Marketing sounds violent if you think about it. Companies target customers; prices get slashed; expansion occurs in moments of explosive growth.

“Marketing shouldn’t be about hunting, it should be about farming,” says Karl Dentino, co-founder of the Executive Drive-based marketing firm that bears his name. It is one thing for a company to simply rack up raw numbers; it’s quite another to foster loyalty and trust, especially in a wired world.

“With the Internet, people can drop you at the click of a button,” Dentino says. “We’re transcending advertising and getting into trust.”

Dentino Marketing, a business strategies firm that recently relocated from Jersey City, hopes to achieve this by cultivating the human experience. Dentino himself hates the automated phone systems that have replaced real people at the front desks in many offices and consolidation-prone businesses like banks.

Some banks, now that they have been merged and re-merged several times over, enjoy tremendous assets, but seem to go out of their way to not talk to their customers, Dentino says. You call an 800 number and get bounced around to other automated systems, and if you do get a person, he’s probably nowhere near where you live.

Outside the shadow of mega-deals, however, smaller community-oriented banks have embraced localism. Most still publish the phone numbers to individual branches — and they are flourishing, even in these post-Wall Street-meltdown times.

The simple act of talking to the very people who will take the money from your hands, Dentino says, allows customers to feel as if they matter. Customers are more loyal to businesses that embrace them as human beings, and small businesses, unable to compete on price, have successfully played the personalized service card for years.

The secret to effective marketing is to know which customers are the most valuable, and this is where Dentino Marketing steps in. Along with its creative development services, the firm helps businesses develop databases through which they can track customer behavior and interests. Until recently, one of its core functions was helping casinos build customer loyalty through promotions, players’ cards, discounts, and exclusives.

The firm does not do business with casinos anymore, though. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina rocked the gulf coast, the casino firm Dentino worked with moved its headquarters from Biloxi, Mississippi, to St. Louis, but did not take any of its clients with it.

Dentino’s A-list accounts now include NetFlix, the mail-order movie rental company, and the U.S. Golf Association. The firm is helping NetFlix acquire new customers through direct mail and free-standing inserts in newspapers and magazines, while it is helping USGA through a re-branding, Dentino says.

Re-branding can be dicey. Point your organization in too radical a new direction and you risk losing your loyal fans that built you in the first place. On the other hand, if you don’t shake things up a little from time to time, those old loyalists will not see the point in belonging to you anymore. In both scenarios, attracting new members, especially those who will stay for a long time, is no slam dunk.

Dentino says his firm starts with rigorous research into a client company and its industry. It looks at customer feedback, trends in new memberships vs. canceled memberships, the competition, and so on. Once the firm has a handle on it, he says, it goes to the client and asks a basic question: What do you want to say?

USGA, Dentino says, is shifting its focus away from golf in general toward ideas that promote “the good of the game.” Golf is no longer immune from the pressures of environmentalism, for example, and the industry is becoming more eco-conscious by the day — greener buildings, more efficient use of water and resources.

But there is also the matter of gaining new members. While the USGA loves its old duffers, Dentino says, it needs some young blood too. One of the ways the firm is looking to get them is through Dentino’s favorite form of marketing, direct mail.

“The good thing about direct marketing,” Dentino says, “is that it’s quantifiable.” Unlike one-way advertising, such as TV, where a message comes at you and then lasts only in your memory, direct marketing is interactive. It invites responses, and those responses are directly measurable. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Dentino says. “If you can connect with a customer in a relevant way, you’ll keep him for a long time.”

How you achieve relevance is another matter entirely. Dentino does test marketing — varying the messages and options on pieces of direct marketing to different places to see what works best, for example. Different responses will lead you to different conclusions, and progress can be built from them.

You will also learn by reading the data which customers are the most valuable, because you will directly see their behavior as it relates to your company. If, for example, you are a credit card issuer, you will learn quickly which customers warrant special deals when they tell you they want to cancel. A customer who does not use your card enough, or pays the bill off too regularly for your company to collect interest, won’t be worth the same effort as one who uses it all the time.

