Mustard Maven Spices Sales with Search

Jan 19, 2006 7:36 PM  By

It’s a typical American entrepreneurial story, the kind you’ll hear whenever small business owners get together. Wisconsin assistant attorney general and Boston Red Sox fan Barry Levenson swears off baseball after Bill Buckner’s “Boot Heard ‘Round the World” in the ’86 World Series and vows to find another obsession. Since he’s wandering around an all-night grocery store, the choice is obvious: collecting mustard. He leaves with an armload of fancy condiments and never looks back. Soon he’s retired from the law and running the Mustard Museum, showcasing great moments in the history of the hot dog’s best friend.

You know, your basic Horatio Alger stuff.

Anyway, that’s Levenson’s story according to Michael Carr, current president of the Museum, located in Mount Horeb, a resort area about 20 miles outside Madison, WI. Carr says Levenson left the law and a job handling criminal appeals for the State of Wisconsin to build his museum in 1992.

What does it take to promote an attraction built around something everyone can see just by opening their refrigerator?

For one thing, it takes 3,800 different varieties of mustard, along with antique mustard pots and serving implements. Many of the latter contain remnants of 150-year-old mustard. (Okay, that you can find in many fridges.)

But Levenson and company have set out to both put the Mustard Museum on a solid business footing; they offer a shop with over 500 different mustards from around the world, and sell condiment gift baskets via catalog and the Web.

They have also approached merchandising with yellow tongue firmly in cheek. Visitors can buy clothing that certifies that they have attended “Poupon U.” Salespeople offer mustard tasting flights called “confidential condiment counseling”. The Mustardpiece Theater, sponsored by French’s, offers interactive entertainment; and anyone who gets a yellow gumball from the machine by the door gets a free jar of mustard. There’s even kind of a P.T. Barnum flavor to the exhibits: An attraction entitled “Mustard and the Supreme Court” turns out to be a jar of room-service mustard that Levenson carried in his jacket pocket when he argued a case before the high court in 1987.

“We’re a fun, offbeat attraction set in an area of antique shops and bed-and-breakfasts that’s within driving distance of some big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee,” Carr says. “So it’s important to give people something satisfying when they come, and to give them a reason to come back.” Foot traffic is seasonal—heck, foot traffic in the state of Wisconsin is seasonal—but on a weekend in the peak summer months, the museum can play host to more than 1,000 visitors per day. It’s been featured on the HGTV cable channel, on National Public Radio, and in countless newspaper and guidebook write-ups.

But the revenue comes from sales of the spicy brown stuff, and the Mustard Museum hawks it two ways, via in-store retail and through mail-order and online sales. Carr says that the current sales split runs 50% for each channel; but he partnered with Levenson four years ago in the expectation that he would bend his efforts to increasing the off-site sales.

Carr says the number of orders being placed through the company’s Web site is growing continually, at the expense of mail or phone orders. For that reason, the annual holiday-season mail order catalog is in a perpetual state of revision. “I don’t think we’ve found an equation that’s cost-effective for us, in terms of the resources we use to produce it,” he says. “We think we’ve got the list figured out, but the creative and the merchandising are two areas where we don’t feel quite satisfied.”

Nor has e-mail been an answer, either for acquiring or retaining customers. “It’s cheap, and we mail to parts of our house list once a month, but I think spam has killed that channel,” Carr says. “I believe our customers would like to hear from us once a month, but they just get bombarded with other mail.” He checks deliveries, opens and click-throughs, but has concluded that no matter how inexpensive it is to mail, it’s costly in terms of the resources expended and the results achieved.

The most cost-effective means of promotion has been paid ad placement on the Google search engine, Carr says. He’s been managing that program for about a year in connection with a local consultant. “It’s pretty amazing—you can track the campaigns, tweak them as needed, and get automatic feedback of the results,” he says. The Google click-through sends visitors to a specific landing page, so the Museum has an easy way to tell how the ad campaign is performing.

For all its success, Carr says, the company doesn’t spend a lot on Google search advertising: typically about $50 a month and $200 in the peak holiday season. “We’ve kind of got the market cornered on mustard, so the keywords are never very expensive,” he says. “We’ve found some simple keywords that pay for themselves; for the others, if we see they’re not effective, we just drop them. We tried to get placed in ‘gifts’, but those are costly, and you’re competing with a lot of other bidders.”

Carr describes himself as a “cautious” fan of search engine marketing. “Is it going to take us to the next level al by itself? Probably not,” he says. “But it’s pretty definitely one element of the equation.”