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Bruiser the Squirrel and the importance of brand

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By Juergen Kneifel
Herald Columnist
Marketing is far more art than science, and oftentimes the most powerful impression is made in the unexpected. Take Michael Higgins for example, owner of Bruiser's Tree Service in Startup.
Higgins is a small business owner who has been cutting trees, removing stumps and selling firewood in the area for eight years.
The company originated as Flame on Firewood in 2006. It's a name that isn't necessarily going to jump to "top of mind" for someone searching for a tree service. Higgins had left Kimberly-Clark in Everett, where he worked as a machine operator. He liked the idea of starting his own company and becoming his own boss.
What makes Bruiser's unique? It's Bruiser -- not a nickname for Michael or anyone on his crew. Actually, Bruiser is a pet orphaned squirrel that Higgins took in when he was at work one day felling a large evergreen a little over three years ago.
"I felt bad that I was going to be taking away this little fella's home and decided to take him back to Startup, where there are plenty of nice trees to enjoy," said Higgins. "It turned out that Bruiser preferred sticking close to the house, and so he became part of the family."
"When they're so small in the nest, they can't survive without proper care. Sometimes we can move the nest to a safe area and the mother will return to retrieve the little ones. Other times, the baby squirrels are orphaned," Higgins said.
"I use an eye dropper and kitten formula to keep the baby squirrel going. It's not too long before they gain their bearings and grow stronger," Higgins said.
Perhaps it's just me, but I find it hard to reconcile a burly tree cutter nursing a baby squirrel to health.
Bruiser was Higgins' first squirrel rescue. Now there are seven regulars who come to the house for their meals. They even have private access to come into the house.
"They come and go as they please. But most often they like to come around at mealtime," Higgins said.
In 2011, Higgins was toying with the idea of having Bruiser become the namesake of the business and even used PhotoShop to create a logo image of Bruiser holding a chain saw.
Higgins mentioned that he knew the idea must have been good: A competitor tried to use the logo to promote the competitor's services. Higgins sent a letter letting them know that the logo and image had been copyrighted and was not to be used. Translation: Find your own pet squirrel!
I met Higgins last year when I hired him to remove several stumps at a rental property. His bid for the work was in line with others, and when we met at the job site, he handed me his business card with chain-saw-toting Bruiser proudly depicted on the front. That's when I heard Bruiser's story.
Seldom do I find that I need tree service, but last month I again needed some tree work done. I started out scanning my favorite source for initial leads: Craigslist. I landed on a posting with Bruiser. I thought to myself, "Hey, I know about that rescued orphan squirrel!"
The connection and impression paid off for Higgins. I contacted him to take a look at the project and even reminded him of the work he'd done for me in the past. Repeat business is vital to the health of any small business.
Differentiation in product and service is important. Every small business owner needs to determine what it is that sets them apart from the competition. Even if it means that you're caring for orphaned squirrels.
Impressions can make or break a small business. Making a positive impression through a marketing strategy that shows care, compassion and a bit of humor will differentiate one's business and make it stand out.
You can see photos of Bruiser on the company website,

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member for the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to
Story tags » Small business



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