Management, Marketing, Professional Development

Your Small Business Can Market Like the Big Brands

What you can learn from what the big brands are doing

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

The big brands have big budgets. They rely on research and lots of talent to help them navigate marketing. As a small business with a smaller budget, you can learn from what they do and adapt it to your own needs. Read on for a few ideas from recent trends in national brand marketing.

Give your customers the ability to customize products.

Shutterfly is a well-known company that allows customers to create books, cards, mugs, pillows, and more from their photos and images. By providing a product that users customize, every item ordered from Shutterfly is unique. In addition, their recent “Make It a Thing” campaign encourages customers to focus on “life’s not-so-picture-perfect moments. “Inside jokes and mishaps provide more inspiration for gifts than Instagram-worthy portraits and allow people to connect around life’s funniest moments.

Starbucks is using product packaging to allow for customization. For example, their baristas occasionally write messages on cups of coffee along with the customer’s name. Playing off that organic idea, Starbucks introduced seasonal cups with blank gift tags printed on them, encouraging personal messages to be penned on them by buyers.

Fast-food giant Burger King used to encourage customers to “have it your way” when ordering a Whopper in a world where standardization and efficiency in sandwich-making is the norm. Recently, Burger King offered curated takes on combo meals named for celebrities. These meals allow devotees to order a meal that feels custom but uses current menu items grouped in a new way, then offered in a limited-edition package. More efficient, but still personalized to some degree.

Do you have a product or service that you can customize to evoke emotions that make people smile? Can you add special packaging or messaging that makes your customer feel valued or adapts to their needs?

Focus on products and services you can source locally

Supply chain disruptions are still rippling through the marketplace. However, savvy brands have found ways to mitigate supply chain effects or have optimized their brand strengths.

The online artisan marketplace Etsy has been relatively immune to supply chain bottlenecks since many of its offerings are hand-crafted and offered directly by their makers on the platform. In addition, Etsy’s national advertising plays up the uniqueness of its merchandise, in contrast to mass-marketed products.

If your small business has close ties to local vendors, you may have the ability to leverage those relationships to keep products and resources rolling in the door. People do business with people they know and like, especially when times are tough. Your local suppliers are more willing to help you than large suppliers with more significant customers than you. Focusing on diverse local sources will help you be more nimble as well.

Your small business customers may be willing to shop with you despite some stock-outs or longer waits for delivery if they value doing business locally or have developed a relationship with you over time. In addition, during times of stress like the pandemic, your customers will be forgiving if you can communicate why you are temporarily out of stock or if you can offer an alternative product or service in the short term.

For example, a local restaurant may explain reduced hours, menus, and staffing for a short time without losing customer trust, provided they do an excellent job with the limited offering the restaurant can still produce in a period of economic distress. However, McDonald’s may not receive the same forgiveness if services were cut substantially.

Understand the economy and how customers respond to it

Big brands paid careful attention to forecasting and bet big that demand would return after the pandemic began to ease. Behemoths like Walmart and Target locked in inventory orders early to ensure stock would be ready when needed, then took delivery earlier than usual. Sitting on inventory isn’t ideal, but having a product on hand is better than not having it all when customers come knocking.

Small businesses can pay attention to economic forecasts instead of hoping for the best. Those trends you see nationally affect Main Street, too. Follow news from trusted sources like the Wall Street Journal or trade publications related to your industry to stay in the know. Over time, you will learn to spot economic signs in your own business before reading about them in the news. Then, think about contingency planning before trouble strikes.

Create a memorable campaign and branding

America Runs on Dunkin’ according to the rounded letter donut chain. Nike has told you for years to Just Do It. Walmart promises that you can Save Money and Live Better. Home Depot features a familiar shade of orange, and Coke owns the color red and script font in soft drinks. The familiar fanfare played at the beginning of a 20th Century Fox movie is instantly recognizable. The big brands know that memorable campaigns and branding start with great images, sounds, colors, and taglines that build brand awareness over time.

The best brands use a theme or tagline that evokes a feeling for the customer or clearly states the brand’s position in the marketplace. For example, everyone knows that KFC is finger-lickin’ good and that M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hands. We know that diamonds are forever because DeBeers told us so and that women should choose L’Oreal “Because You’re Worth It’.”

Even small brands can develop branding and campaign themes. Pick a different position from your competitors and own that spot clearly. Then, consistently support that position across all platforms and communications. No matter when or where a customer sees or hears from you, the visuals and words you choose should always reflect your brand image. Carry your identity across product and service branding, packaging, point of sale, brick and mortar presence, and any physical or digital communications.

Sometimes you need to use big time advertising

The big brands are household names in large part because they have spent a ton of money on advertising. Advertising will not save a poor brand or solve all your business problems, but you need to create awareness or establish your business as a player in the marketplace. Advertising can help, but doing it well can get pricey.

Too many small business owners budget too little or not at all for advertising. It is easy to look at advertising as an expense rather than a return on investment. But highly targeted, well-done advertising can and should generate tangible results. It pays to enlist professional help to choose the best message and media vehicles to reach your target audience. Measure results, learn what works, and refine as needed.

Small businesses can make a bigger splash by banding together. For example, suppose you are part of a business district. In that case, you might collectively advertise shopping in your locale by funding a billboard or doing a cooperative television ad for a particular holiday or season. In addition, city centers can promote the unique experience of shopping with local merchants, service providers, and restaurants with a buy local or hometown pride message.

If you are part of an industry group or business alliance, you could lobby for funding to create an ad campaign. Individual milk producers were helped by an industry-wide effort to raise milk consumption culminated in the “Got Milk” print and tv ads that ran nationally. Today, the milk industry has pivoted to advertise milk as a recovery beverage in response to competition from sports drinks, but they still do on the national stage.

