Amanda Brinkman on Starting Deluxe’s Small Business Revolution

By Juliet Stott  |  March 6, 2017

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Named to Minnesota Business’ Power 50 list in 2016 and recognized as one of the most influential digital marketers in 2015 by Top Rank, Amanda Brinkman is a force to be reckoned with.

In her current role as chief brand and communications officer of Deluxe, she is spearheading a movement that is revamping the communities and lives underpinned by the thousands of small businesses across the U.S.

The mission of the Small Business Revolution—Brinkman’s brainchild—is to tell the stories of 100 small businesses around the nation. After the initiative launched in 2015, it gained momentum and from it spawned a 30-minute documentary, an eight-part series fronted by Brinkman and “Shark Tank” investor Robert Herjavec. It is currently in its second season.

Brinkman’s Small Business Revolution showcases content marketing at its best. She attributes its success to her “mission first, branding second approach” combined with spending her relatively small budget on content rather than traditional advertising.

Now, with more than 2 billion impressions and almost 800 stories penned about the program, Brinkman says her organic approach to marketing has earned Deluxe 12 times the reach and impressions of a traditional media buy with the same spend. Here, Brinkman shares her vision, her successes and imparts advice on how other marketers can undertake this kind of campaign.

What was the reason for developing and launching the Small Business Revolution?

Deluxe, a company known for legacy and check printing, was coming up to its 100th anniversary. It had been a great business for the past century, but it was not basing its future on check printing, as people are writing fewer checks.

So, strategically it’s started to diversify what it does for the small businesses that its serves, and has expanded into marketing services. When I was recruited, the challenge ahead of me was how to mark the company’s centennial without the luxury of talking about its past.

Historically Deluxe didn’t spend a lot on brand awareness, and when it did it was being out-spent by about 14-to-1 by its competitors. At that lower spend level it wasn’t able to use ad campaigns to really change perceptions at a large enough scale. I believed that if a company finds its purpose and does something that matters—that puts good out there—you can see business results.

I wanted to raise Deluxe’s brand awareness with small businesses, while doing something good for them. Instead of just talking at them with an ad campaign, I wanted to start a movement that would support small businesses. From that the Small Business Revolution was born.

This was a risky strategy. How did you manage to persuade your C-suite colleagues to go with your idea?

One of the important factors for me in taking the job at Deluxe was having the runway to be able to do something big, something different from what they’d done before. It still took some selling to explain that I wasn’t going to do something measurement orientated, like we had done before; instead we would be making beautiful films. That was definitely a mind shift [for the company].

I gave a couple of passionate speeches to the board and to my boss—our CEO—about how we could stand for something, and that we could own a movement. I got them excited about how that would advance brand awareness, and how we could stretch the spend organically. Instead of investing the little budget we did have on advertising, I suggested we invest it in content and making films.

We’d rely on the public to help spread the content in a way that we couldn’t afford to do from a paid perspective. The shift was relying on earned media, organic shares in social and articles being written about the program. Our CEO has been remarkably supportive of this and is giving the idea the time it needs to build momentum.

How did you enlist Robert Herjavec, the tech savvy shark from ABC’s primetime hit, “Shark Tank,” to join the Small Business Revolution? Is he a paid spokesperson?

After a year on the road telling the stories of 100 small businesses, we wanted to create a 30-minute documentary about the importance of supporting small businesses. We knew it would have more gravitas is we had experts from this space.

“Shark Tank” is a very popular show for entrepreneurs and for people tempted to start a new business, so to have an expert from it [in the documentary] felt like the right fit. Robert was the natural selection because he just has that kindness and warmth that is close to our brand.

When I told Robert about the documentary, he thought it was really modern. He said he was so impressed with our mission-first, branding-second approach, that he’d be happy to be part of the movement. Although it is a paid relationship, Robert really believes in what we’re doing.

The Small Business Revolution is a great example of the power of content. What lessons can you share about building this kind of content marketing program?

You have to lead with authenticity first. Brands will be tempted—and you’ll have pressure from your peers and colleagues—to infuse more product messaging in the content or to make decisions based on business goals. But you have to lead with the cause first.

You have to be honest about what the purpose of your brand is, and how you’re going to make the world better, or how you’re going to help people, and then you have to let that be a guiding principle throughout the entire process. It’s so tempting to start to commercialize it.

You’ll get pressure as a marketer to monetize it, to measure it, to figure out how it’s translating in to revenue. I certainly have those same pressures, but it’s about being that internal champion for reminding everyone what you’re trying to accomplish.

Quality film-making comes at a price. How did you manage to build that into your budget?

You can earn more impressions by doing something that people want to spend some time with, than you can just paying for those impressions, or paying for your content to be out there. We took our small budget and carved out a significant proportion of it and dedicated it to film.

We took it out of TV and online advertising and used it to pay the documentary company. I believed that the return we would get on that same investment would earn Deluxe more impressions, because people would organically want to spend time with the content, which would help justify the cost.

How did using video to document your stories help support your campaign?

I am a big fan of documentary filming. We found a great documentary company out of Austin, Texas, called Flow Nonfiction, who also really believed in what we are trying to do. Film was the best way to document the stories because it brings them alive—it’s the music, it’s the words; film can move you in a holistic way.

Talk me through the competition element of the Small Business Revolution. Was that one of the key tenets of getting people engaged?

Using competitions in marketing is a great way to incite that organic sharing. When people want to win something, when they believe that stakes are high and the outcome is in their hands, they’re more likely to share and to tell more people about it. A competition is a really great way to engage with our entire community and help spread the message of the Small Business Revolution.

You’re a marketer by trade and now you’re in the spotlight on film, imparting advice. It’s quite a responsibility. How do you feel about your new evolving role?

It certainly wasn’t an ambition of mine [to be on television], but I am very proud to be the one who gets to represent the team at Deluxe, because we truly do love small businesses and working with them.

The fact that I get to be the one that helps give the advice, is an honor. I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve always tried to bring out a brand’s purpose in whichever company I’m at, either through their branding or the kinds of services they’re offering, to do something better for the world.

If every big company, as well as providing employment for people and making money, can stand for something greater, it can have a huge impact on the community. Companies can do well by doing good.

What advice would you give to other businesses wanting to emulate the Small Business Revolution in their sector?

Go back to the roots of why your company started. It’s really important to identify your brand’s purpose. Before you go down the path of starting a movement, really make sure you have buy-in on staying authentic, because it really damages your brand if you suddenly try to monetize it.

Also, before you start, make sure you have a couple of years, or campaign cycles, that allows you to have some runway to continue to see the idea through before people start to mess with it.

Can you share some of the success stories from your campaign so far?

I’m particularly proud of how great this has been for the small businesses involved. These are real people, trying to provide for their families. In season one, when we were in Wabash in Indiana, one of the episodes was about a woman named Lisa, who runs a bridal shop. She was struggling to keep her head afloat and her business viable.

And just yesterday, she emailed our team a picture of herself holding her first pay check she was able to give herself, because the business was doing so well due to some of the changes we were able to help her with. That is just so gratifying and satisfying to see.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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