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Susquehanna Life

Niche Marketing - How to Stand Out from the Crowd

Aug 27, 2015 12:05PM ● By Erica Shames

When Lance Ohnmeiss returned to Williamsport from San Francisco five years ago to help his uncle John H.A. Ohnmeiss run the family business, Charles M. Noll Funeral Home, he encountered many challenges, ranging from needed capital improvements and technological upgrades to an evolving funeral industry.

“I am trying to help my uncle transform the business,” said Lance. “The funeral industry is in transition—cremations are on the rise, traditional funerals are on the decline—and a lot of things are happening with technology. More than anything, though, I wanted to push the marketing and change the way the business has been seen for 90 years to give it a fresh look.”

Relatively easy was transitioning from pen and paper to computer record-keeping, bill-paying and document-creation. More difficult was defining and refining niche marketing ideas. It was an article in an inflight magazine that started Lance thinking about the funeral business in a different way.   

“First, the article talked about the popularity of RVs and horses among retirees,” he recalled. “Then it chronicled the increased services offered by country clubs to baby boomers. It made me realize the baby boomers are the largest consuming population in the U.S. and, as they get older, they want options—and that applies to funerals, as well. I teased my uncle: ‘what about starting a horse-drawn service for the business?’ He thought it was a far-fetched idea.”

 The livery service was one of several items included in a five-year plan Lance crafted for the business. The pieces began to fall into place when he met someone who owned draft horses.

“My mom was in the high school band at Loyalsock High School,” explained Lance. “She happened to go out to dinner with former band director, Don Kuhns, who mentioned he needed help with his horses. My mom told him to call me; I ride and exercised horses while in college. He called and I went out to the farm. The draft horses—Bob, Rowdy and Major—took to me immediately.”

Lance started offering the horse-drawn carriage as an option last January. “We’ve done six funerals so far, and we’re getting well known,” said Lance. “People will stop and take pictures when they see us coming down the street. Even if it’s not something a family wants, it’s great advertising for us.”

Montoursville vault builder Kirk Naugle summed up the impact of the horse-drawn hearse this way: “In this day and age, when automobiles are so prevalent, we don’t stop to take notice of a car coming down the street carrying a decedent. But when you see the two white horses and the coach coming down the street, it makes a man want to stop and take off his hat.”

Ultimately, the sky is the limit for the evolution of this option, as the Ohnmeiss family also rents out the livery service.  “We recently did a funeral in Elmira for a family whose grandson competes in rodeos,” said Lance. “We drive three and a half-hours to get the horses shoed; we’re willing to start out with a 120-mile radius and see how it goes.”

Another avenue

Lance sees the extensive vegetable and flower gardens on the business property in South Williamsport as another way to set the business apart. “I love to garden,” he shares. “It’s very calming and peaceful for families to be able to come outside and look at different things growing. And we have unique yard art. These are things to draw people’s attention and help them find calm and peace.”

As someone who grew up in Williamsport, Lance is reminded of the value of connecting to community. He shares the vegetables he grows with people in the community and allows a local florist to cut flowers from the gardens. He foresees implementing a movie and concert series next summer for the public at the Central Avenue business site. Tying into local artists and artisans for products needed for the business brings the community that much closer.

“I’m starting a local artisan series so all our cremation urns will be made by hand,” Lance confirmed. “The track lighting in our new arrangement area is trained on the works of local artisans; each features a write-up about the people who make the urns—how they make them and why.”

One of the first artists to be featured is retired woodworker Bob Bickle, who makes the veterans’ flag cases and hardwood urns exclusively for Noll. “There’s a mother-son company in Vermont that makes custom, hand-made pottery urns,” said Lance. “I’m going to offer some of their things. And I’ve talked to other pottery shops and art galleries about working with them, as well.”

John Ohnmeiss noted the relationships that have developed between the business and area students and colleges over the years. “People who come to us are extremely curious about what we do,” he said. “One student studying forensics was here for a visitation. She excused herself and toured our suite and asked questions. For years, we had students visit from death and dying programs at Penn College and Lycoming College. Students have to arrange their own funeral service as part of their coursework!”

On the horizon

As Lance nears the end of the first five-year plan, he sees other possibilities to set the business apart, including becoming more eco-friendly. “Some of the things we’ve talked about for the future are the installation of solar panels, the use of hybrid vehicles and the feasibility of doing eco-burials in which a loved one’s cremains are put in the urn, buried and a memorial tree grows out of the urn,” he explained. “We’ve also talked about taking part in a national forest program, in which a family can write down the name of someone they want to memorialize, pay $25 and a tree will be planted in their name. It’s all about trying to be good to the environment.”

While the innovative marketing ideas will continue to flow, the basic building blocks of the Charles M. Noll business remain the same. “We’re a small family business and we want to keep it that way,” Lance says. “A lot of what we do is guide, educate and help people through this process. We always say to families, at the end of arrangements, we’re here to talk. We understand that grieving is not a one-day, one-week, one-month or one-year process. I tell people, if you see me some evening working in the gardens, and you want to stop and talk, pull into the parking lot. I’ll sit on the front porch and talk with you.”

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