On a railroad platform in a busy mining town stood a man with a bundle of leaflets in his hand. In front of him were three couriers for hire.
The man said to the couriers, "In the right hands, these notes can make me a lot of money. How will you distribute them?"
The first courier said, "Give them to me. I will hand your message to every passenger on the first three trains."
The second courier said, "Don't listen to him. Give them to me. I will hand them only to the wealthiest passengers on all seven trains."
The third courier paused, then said, "I won't hand that message to anyone."
"Why not?" asked the man.
"Because," said the third courier, "your note reads, 'This is a stick-up.'"
If you're like most independent small business owners, promoting your business is an uphill struggle. You want to get your message out and build your customer base, but your budget is limited. You're competing with dozens—if not hundreds—of other entrepreneurs just like yourself, and it seems like all of them are advertising more than you are. Marketing and advertising consultants are always trying to win your business and carry your brand message to the public. Some are obsessed with broadcasting your message to the largest possible audience, while others are focused on targeting your message to only the right individuals.
But in my experience, most marketers tend to ignore the white elephant in the room, which is the message itself. Well, I'm not most marketers, so I'm going to come right out and ask the question: What if your message sucks?
Did that sting a bit? Good. Help yourself to some ointment, and read on.
Don't get me wrong. As critical as my words might seem, I love small businesses. In fact, I've made it my personal mission to help small business owners look and feel more professional. My point is this: the best advertising and publicity campaigns are built around a solid, well-crafted brand message. If you don't put some care into developing your brand identity, your advertising efforts will be ineffective.
When I consult with a small business, whether it's to design a logo and identity package, or to create a flyer, or to write a press release, I come to the table with three simple questions:
I expect the business owner or marketing manager to come to the table with clear, concise answers. The answers to these questions are the bedrock upon which a successful brand message is built. If a client doesn't have compelling answers, then there's little I or any consultant can do to promote the business.
Whether you're just getting started or seeking to expand, take some time with these questions. Think very critically about your business, your product or service, your philosophy.
I hate to break it to you, but everyone has the lowest prices and the biggest selection. Try again. What sets you apart from your competition? Anything special you offer the customer—free delivery, weekend hours, a specific area of expertise—helps to mold your brand identity. Make your unique defining characteristics central to your message.
We all know that word of mouth is the most powerful form of advertising. If you treat your customers well, they will patronize you again, and they will tell their friends about your business. Of course, in order to turn consumers into customers in the first place, the onus is on you to communicate your core values to the public. Do you maintain a higher standard of quality for materials or ingredients than the government requires for your industry? Weave this into your brand narrative. The same goes for your recruitment strategy. If you pride yourself on earning narrower margins to pay higher wages or provide better insurance, these values should be a part of your identity so you can attract top talent.
One of the biggest advantages a small business has over any large corporation is its humanity, a sense of intimacy, a connection to the customer. Ironically, I've watched small businesses go broke trying to compete on price and selection, while mega corporations succeed by humanizing themselves to the consumer. In this modern era of consumer advocacy and awareness, the most powerful brands all stand for something greater than the bottom line, or so they tell us. Nike stands for motivation and empowerment. Apple stands for style. Harley-Davidson stands for freedom and rugged individualism. As a small business owner, you also need to let your humanity show. Everyone cares about something; everyone has a cause. What's your cause? It doesn't have to be political, or even profound; just stand for something. Anchor your brand message to your cause, build a strong association between the two.
Those are my three simple questions. The answers may not be so simple. But if you want to build a successful small business (or something larger), you will give them serious thought before you spend another dime on advertising. Come up with some heartfelt answers, and commit yourself every single day to making those answers evident to the customer, both in your communications and in your business practices. This is branding. It isn't just for big businesses. It's for good businesses.
TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: TJ@TJBCreative.com.