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Jan. 1, 1999
A contractor, stuck on a crowded highway during rush hour, is listening to a sports talk show. In between the interviews and callers, he hears an ad for

A contractor, stuck on a crowded highway during rush hour, is listening to a sports talk show. In between the interviews and callers, he hears an ad for forklift rentals at $299 a month. He needs a forklift. The price sounds good. He jots down the phone number on a notepad given him by a salesman from another rental firm.

Driving past the next interchange into another crowded stretch of road, he sees a billboard for a rental company promoting pumps, generators and scaffolding from four convenient locations, offering 24-hour service. He notes this number as well.

When he gets home, he peruses a construction magazine and sees an ad from another rental center promising 30-minute delivery and brand-new equipment. In his mail, he receives a direct-mail flier from a neighborhood rental center with coupons for tillers and other items he can use for his weekend yard work. And later, when he turns on the Weather Channel to find out the forecast for the next five days, more rental companies are advertising.

The age of rental marketing has begun.

Of course, rental companies have always promoted their services, even though the level of intensity and marketing sophistication has tended to lag behind other industries. Many owners of rental companies have stuck to tried-and-true methods such as the Yellow Pages and promotional giveaways such as caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, notepads and pens.

While these methods are still the preferred forms of advertising for many rental companies, particularly those that cater to larger contractors, increasingly crowded rental marketplaces have spurred rental company owners to boost advertising budgets and diversify methods of reaching targeted customers and the public as a whole.

Many rental companies are experimenting with new ways of marketing. Following is a look at some of the industry's favorite methods, compiled from interviews with rental center owners and managers throughout North America.

1 Yellow Pages: Still the industry's most popular advertising vehicle, many rental companies are attempting other methods to avoid putting all their marketing eggs in one basket. Yellow Pages enthusiasts tend toward large display ads, up to a half page, with presence in a number of sections in addition to equipment rentals. They list in sections with headings such as pumps, air compressors, lawn-and-garden and a variety of other equipment niches, depending on their particular inventory.

The multiplicity of the Yellow Pages books in many large cities can present a problem. Rental companies must study the markets served by the various books in their area to determine where they want to spend money.

2 Television: TV has produced mixed results for rental companies. Some companies in smaller markets, such as Tate's Rents in Boise, Idaho, have produced their own spots. In smaller markets, TV ads are less expensive and offer greater market penetration than in larger cities. TV is generally a more favored advertising medium for companies that are trying to reach homeowners rather than large commercial contractors.

The Kragie-Newell Agency, Des Moines, Iowa, working with the American Rental Association, has developed a popular form of advertising on the Weather Channel that has been used by quite a few rental companies. The Kragie-Newell TV spots also run on TNT, HGTV, Lifetime and the Learning Channel. HGTV (Home & Garden Television) has a number of home-improvement programs that actually mention rental centers as a good source for equipment. The Kragie-Newell spots are relatively affordable and local companies can tag them for their particular markets.

Some rental companies like to choose certain times of the year for TV advertising. For example, Mark Musgrove, owner of Tejas Equipment in McAllen, Texas, says he likes to do TV advertising in the early fall to promote his company's specialevents capability in advance of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some companies focus on the early spring when lawn-and-garden needs are at their peak.

3 Radio: Generally more affordable than television and easier to produce, radio advertising is considered more effective if a rental company has more than one location. The popular view is that radio primarily reaches the homeowner and that people who hear radio ads will consider the location. If there isn't one near them, potential customers are less likely to respond. Contractor-oriented companies have given radio more effort in recent years.

Sports and sports talk shows are the most popular with rental companies. Nat DiStefano of Acme Tool & Equipment Rental in Brooklyn, N.Y., says his company has advertised on AM stations tagged to weather reports because contractors typically listen carefully to weather forecasts. Other rental companies also have advertised successfully on oldies, country, rock and adult contemporary stations.

4 Billboards: Growing in popularity among rental companies, billboard advertising depends on quick impressions. A driver may have only a few seconds to read the message and may not be able to write down the number or address. Billboard advertisers go for quick impressions - pictures of key equipment, a short phrase emphasizing quality equipment, a special service, variety of inventory, a unique niche, plus the address and telephone.

5 Local newspapers: Local "throwaway" newspapers are more popular among rental companies than are larger metropolitan papers. Far from throwing money away, many rental companies find this vehicle beneficial because circulation is limited to particular neighborhoods. Rental companies often use the papers to promote seasonal items and offer discount coupons. Some owners find their customers remember the ad, but often forget to cut out the coupon. The discovery of the convenient location may be more important than saving a few dollars with a discount.

6 Internet: By far the fastest-growing method of marketing, hundreds if not thousands of rental centers now have sites on the Internet's World Wide Web, with more being added daily. With Web sites ranging from the basic to the highly detailed, companies are reporting increasingly positive response. While use of the Internet to actually make rental reservations is still fairly limited, rental companies are hearing customers say "I saw your Web site" with increasing frequency. It's one step from that discovery to an actual rental, and the taking of that step is becoming a more common occurrence.

Rental centers selling used equipment are receiving inquiries from throughout North America and even overseas.

7 On-hold message systems: Nobody likes to be put on hold, but it's often a business necessity and accepted as such by customers. However, an on-hold advertisement serves two purposes: It reassures customers that they haven't been cut off and it educates them about services and equipment they often didn't realize the company offers.

8 Coupons: Discount coupons can be a strong incentive to get customers in the door for the first time. Some rental centers send them out as part of a direct-mail campaign in targeted neighborhoods, or include them in neighborhood "value pack" mailings. Many companies use them in brochures offering discounts for first-time renters.

9 Frequent renters: The concept was popularized by airlines' frequent flier rewards program, and has taken off to reward repeat customers of everything from bookstores and haircutting salons to pet shops and espresso bars.

Why not rentals? Still not widespread, most companies that use this promotion offer a percentage discount or a certain dollar figure off the next rental after the customer reaches the advertised amount. Others offer gifts such as jewelry or weekend getaway trips after a certain threshold is met.

10 Promotional give-aways: Popular in the rental industry since the pioneer days, rental companies give out caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, pens, notepads, jackets and myriad other items with their names and logos on them.

11 Community donations: Many rental companies donate use of equipment for events such as charity fund drives, high school football games, and church and scout activities. Such contributions provide exposure and create long-lasting goodwill in the community.

12 Lunch or breakfast: It's not exactly advertising, but some rental companies will visit key accounts and provide coffee and donuts for managers' meetings or lunch for employees on the jobsite.

Other items to consider 13 Who are you and whom do you want to reach? For an advertising effort to be successful, a rental company needs to define what type of customer base it is seeking, and what neighborhoods or areas it wants to target. Even more important may be what specific message the advertiser wants to emphasize.

Are you looking to promote specific products, such as lawn-and-garden in the spring or heaters in winter, or a new product line that your company is testing? Is there a particular message you want the public to know about your company, such as the newness of your fleet, the quality of your mechanics, the swiftness of your delivery capability, or a new location you recently opened? Deciding what your message is and whom you want it to reach are critical factors in deciding what advertising medium will be effective and what kind of graphics or wording will be effective.

14 Include advertising in your budget: For rental companies, spending on advertising tends to range between 3 percent and 7 percent of their operating budget.

15 Tracking: The best advertising campaign in the world may not be recognized without a method of tracking results. For example, businesses commonly ask customers, either verbally or on customer-service surveys, how they heard about the company.

A more scientific method, one increasingly employed by rental companies, is to set up a separate phone line used only on a particular ad. The company can keep track of how many calls come in on that number, and how many actually result in rentals.