The Betty White Guide to Small Business Marketing

by Lorraine Thompson

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How’s your small business hanging these days?

Is the sluggish economy killing off your competitors and helping you prosper? Or are you holding on by the skin of your teeth?

Whether successful, struggling—or somewhere in between—entrepreneurs of every stripe can take a lesson from Betty White.

At age 88, the sparkling, silver-haired actress is a model of professional adaptability and longevity.

And after 63 years her career is peaking. Again.

How to keep a career thriving over six decades

Betty started working during of the Great Depression. Through World War II and the 1940s she helped forge the Golden Age of radio. When television usurped this audio medium, she retooled herself to star in TV sitcoms, variety and talk shows.

As the 1960s and 70s youthquake shook our country, Betty broke cultural barriers of age and gender, inventing role after original, quirky role in television and film.

Hitting middle age in the 1980s, she starred in a long-running hit TV series, picked up her 6th Emmy Award and continued working nonstop through the 1990s and aughts.

Today Betty is busier than ever, hamming it up in Super Bowl commercials and hosting Saturday Night Live. With a Facebook following of over half a million, she is adored by fans of every generation.

8 lessons Betty White can teach you about small business marketing

You can apply Betty’s life lessons directly to your small business:

Betty’s Lesson #1: Be yourself. Though Betty transforms into hundreds of different characters, she brings gutsy integrity and pure originality to every role she plays. Our culture obsesses about youth, but Betty embraces her 88 years. Unapologetically herself, she proves that an older, white-haired woman can be smart, pretty, funny, outrageous and at the top of her professional form.
Small business takeaway: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Today business viability is less about mass-market conformity and more about originality. Small businesses thrive by creating exceptional, useful products, finding niches and building communities—sometimes of no more than 1,000 True Fans. These fans and customers are real people—not demographic swaths, “consumers” or “end users.” And they want to hear from the real you, not a disembodied corporate voice.

Betty’s Lesson #2: Work hard. How does Betty manage to stay on top in a ruthlessly competitive industry? What makes her able to adapt to the seismic cultural and technological shifts that rocked her profession? How does she continue to innovate after six decades? Betty’s rock-solid work ethic surely plays a huge role in her endurance and success. When people half her age moan about hard knocks—in business, the economy, personal health—Betty sings, dances, plays tackle football and keeps on keeping on. Not because she’s immune to aches and pains—bodily or economic—but because she embraces a cheerful—yet steely—discipline.
Small business takeaway: Hard times present opportunities for hard workers. Maybe you’ll have to retool and learn new skills. Maybe you’ll need to work two jobs or juggle multiple clients. Guaranteed you’ll work long hours. And you may need to put in time on weekends. Or carve out hours early in the morning before your kids wake up. Or late at night when they’re asleep. Like Steven Pressfield says, “Do it anyway.”

Betty’s Lesson #3: Bust stereotypes. Old people get tired and cranky. They’re out of touch with popular culture. They lose their sense of humor and retreat into the past. They eschew social media. If Betty White bought into these stereotypes, she’d be playing bingo all day at the Screen Actor’s Guild Retirement Home. Instead she takes Facebook by storm. Stars in late-night comedy with 20-something actors. Picks and chooses projects and turns down guest appearances.
Small business takeaway: Are you caving to stereotypes? That Baby Boomers can’t master digital media? That Gen Xers are slackers incapable of leadership? That men aren’t sensitive and social? Women can’t negotiate? Stop. Free your mind. Think Betty.

Betty’s Lesson #4: Be a lifelong learner. Betty started work in little theater. Then came radio. Television. And film. And now the Internet. For entertainment professionals unable or unwilling to adapt, technological breakthroughs and cultural shifts brought job loss, alienation and heartbreak. But not for Betty. Challenges seem to energize her. If she’s not facing obstacles with utter fearlessness, she’s doing the best acting job of her life.
Small business takeaway: Don’t say, “I can’t.” Yes, it’s hard to adapt. It’s tough to start over. To admit—maybe in middle age, maybe after losing a job or watching your industry implode—that you’re not master of the universe. In the digital age, we’re all neophytes. We’re living through the biggest cultural shift since the Industrial Revolution. Don’t let digital gurus fool you: We’re all beginners. If you choose to, you can delight in the new. Remain curious. And continue to learn forever.

