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What Should You Spend on Advertising?

What Should You Spend on Advertising?

By Steve McKee | BusinessWeek

The retail industry provides some good examples. While Wal-Mart (WMT) might spend a meager 0.4% of sales on advertising, the sheer size of the company turns that tiny percentage into a significant budget. Wal-Mart’s nominally higher-margin competitor, Target (TGT), spends closer to 2% of its sales on advertising, while Best Buy (BBY), as a specialty retailer, spends upwards of 3%. Finally, more upscale stores like Macy’s typically spend on the order of 5%.

The same kind of ratios can be seen in the car industry (automakers’ generally spend 2.5% to 3.5% of revenue on marketing), liquor (5.5% to 7.5%), packaged goods (4% to 10%), and every other industry.

If you’re in a services business, you might want to bump your starting point higher than 5%. For example, like most professional services firms, my company is more margin-oriented than volume-oriented, so fueling its growth requires that we spend a higher percentage of our revenues. Last year, our number was just over 8%, and I’ve seen companies spend upwards of 15% when warranted—especially young companies that need to invest to build their brand.

Marketing, Not Just Advertising

It’s important to make a qualification here. Giant consumer corporations such as automakers, packaged food manufacturers, and retail chains spend a huge percentage of their marketing dollars on paid media advertising, the most visible (and expensive) tool in the marketing toolbox. Depending on the size of your company and the business you’re in, advertising might not be the right (and certainly not the only) tool for you.

A professional services company like my own is a good case in point. While we serve a national clientele, we are much too small to effectively advertise on a national scale. As a result, we don’t purchase paid media advertising. But we do have an aggressive marketing program built around tactics like direct mail, online marketing and public relations. For a variety of reasons, paid advertising might not be right for your company either, but events, vehicle wraps, point-of-sale displays, or other tactics certainly could be.

The important thing is intentionally and deliberately to set aside some rational percentage of your sales to get out there. That way, the question you have to answer isn’t “How much should we spend?” but rather, “How do we spend most effectively?”

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping struggling companies rekindle growth. His book, When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to Do About It, will be available in bookstores in March.

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