Bigwigs in business share ideas at forum

Small-business owners seeking help on how to market themselves during these trying economic times heard from some of the area's heaviest hitters last week.

Stephanie Gallo of E.&J. Gallo Winery, Dan Costa of 5.11 Tactical and Dave Halvorson of American Chevrolet were among the speakers at the tri-annual Stanislaus Business Forum on Thursday.

Some 200 Modesto-area business people gathered for the event sponsored by the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. Speakers and panel members offered advice on branding and marketing and stressed the importance of learning to adapt and staying consistent.

Gallo, a granddaughter of Ernest Gallo, recounted the company's purchase of the Barefoot Wine & Bubbly brand in 2004. At the time, it was the 62nd-largest in the country and relied mostly on grass-roots marketing. She said to market the unusual brand, the company decided to play up what made it "meaningfully different."

"The brand zigged while everyone else zagged," she said. "We positioned ourselves as fun when everyone else was stodgy."

That meant more guerrilla marketing, keeping the brand's colorful label and offbeat foot logo and making sure everything followed its "fun, flavorful and affordable" motto.

The company hosted local events where the Barefooters, or brand ambassadors, gave tastings as well as sponsoring events and charities that followed that message. Those include the AVP professional beach volleyball summer tour and the Barefoot Beach Rescue, a beach clean-up campaign.

Today Barefoot is the No. 1- selling wine brand in the United States.

"Live your brand positioning and make sure to communicate it consistently," Gallo said.

Halvorson, who owns the Modesto Chevrolet dealership, echoed Gallo's message of emphasizing differences. The company is famous for its car commercials, which never actually show the cars. Instead the ads feature family themes -- children playing Pop Warner football, Halvorson reading to his son -- to communicate the company's motto: "The family business that treats you like family."

"The idea we are selling is a brand and a concept," he said.

Equally important, said David Boring of Never Boring Design in Modesto, is to stay true to that message. "Live up to what you say and do," he said.

Of course, staying consistent doesn't mean staying the same.

The speakers discussed the impact of emerging media. But simply creating a Facebook page or starting a Twitter account aren't enough. Without good, updated content, social media is little or no help to a small business.

Sarah Field, director of social media for PMZ Real Estate, said social media opens up exciting low-cost, high-impact marketing opportunities to small businesses.

"You can use social media to extend the exposure of your engagement," she said. Instead of the 200 people at a company-sponsored softball game seeing the marketing, everyone who is a fan on Facebook can see it too if the pictures are posted afterward.

"You have another channel for free to let people know about that interaction," she said. "You have a fantastic audience at our fingertips for a very low cost of entry."

Modesto entrepreneur Costa, who has owned a series of successful businesses, said learning what kind of brand you have in the first place will help you understand your marketing strategy.

"I look at brands as horses," he said. "There are donkeys, there are racehorses. And there are different kinds of racehorses. Some will run at the county fair and some will make it to the Kentucky Derby."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or 578-2284.