Betty’s Lesson #5: Let your hair down. On Saturday Night Live, sweet Betty White smiled angelically and chirped, “Happy Mother’s Day, mother f*ckers!” On a talk show she wore a prison guard uniform and joked about inmates’ affection for prison b*tches. She’s 88-years old for God’s sake! How can she talk like that? How dare she be so earthy, wicked and loveable? Oddly enough, Betty’s irreverence doesn’t alienate. Instead it connects us more closely to her—and through her, to the Divine Comedy of being human.
Small business takeaway: Don’t be afraid to voice an opinion, crack a joke or take a controversial stance on something important to you or your customers. That last word is key: Know your customers and keep in mind their sensibilities. Today a distant, authoritarian corporate persona doesn’t reassure as it did in the past—it makes us uneasy. As Chris Brogan advises, “Learn how human business works.”

Betty’s Lesson #6: Zig when others zag. What are most 80 year-old actresses doing? Perhaps enjoying their grandkids, relaxing over martini-soaked ladies’ lunches or watching TV and scanning the tabloids. Betty doesn’t seem interested in the status quo. Sixty years ago, when female identity meant marriage and housewifery, Betty embraced a career. When middle-aged actresses played grandmas, Betty starred as a man-eater. When older people harrumphed over “that Internet thing,” Betty amassed 500,000 Facebook friends.
Small business takeaway: Stay abreast of colleagues’ and competitors’ achievements and innovations, but do your own thing. As a small business owner, you renounced corporate control and its questionable benefits some time ago. Now, more than ever, your livelihood depends on independent thought and action. When you see others go this way, take a look at going that way. Warning: When you zig and zag, you sometimes fall down. Well all right. Stand up and dust off your pants. It’s a paradox: If you want to succeed, you have to fail.

Betty’s Lesson #7: Don’t whine. “I’m tired.” “My feet hurt.” “I can’t read small print.” “I don’t have a hard body and wrinkle-free, botoxed face.” Given Hollywood’s fear and loathing of aging actresses, Betty White could moan a lot. But she’s too busy working, playing, volunteering and enjoying life. She focuses on the positive and keeps taking action—and risks.
Small business takeaway: “Overseas competition is killing me.” “People don’t hire freelancers my age.” “I’m 20 pounds overweight.” “Banks aren’t lending to small businesses.” Give it a break. Yeah, the old ways passeth away and all. But the truth? The little guy has never had such unprecedented opportunity. Today, for the first time ever in history, “the proletariet own the means of production,” as Seth Godin notes in Linchpin. That means little old you can compete with Fortune 1000 companies. Entry fees are low: In addition to Betty’s Lessons, all you need is a laptop and high-speed Internet connection.

Betty’s Lesson #8: Stay the course. The Great Depression, Marcelled hair and FDR. World War II, shirtwaist dresses and Elvis. Vietnam, macramé vests and stagflation. Masters of the Universe, big shoulders and the Internet. Middle East conflicts, leggings (again) and the Great Recession. Betty survived it all. How? She takes the long view. A cursory glance at Betty’s career reveals a lot of peaks. You don’t notice the valleys, but she’s surely weathered her share of failures, setbacks and personal and professional losses.
Small business takeaway: It takes time to build a business. Overnight success and instant fortune are as rare as 88 year-old media stars. Have patience with yourself. Create a plan for your business with specific goals and timelines. Remember that successful marketing involves a strategy—not just one-shot tactics. Impulsive advertising and promotional bursts—followed by periods of fallow lethargy—waste your time, money and creative energy.

Want to stay the course with your small business? Need help with content strategy, marketing tactics and copywriting? Contact me today.

Betty White photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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The Betty White Guide to Small Business Marketing … | Business and Financial News
May 31, 2010 at 3:13 pm

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Deborah Reynolds May 31, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Excellent post Lorraine, very creative….one of the best I’ve seen in a while! I love Betty White, she has an amazing attitude and outlook on life. Great takeaways for small businesses!

