3 Marketing Lessons from a Convenience Store Restroom

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I know what you’re thinking: this is another one of those inspirational posts about how someone’s entire business was transformed after reading a brilliant Seth Godin quote scratched into the wall at a Shell station.

Actually, no … although that would make quite an interesting collection of stories.

So let me set the stage: As our Family Truckster was thundering north somewhere outside of Springfield, MO a few months back, I realized we were going to need gasoline sooner-than-later. Since I’m not loyal to any particular filling station chain (apart from Costco, but the closest warehouse was 200 miles off course – which my wife convinced me was a bit too far to drive to save 15¢ per gallon), I didn’t have a strong inclination to pick one brand over another for our impending pit stop needs. I just figured I’d go with one of the big chains that were consistently … above average.

So imagine my surprise when the folks at Signal (a regional chain in the area I’d never heard of prior to this road trip — so there was no entry in my brand trust book) made a claim that was so intriguing, it convicted me to give them a try.

Here’s how it went down. As we were motoring along MO-13, I started to notice Signal’s billboards peppered alongside the road. Although they were incredibly difficult to read (seriously Team Signal, a faded-red-on-beige color scheme will strain the eye in the best of circumstances, but whoever chose that particular tone combination for a message aimed at drivers barreling down a country road at 65 mph should consider a refresher course in basic color theory), the thing that did manage to catch my attention was the only message that was listed on every sign:

As a marketer, this struck me as curious, because … well, because Signal is not in the restroom business.

Or are they?

See, the folks at Signal had wisely surmised that – being a nation of road warriors – many Americans have been subjected to the opposite experience of what they are offering. You know, that time you so desperately had to use the restroom that you pulled into the only gas station you’d seen in 50 miles, and you were handed a key (chained to some ridiculously large knickknack) as the proprietor pointed to a dilapidated cement block structure out back. You remember the dread you felt as you slowly opened the door to reveal a cloud of flies circling a single 40-watt lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, while the smell wafting from … well, whatever that liquid was that was pooled on the broken tile floor … reaffirmed that the place hadn’t seen a mop since the Clinton administration.

[NOTE: I’m intentionally not adding a photo here in case you are eating while you read this]

And Signal didn’t have to paint that picture for any of us; trust me, if you’ve been there, that image is already tattooed onto your amygdala forever. All Signal had to do was promise the antithesis of that experience with “impeccably clean restrooms.”

Why is this relevant? Because the brilliance of this claim (and my subsequent experience at their store) actually brought forward three lessons to remember when crafting a great value proposition:

1)   Your key differentiating claim might drive traffic/trial for reasons other than your core product/service. When you consider that Signal’s stores were up against every other filling station/convenience store in the area – all of which were selling the same commodity products (unleaded gasoline, Diet Mountain Dew, Gardetto’s Special Request Roasted Rye Chips, etc.) – how do you stand apart? This focus on a critical – but oft-overlooked – pain point of the travel stop experience was enough to give Signal a try when we needed to fill up. Which we did. But now came the moment of truth, because once we were in the door

2)   You absolutely, positively need to live up to your claim. At its core, any claim like this is asking a consumer to trust you — and if you violate that trust on your first date, there won’t be a follow-up date. Ever. So, did Signal deliver “impeccably clean restrooms?” They were definitely clean, but certainly not on par with the mental expectation I had created of a bathroom at the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, which, unfortunately (and in retrospect, perhaps unfairly) was where my mind had gone when they used the word “impeccably.” Nonetheless, did Signal live up to the promise? Absolutely. They never claimed to be cleaner than anyone else (nor to deliver any level of luxury), they only stated that their restrooms would be clean. Which they were. But perhaps more importantly …

3)   Once they got us in the door, the rest of the operation kicked in. Upon arriving, the employees were some of the friendliest I’d ever encountered in a convenience store, and the retail prices of the foodstuff were on par with my expectations. The restroom claim did its job to get me across the threshold – but it was the friendly service and reasonable prices that would be the reason I’d visit again if I were in the area.

So as a lead generation effort, those billboards – which again featured a customer benefit that had nothing to do with anything that makes Signal money – were incredibly effective in getting me to pay them a visit, which was really their sole purpose.

But equally important: if any piece of the experience had fallen apart once we had arrived at the store – either in the form of an unkempt restroom, comparatively higher prices, or poor customer service – we never would have returned. There are just too many options that offer basically the same products and experience.  The claim got me in the door, but Signal still needed to execute effectively against their main business (which in this case was offering the goods I wanted at a reasonable cost with friendly service).

This is a critical point: don’t misread a great lead generation strategy as permission to take your eye off the ball of your most important priority: executing everything you do in your core business with excellence. That’s the real magic that keeps a customer coming back. Far too many businesses focus far too much on just filling the funnel with new leads – instead of nurturing relationships with existing customers. 

So as you think about what you are doing to stand out in a competitive marketplace to drive interest and/or traffic to your business, don’t be afraid to unearth all of the pain points of your prospects (which is one of the key things we do at Customers 1st Marketing for our clients). Because as you dig deeper to really understand your customer, you can find key insights in less obvious areas that may actually be quite important to them, which – even with activities that aren’t your function – could end up being your most productive lead generation tool.

By the way, if you are a fan of finding marketing insights from unusual sources, check out 4 Marketing & Sales Lessons From a Guy Who Adjusts Spines For a Living.

Alex Hultgren is CEO of Customers 1st Marketing and a member of the Chameleon Collective, where he serves as an interim/fractional CMO to help businesses delight their customers and find new ones. Need help finding the “impeccably clean restroom” for your business? Let’s figure it out together! Drop him a line at alex@chameleon.co.

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Alex Hultgren

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With 20+ years of executive roles in corporations and agencies, Alex now works as a fractional CMO for businesses looking to focus on their customers as an engine for growth.

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