A little free press helps this twisted endeavor soar
Grassroots marketing trumps plain old advertising, according to Jill Frechtman, and it’s easy to see why she believes fervently in this mantra.

Frechtman, owner of Plainview-based Fretzels by Jill, which markets hand-dipped gourmet chocolate-covered pretzels, has scored the kind of media hits that make publicity hounds howl, leading directly to a flood of customer orders. “Gift guru” Robyn Spizman profiled Fretzels on “The Today Show,” the lifestyle magazine Real Simple gave the treats the thumbs-up and even the celebrity publication Ok! Weekly mentioned the tasty treats.

Frechtman landed all this free ink without retaining costly outside experts. Instead, she relied on her background; a former Madison Avenue art director, Frechtman designed a product and a brand that she felt would appeal to opinion-makers.

“I don’t believe in traditional advertising,” she said. “I would rather spend money and send samples blindly.”

Although this and other guerilla-marketing tactics sometimes send Frechtman scrambling to meet demand, she embraces the spotlight. She’s expended considerable energy on the company’s Web site, www.fretzels.com, where whimsical designs and detailed product descriptions set the tone. And she keeps the brand fresh with the “Fretzel-of-the-Month club.” (This month’s specialty, for instance, is Sugar Plum, a white chocolate treat “dusted with sweet purple and white sugar crystals.”)

Frechtman is devoted to cultivating her following. “I do all of my own marketing materials, packaging and brochures,” she said, adding the brand is “an extension of myself.”

But design and a memorable product are only parts of the equation. Frechtman’s friends serve as company ambassadors, seeding a grassroots campaign; one friend sent a tip to Daily Candy, a trend-spotting e-newsletter that profiled Fretzels in 2005. Another friend talks up the product to his circle of associates in Washington, D.C.

Frechtman, meanwhile, stays creative. After attending the Coffee & Tea Festival in New York in July, she launched a line of coffee-flavored Fretzels, which the magazine Country Accents featured in November.

But Frechtman has not built the company solely on products and branding, noted Ritu Wackett, a business advisor who counsels Frechtman at the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State University of New York. Search engine optimization also plays a role, building a strong Web presence and ultimately catching the attention of “Today” producers last spring.

Prominent media coverage, however, can take its toll. For instance, Frechtman received 100 orders on the day the Daily Candy feature was published. “I was not prepared,” she said.

Fortunately, the coverage fell right before a Fourth of July weekend, when Frechtman’s shipping company, UPS, was closed. That downtime gave her a few extra days to fill orders – and, as a result, build a new database of satisfied customers.

The experience taught Frechtman about the aftermath of publicity, but she remains in constant learning mode. For example, prior to the “Today” piece, Frechtman was advised to expect upwards of 600 orders, which she did. But many customers requested double orders, and Frechtman, who rents kitchen space in Queens, had to book an additional night shift to meet that unanticipated demand.

“My mom and I stayed up packing all the orders till 7 a.m.” Frechtman said.

With her father now helping her full-time, Frechtman has the backup she needs to handle big orders and pursue corporate and retail accounts, she said.

Most entrepreneurs do not have Frechtman’s breadth of branding talents, Wackett noted. But companies need not hire a marketing specialist to help them, which is good news for bootstrappers. The SBDC, for instance, helps owners develop marketing plans, define who their clients are, identify their competitors and single out what sets their company apart. With that information, owners can best determine how to get in front of their desired audience.

Such components, Wackett added, are key to Frechtman’s rise. “She knows her market,” Wackett said.

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