Data like this comes from multiple sources, tangible and electronic. Standard, mail-delivered marketing materials remain the lifeblood of firms like Dentino, but E-mail has its place too.

“The beauty of E-mail is that it’s customizable,” Dentino says. “We can speak directly to the customer on a one-to-one basis.” The method yields instantaneous responses and is extremely inexpensive, but notice the word “customer” in that sentence. With existing customers E-mail offers a great way for companies to stay in touch and interact.

“We’ve not had as much success with E-mail as an acquisition medium,” he says. It does not generate as many new clients as traditional mail or newspaper inserts. Going back to the credit card offer scenario, non-customers are far less likely to sign up for your card from an E-mail solicitation. “It’s no different than junk mail delivered to your mailbox.”

Except that it is different. A credit card offer in the mail, Dentino explains, holds more weight. It forces you to handle it. It seems more credible. You might sign up online, but it will have been the paper mail that compelled you.

This cross-pollination is what good marketing companies — and companies that are good at marketing — face in the Digital Age. Electronic feedback, particularly E-mail, has its place, but that place is alongside more traditional methods, Dentino says. “It’s not one channel versus the other, each channel supports the other.” NetFlix, for example, has ubiquitous pop-ups all over the Internet and does plenty of E-mail solicitation. And those work. But though the whole product is itself electronic, old-fashioned mail is still the company’s most effective medium for getting new customers, he says.

Dentino himself is fascinated by the dynamic. Online solicitations do not generate enough customers on their own, but snail mail ads do not generate enough orders in which someone returns the physical order form in the mail with a check. And yet traditional, printed mail still is perceived as more credible. The result has been that traditional mail ads drive customers to order online.

Smart marketers have evolved with technology, Dentino says. Businesses must be prepared for innovation and change, but Dentino remains leery of social media as a marketing tool. On the plus side, social media have provided what Dentino says is any marketer’s best friend — word of mouth. Indeed, much of his own business is generated by referrals.

But word of mouth is also the minus in the marketing equation. The mass ability to bad-mouth a business can have disastrous effects. Dentino admits that he does not know enough about social media from a marketing standpoint — how, after all, does one quantify its results? — but his eyes are on it. “It seems incredibly powerful to me,” he says. “But the downside is that it’s not yet fully understood.”

Whatever the method, data is data and results are results, all of which needs to be understood and interpreted by marketers. Dentino spends a lot of time training companies how to interpret what they see from their direct mail and database work.

The urge to experience tangible results is part of Karl Dentino’s makeup. Before he went to college, the Camden-born entrepreneur expected to be a carpenter. He didn’t have any special love for the idea, he says, he just figured that’s how things would go.

Dentino’s father, a health inspector in southern New Jersey, considered his son’s decision and said, “When you’re 50 years old and it’s 20 degrees outside, you won’t want to be a carpenter. Do what you want to do.”

Dentino studied communications at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in the 1970s because he had always liked advertising. “A professor there turned me onto mail order and direct mail advertising,” he says. He became so hooked that he sent his first resume package to Direct Marketing Group in New York City in the guise of a direct marketing package. He got hired almost immediately.

Dentino later moved to Wonderment on Madison Avenue. Not long after his best friend, James Rosenfield, moved to California and started a marketing company of his own. Rosenfield called Dentino and asked if he’d like to operate the east coast office, and Rosenfield Dentino was born in 1983.

Rosenfield retired in 1990. Dentino bought him out and by 2004 had changed the firm’s name to Dentino Marketing. He moved the business to Princeton over Christmas to be nearer his Princeton Junction home, where he has lived for about 30 years. The 50-miles-a-day commute to and from Jersey City just finally got the better of him, he says.

The Dentinos have a son who is studying finance at St. Joseph’s University and a daughter at Notre Dame High School.

#b#Dentino Marketing#/b#, 515-516 Executive Drive, Princeton 08540; 609-454-3202; fax, 609-454-3239. Karl Dentino, president. Home page: www.dentinomarketing.com.

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