Bambi Gordon May 31, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Love your post.

Can I add another Betty White Tip? Do it with style. How gorgeous is she? She always looks great.

I think the Small Biz Take-Away is…Look good. Use a professional designer. Present your business (online, in ads, your presentation material, stationery) the best that it can look. Let your customers know that you have dressed-up (I mean in the biz sense, but, hey, personally too) to impress them because they are important to you. Do not underestimate the power of good design as a marketing & branding tool.

Lorraine Thompson June 1, 2010 at 4:31 am

@Deborah: Thanks for the kind words. I agree, Betty is an absolute delight.

@Bambi: Yes! “Do it with style” should definitely be added to Betty’s Lessons. Betty always looks fabulous–and that’s a great takeaway for small businesses. An attractive, navigable website, quality business cards, etc., speak volumes. A related aside: The Italian small businesses with which I’ve dealt do this par excellence with simple and beautiful business cards on heavy stock, engraved lettering and tasteful design. They truly understand the power of La bella figura!

Brie June 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm

What a great article! I have to do a plug for my Betty White inspired business! You can also follow the story through my blog at

Lorraine Thompson June 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

@Brie: Love your t-shirts! Les musts for Betty lovers. Will tweet.

Paul Hassing June 1, 2010 at 2:52 pm

6.30 am. A young woman I’ve never met, on the other side of the world, writes a looong post about an old woman I’ve never heard of.

I’m not even awake yet. I’m supposed to be skimming. But the copy and content grab me and keep me to the last word.

Lorraine, you just earned a rare, intercontinental ‘Onya Sonya!’ from an Australian devotee. Keep ’em coming! With regards and respect, P. :)

Lorraine Thompson June 1, 2010 at 3:07 pm

@Paul: Oyez, oyez: It’s right there in the comments–Paul Hassing called me a “young woman.” Can’t wait to tell my 23 year-old son, “so there!” Glad you like the post, Paul. Means a lot.

Lindsey Donner June 2, 2010 at 11:59 pm

I love #8. “A cursory glance at Betty’s career reveals a lot of peaks. You don’t notice the valleys…” I realize this is a comment on long-term strategy, but I think another takeaway from this is, when you look back on your OWN strategy, nobody’s going to notice those valleys, either. And that’s an incredibly comforting thought, isn’t it?

Arthur Lubow June 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

It’s all about impeccable timing. And knowing when to poke somebody.

Lorraine Thompson June 3, 2010 at 7:29 am

@Lindsey: Yes, nice point, Lindsey. I like imagining folks forgive–or don’t notice—some of my past marketing missteps.

Katie Morse June 3, 2010 at 5:17 pm

An article that mentions Betty White? How could I resist!

Seriously though – great post, and Betty White certainly is one that we can all learn some lessons from. All too often businesses get stuck in the trenches of “what they’ve always done” or “how they’ve always done it”. Betty has reinvented herself many times – successfully! The businesses that stick to history in times of crisis are often the ones that you don’t see around when the market turns. We can all learn a thing or two from Betty White!

Community Manager | Radian6

Lorraine Thompson June 4, 2010 at 9:39 pm

@Arthur: Appreciate your insights on timing and “knowing when to poke.” Miss White understands both perfectly–no wonder she gets away with her wicked humor.

@Katie: I, too, will read anything about Betty White. May we all continue to reinvent ourselves as marvelously as she does!

Gavin Head June 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm

What an insightful and inspirational post! I love the way you’ve taken something (someone) so familiar to us and related that to businesses through common principles of success. I think you’ve made some very good points- especially about being a lifelong learner and staying the course. I couldn’t agree more with your closing remarks about marketing “Remember that successful marketing involves a strategy—not just one-shot tactics. Impulsive advertising and promotional bursts—followed by periods of fallow lethargy—waste your time, money and creative energy.” That is right on the money! If every business owner/manager understood that there would be a lot less business failures and more would grow instead of just treading water.

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