Blend online and physical shopping

Today’s consumers are looking for instant information and on-demand shopping a la Amazon. But they are still willing to shop with smaller businesses and service providers if you can reduce friction in the information seeking, discovery, evaluation, and purchase stages. It used to be enough to have a digital presence in the form of a basic website and maybe a Facebook page. Unfortunately, that will not be enough in the future.

Consider a customer who has a choice between Starbucks and a local cafe they love. Which shop they grab a cup of coffee from today might depend on the time savings of ordering ahead on an app, being able to choose in-store or drive-through pick up, or earning a few more points toward the next free cup of coffee. Starbucks will likely win this purchase. Starbucks might also own the next purchase because they promote their latest drinks and drive repeat visits via SMS messages, personalized emails, and app notifications. All the while, Starbucks customers voluntarily share their coffee images and tag #Starbucks on social media.

Other brands are helping customers try on apparel or see what a new couch would like in their living room through augmented reality. If that technology seems a little far-fetched for your budget, how about creating YouTube video demonstrations or offering live shopping via Facebook or numerous other social media platforms? You can still drive traffic to your website or physical store for in-store or curbside pick-up, though delivery is also an excellent option for time-pressed buyers. Simple tools like Square POS make it easy for customers to order online and pick up at times you set.

As customers acclimate to and embrace the ease of hybrid shopping, the brands that don’t start offering at least some digitally-enabled shopping options will fall behind competitors. Find out what features your customers care most about and start dipping your toe in the water. The best place to start is with the social media platform your customers prefer. Everyone from Facebook to TikTok has debuted social commerce shopping tools this year. Keep in mind that many of your customers start the purchase journey with their mobile phones, even if it ends at your physical door. Make it easy for them to take the purchase journey with you.

Connect with your customers directly

How many emails arrive in your inbox daily? Any major brand you do business with will try to connect to you through your inbox or some other direct line of communication like your address or phone number. The big brands know that developing an in-house database is essential. That’s why Bath and Body Works regularly collects your phone number or email address at the register, and Kroger encourages you to enter your phone number and rewards you with cheaper groceries when you do.

Social media platforms have their place, but every follower and connection you make through a third party is tenuous and fragile. The platform is both a bridge and a barrier between you and your customers. You are subject to the whims of an algorithm and ambiguous decisions about who should remain on the platform. Followers who want to see your Facebook posts and Instagram feed do not receive that information when the platform prioritizes other posts over yours. Use social media for awareness and as a research tool to engage and listen to customers, but be sure to encourage a direct line of communication with them off-platform.

Cultivating your own database means you can send messages at low or even no cost directly to people who have opted into hearing from you. Email is still highly effective if you segment your customer lists and focus on giving people what they want when they need it. For example, subscribers might want timely offers and deals or prefer insights, ideas, and tools that solve problems and improve their lives. When used well, email is personal and can move a relationship forward.

When Pure Michigan sends emails with blog posts about great destinations to visit in Michigan, readers may be aware that the stories are partner content from cities and attractions in the state. However, those readers still appreciate learning about great new places to visit they may not have considered before. Informative, engaging emails are likely to be shared or saved to be reread later. If you send an email to your readers that they like enough to share with others, you are doing something right.

Communicating through SMS or text puts time-sensitive information right into your customer’s hands. App notifications can help remind customers about loyalty programs, product releases, or service upgrades. The key with these two platforms is to provide value that makes being a connected customer feel like an insider. Insiders are people with particular benefits in exchange for sharing their contact information and consent with you.

Keep your customer’s trust by consistently offering value, not just a sales pitch. Text messaging is hard to ignore and will generate positive or negative emotions. You want the intrusion to be delightful or useful, not annoying. Timeliness is also key. Getting an appointment reminder from your massage therapist might be appreciated, but a random text from a car salesman you barely remember meeting while vehicle shopping a year ago is probably not going to be well received.

When was the last time a brand reached out to you by phone? It has probably been a long while, and you would probably be surprised to be the recipient of a personal phone call from a brand you care about. Suppose your small business has a few high-value customers. Could you personally invite those customers to a special event or ask their opinion of a new product or service you are developing? When have you called a customer to say “thank you for your business”? You might create a special group of clients you can contact first with your best offers. Big brands also use consumer panels and focus groups to conduct research.

You don’t have to be a big brand to do marketing well

Sure, deep pockets help, but as a small business, you are closer to your customer and likely have a more intimate relationship with them, which means you can gather information from them firsthand. Use those personal relationships to your advantage.

Big brands have to resort to polling larger pools of customers in high-dollar research studies. However, their big-spending is also helpful for small businesses. Studying the big brands and adapting what you can to your small business is easier than ever. In addition, the plethora of information available on the web makes trends easier to spot and case studies easy to come by.

If you are curious about using tools like augmented reality and live shopping, you will find all kinds of upstarts and platforms that bring these technologies to the smallest users. You no longer have to hire a developer to create complex, custom solutions to market your business. A middle school student has the mental acuity to create a drag-and-drop website in Wix, and a teen could easily set up an online shop in Square, though someone with experience is definitely going to be a better choice. The ease of creating websites and adopting new technology bodes well for even the most old-school business owner.

As long as you stay abreast of what is possible and remain committed to giving customers what they want from you, you can find the tools and the professionals to help market well. Start with one step that you believe will bring the greatest return and add new capabilities over time. You don’t need to reinvent your entire marketing strategy overnight, but you need to keep working on it as long as you are in business.

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