank.

Pete Van Baalen, general manager for Fort Wayne Newspapers, is a member of the HSPA board of directors and the Indiana Newspaper Advertising Executives Association. 

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