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Five Tips from a Successful Businessman: Don Calhoon

Former Wendy’s executive Don Calhoon shares a few lessons he learned over the years.

LOCAL SINCE 2004 Don Calhoon and his family moved here from Columbus, Ohio. He is shown with friend Bob Heden, wife Joanne and first grandgirl Ava Marie Hurst. He was honorary chairman of the 46th RBC Heritage.

Don Calhoon retired in 2004 from Wendy’s restaurant chain after 27 years. He was the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the world’s third largest hamburger brand. Since moving to Hilton Head from Columbus, Ohio, he has served two terms as president of the Long Cove Board and also was involved in its grantmaking process to benefit local nonprofit organizations. He joined the Heritage Classic Foundation Board of Trustees in 2006. During his tenure he helped develop the “Get Your Plaid On!” campaign and served as the 2014 Honorary Chair of the tournament. He and his wife, Joanne, live in Long Cove and enjoy spending time with their son, twin daughters and three grandchildren.

Don’s Tips for Success

1. Develop the right strategy. “Strategy is fundamental to the process of marketing. If the strategy is wrong, everything else fails,” Calhoon said. “What makes us different? What makes us better? Why would someone use our product or service? Out of that derives the strategy for everything you do. Do research by listening to customers. We spent money on focus groups for everything: ad ideas, new products, pricing. You need to listen, see their reactions. You have to talk to your customers. It’s fundamental.”

2. Be a customer yourself. “To understand your customer, look at your business from the customer’s point of view. See what they see. Look around. What are they looking at when they come in?” Calhoon said. “I loved to spend hours sitting in our restaurants to just study our customers. What point-of-sale messages did they look at? What did they order? What did they eat and what did they throw away? What was their body language? What facial expressions did they have? I learned a lot.”

3. Where’s the beef? Most of us would swear that this iconic commercial ran for years, but this marketing campaign used three commercials for only nine months. It was the right media, the right message, and it was creative. “We drove it into American culture,” said Calhoon. “I don’t think you have to jump off a cliff, but don’t take the safe route. Your plan should be calculated, but you need to understand why your product exists and what makes it different. Once you nail that, it’s okay to step out of the box to get attention. If you play it safe, you might lose opportunities, so define what level of risk you’re willing to take.”

4. Keep it simple. Calhoon believes that marketing is the most important tool any business has and there’s a basic formula to use: media, message, create. First, decide on the right media to reach your target audience. “Go right to the bullseye. Who is the target audience? If you can hit that bullseye, the periphery will come with it,” he explained. “Step two is to decide what your message is. It’s the most important, most fundamental piece. Then create your marketing campaign using one of two basic components. It’s either functional or emotional. Then outmaneuver your competition.”

5. Avoid mission creep. “Find the reason you exist and stay true to the mission. The core mission is always the same. Then find ways to extend your message into the community to expand,” Calhoon said. His team set a record for the longest running advertising campaign featuring the owner of a company in the Guinness Book of Records. They produced 800 commercials over 13 years with founder Dave Thomas and earned a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame.