Why would I be writing about small business marketing, all of the sudden? Don’t I write fiction full time now? Sure, I was an award-winning creative and had studio, suit and executive experience with small and large clients, in small and large agencies, all over the globe, for twenty years, but I gave all that up to explore space, fight navy seals and catch serial killers.
Why bother with it? Why am I doing this?
Well, because I am annoyed, that’s why. Because I know what it is like to start and run a small business, and I resented seeing a never ending stream of nonsense ads by marketing gurus, advertising savants, entrepreneurial coaches, success consultants and similar charlatans selling all kinds of nonsense advice and programmes to people who actually work for a living – plus who have to worry about paying salaries every month.
Back in the old days, it was costly to run ads. That was at least a barrier to entry. To put a course, book or fifteen easy steps PDF in front of you, someone at least had to mean it. Now the whole advertising world has been ‘democratized’ – which means anyone who can turn on a computer can now have a platform that reaches right into your browsing. Social media has provided people with nothing interesting, real or truthful to say ample opportunity to say it anyway… and to charge people money for it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of lifelong learning. Take a course. Read a couple of books every year, at least.
But it’s gone beyond that. Some prick without pedigree on YouTube can force his way into your life, posing next to a fancy car he rented for the occasion to convince you he is successful, and that’s why you should part with $45, 150, 2500 – because he’s here to show you how its done and he will save your business.
You know what?
Put your wallet away. A YouTuber won’t teach you anything of value. You can tell by the pornographic way they frame success. You can tell by the affected arrogance, and the presumptive way they strut around like they understand some secret that the rest of us are all just too stupid to get.
He will take your money and he might give you one or two cute tricks, or a framework, or some confidence. But he will waste your time and your money, and that I can 100% 98 day guarantee.
Stop. Chill. Read around a bit. Listen to a variety of voices, provided they are free. Find some good books and invest in those if you absolutely want to spend your way into confidence. Fine. But I’ll also give you some food for thought from a long and successful career in this stuff, with some of the biggest names in the industry, completely FREE. And not as part of some long tail funnel to eventually sell you something down the line ‘in exchange for value now’ (you can tell I’ve seen as many of the pitches as you have, can’t you?). Nope. Because I no longer sell this stuff. It’s free now and free forever. If you want to give me money, buy my novels.
I do this only with the sincere hope that all those cheesy, arrogant, annoying, cliched guru types can vanish into oblivion and stop interrupting my viewing, browsing or feeds. That’s what’s in it for me.
What’s in it for you? One take – an educated and experienced take, a no-nonsense take, a not-trying to sell you anything take – on marketing and advertising so that a small business person can both understand it and apply it. And grow their business, and make some waves, and do something amazing, and change the world.
The biggest secret in marketing is that there are no secrets. A great deal of it is common sense, once you can silence the charlatans and just take a deep breath and give yourself some space to think about stuff. Some management tricks and frameworks have arisen over the course of a few decades, some of it useful and interesting, some of it not.
Very often – the good tricks and theories are reserved for clients with big budgets. You can get a quick logo done on a freelance website. It’ll cost you five bucks, and it will look like one buck, which is to say, it will suck.
But if you spent $100 000 on the logo – they will apply more of the thinking and the tricks and the theories. There will be some deep thinking around the name of your brand, and the logo, and the font, and the colours, and the look and feel.
My task with these marketing articles will be to give you enough food for thought so they at least can’t take you for a ride. And to think about all these marketing things, and know some of the tricks and theories that could be useful in your business, to your business.
So with all that, I’d like to jump into something the big guys call ‘Positioning‘ – and why small business can really benefit from spending some time thinking about it, and clarifying it to themselves.
A car is a car is a car. It has wheels and four doors. Yet there is a difference between a Volvo and a BMW – and it is not necessarily immediately apparent what those differences are – or what they are based on.
The brands are different, sure (we’ll talk about branding next time). The logos are different, the advertising slogans. But also more, well, real things: the metals used. The exact paint colours. The tech in the engines.
What makes a BMW a BMW and a Volvo a Volvo has to do with an entire package of things that include the real, the cerebral and the emotional.
Ditto with any product or service out there.
Consider the difference in, say, the Daily Mail and The Guardian. Intrinsic differences… one is black and blue, one black and red. Fonts. Paper thickness. Websites. Price. Then the branding differences, the meaning emotionally assigned and the symbolism used to distinguish one from the other… But before the propaganda of brand is even started with, there is a space after the intrinsic differences but before the purely advertised differences. It is pitched differently.
In any business with competitors – each player occupies a territory in the headspace of potential customers. You may often see positioning visualised on a chart that includes an X and Y axis. Say, QUALITY and PERFORMANCE. The BMW sits high on both, but it is more about PERFORMANCE. Volvo, also high in both, sits higher on the Quality perhaps. Add SAFETY instead of Quality, and you know exactly ‘where Volvo sits’.
Your business takes up terrain in people’s headspace. The more rationally and authentically you can uncover that terrain, and the more deliberately you really think about it, the more you can entrench or alter the position it occupies.
Marketing is often very fluffy… (find your why/people buy for emotional reasons/etc,etc). Positioning is the one area that is quite logical.
THE RATIONAL BASIS FOR YOUR MARKETING
One exceptional book you can read about positioning would be Andy Cunningham’s “Get To Aha”. She cautions against the tendency of business handing over their positioning work to some creatives, who go up to some secret and arcane mountain, smoke things, and then come back and announce the company positioning with a loud TA-DA!
Rather, she advocates that uncovering positioning is less TA-DA and more A-HA! – and that its work is best done by the company itself, or with the controlled assistance of creatives if the company isn’t strong in marketing.
Positioning is an expression of the unique role and relevance of a company, or product, within a competitive market. It is different from branding in that branding is emotional, and includes symbols and pictures and colours. Positioning should precede any attempt at branding.
FLAVOURS DU JOUR
In management science and marketing, as in textiles, fashions come and go. Some good things remain, timeless classics that can be trusted. Other things are fickle as pie batter. Outdated fashions reveal themselves when they become clichés. Some are already clichés when they are very fashionable.
The easiest way to avoid falling into a trendy trap that won’t last is to resolve to ONLY be authentic.
How many companies wrote mission, vision and values statements? How many of them actually had those missions, actually aimed at those visions, and actually had those values? 50%? 20? Less? If you don’t know why you are doing something, or if it feels belaboured and inauthentic, you are more likely than not wasting your time.
If I am a business on a mission, and I state that mission, it will ring true. If I am a business not on a mission but forced to write one down by some Diversity Consultant on a power trip – it will sound like an awkward segment from ‘The Office’.
Say I am a Family business with strong values based in my religion. If I articulate those biblical principles I run according to as part of a value statement, it will ring true. It will ring true even to anti-family atheist single people with no respect for my religion. They will pick up on my sincerity even if they disagree with everything I say. And that’s the key to positioning work, and also the reason the heavy lifting can’t possibly be outsourced to consultants. It has to be authentic.
Stress less about fitting some textbook definition of what positioning should look like, and just spend some time asking yourself some questions about your business. The aim is to ‘know where you stand’ as an enterprise. Cunningham says that every company is either a Mother, a Mechanic or a Missionary – that is, customer-oriented, product-oriented or concept-oriented. Which one are you?
- What are you, at your core?
- In what category do you play, and who are your competitors?
- How are you different from your competitors? Right now and how you’d like to be?
- What makes you different from anyone else – or – what need do your customers have that you satisfy better or differently from any competitor?
- What five things do you really, actually value?
- What part of the market do you serve?
- How do you serve that part of the market differently?
- What strategic advantages do you have?
By asking yourself questions like this, and perhaps reading a book or two and a few articles about positioning – your business will become authentic and clear to you, in your own head. Once you have that clarity, branding can be used to communicate it to your employees, your customers and the marketplace. Without authentic clarity, your branding and communications budget will be wasted.
A good positioning will provide those exposed to it with a clear sense of where the business sits in the bigger scheme of its market. It will narrow the focus of the business, so that it doesn’t waste energy trying to be all things to all people, but to specialise in being exceptional at very specific things. It will determine how a business is pitched at the market, what its strong points are, what value it offers its customers.
You don’t need to workshop it. You don’t need a graph or a chart or a worksheet. All you need to do is take some time to think about it. Jot down your thoughts. Use a worksheet if it helps, or a powerpoint. The tools of marketing are almost universally interchangeable. The important thing is to think about things as they really are, from the point of view of you, the employee, and the customer.
And then to incrementally make it more attractive to everyone.
Whether you make cars, or publish propaganda, or do teeth, or hairdo’s, or sell food, or handle divorces, or transport kids, or sew uniforms – it helps to be very clear about what you are, where your focus lies and how you help people. Get clear on that, and about 50% of your marketing work is done. Don’t do that, and you’ll never land anything 100%.