It is often said that success leaves clues. So there’s a lot of merit in small businesses trying to learn from brands like Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola. However, many of the lessons are not applicable.
This article is addressing two questions: What can small businesses learn from these iconic brands? How can small businesses make the best of the constraints that come with their size?
Fame vs. Intimacy
Given their marketing budgets, big corporations are able to hire the best agencies to craft brilliant advertising campaigns that people feel compelled to talk about and share with others. The quality and ubiquity of those campaigns help big brands achieve a level of fame that creates familiarity and keeps the brand top of mind when the time comes for customers to buy. But fame doesn’t always yield intimacy because, in many cases, people buy popular brands to fit in or raise their social currency.
Without the kind of budget that big companies have, small businesses have to focus on creating deeper and more meaningful relationships with those they seek to serve. To win, small businesses have to do things that would be difficult and some even impossible to do if they were serving thousands or millions of customers, like a handwritten ‘thank you’ note to customers after every purchase.
Long Term vs. Short Term Thinking
To build a brand requires that you create a connection with your audience, often long before they are ready to buy. And that is hard to achieve when all you do is sell to them, especially when they don’t want what you are selling-- yet. This is why brands like Nike often run ad campaigns that say nothing about product features but instead tell compelling stories about heroism, sacrifice or bravery. The goal of those ads isn’t to sell you a product-- at least not directly-- but to inspire you and build an emotional connection with you.
In their groundbreaking report, The Long and Short of it, Les Binet and Peter Field found that direct marketing activities (promotions, sales, free trials, etc.) are very good at driving sales in the short term, but that the success of those short spikes in sales can’t deliver long term results the same way brand activations do (educating, inspiring or entertaining customers). They even went further in recommending that the split between direct marketing and branding efforts should be 60/40 in favor of brand activations. Small businesses should try to achieve a 50/50 split, or at least 60/40 in favor of short term activations.
Serendipity vs. Standardization
To function effectively, large corporations rely on systems and processes, unlike small businesses that often rely on serendipity and individual talent or commitment. In many ways, people buy brands because they are predictable, and therefore safe. We know exactly what to expect from McDonald's. Every time. And that kind of consistency and reliability is only achievable through systems and processes.
Systems and processes are easier to put in place and to oversee when you are only dealing with a handful of employees. However, they are impossible to build if you are not clear about the kind of experience you want every customer to have or the work environment you need to build to attract and retain the type of employees you want. It starts with having a clear core ideology (beliefs, values, purpose, mission and vision). Next, the challenge is to operationalize the company’s beliefs and values and use them as filters for everything the company says and does.
It’s undeniable that small businesses have a lot to learn from big companies, but it’s equally important that they embrace the creativity that comes with constraints. There are things that only small businesses can do, precisely because of their size. Double down on those.