Highly effective marketing is a make-or-break necessity for most small businesses. It's really impossible for you to be successful without good marketing and sales techniques—that's what brings the dollars in the door. Marketing is more than simply letting people know about your products or services. First, you need to know who your customers are. You need to get so close to them that you can anticipate their needs and desires. You need to be able to communicate to them exactly why they need what your business can provide. And, then you have to reach them with that message.
Our discussion here is intended to introduce you to some of the concepts and strategies that professional marketing experts in large companies use and show you how they can be adapted to help your small business thrive, beginning with an overview of marketing and continuing through the following:
- How to analyze the market environment. You must not only know your product, you must be aware of the competitive environment and cultural trends to assess your business's place in the market.
- Understanding market research. Market research is not just for large companies. There are many research techniques that you can adapt to fit your needs and budget.
- Product development must be an ongoing, intentional process. Your business must develop and refine products or services that meet customers' needs, even before the first sale.
- Packaging and pricing your product. How you present and package your business' offerings is crucial to your company's success.
- Choosing effective distribution methods. In a tough economy, effectively getting your product or service to your customers can mean the difference between success and failure.
- Advertising to build your customer base. While it's unlikely you'll be bidding on a Super Bowl ad slot, you need to focus on promoting and advertising in order to reach your target market. And, small businesses need to be creative in the use of public relations to reach potential customers.
- Building a successful marketing plan to drive long-term success. To succeed, you need to know where you are going. A marketing plan pulls all the elements of building shows you how to put it all together into a cohesive planning document that will become your blueprint to marketing success.
What do we mean by "marketing?" To many time-starved business owners, marketing means two things: advertising and selling. However, ultimately you'll be more successful if you step back and look at the "big picture" by taking the time to thoughtfully analyze your products or services and your business as a whole in relation to your competition, your customers, and to societal and regional trends and conditions.
The key to successful marketing is answering the following question for your business: How will you communicate a meaningful difference about your business idea (product or service) to the people who might be most interested in buying it?
There are five questions that should be answered for every business:
- What's unique about your business idea?
- Who are your target customers? Who buys your product or service now, and who do you really want to sell to?
- Who are your competitors? As a small business, can you effectively compete in your chosen market?
- What positioning message do you want to communicate to your target buyers? How can you position your business or product to let people know they are special, in ways that are important to these buyers?
- What's your distribution strategy? How will you get your product or service in the hands of your customers? Often your distribution method will provide an additional marketing channel, or give you the opportunity to promote more products as you provide the first one.
What's Your Unique Business Idea?
Intuitively, or based on sound research, you believe your business will succeed because you are doing something different from some or all of your competitors. The first test of any business, small or large, is its uniqueness when compared to its competitors.
Now, that doesn't mean you can't borrow a good idea from some other company and build a successful business around it. For example, every town needs a certain number of dry cleaning operations, and most of them look very much alike. However, if you examine the more successful dry cleaners in your area, you'll notice that each one tends to emphasize and promote something special. It may be lower prices, faster service, better cleaning, a drive-up window, or more frequent coupons in the local shopping news.
Some of these business owners undoubtedly borrowed their ideas from other companies they've dealt with, or promotions they many have noticed when traveling in other cities. The point is, successful businesses find ways to make their products or services stand out from the crowd, or at least the crowd in their immediate geographic area.
If your business provides a product, sources of uniqueness can range from pricing, packaging, distribution method, or feature differences, to the mere perception of a difference that may or may not exist. For example, granulated white sugar is difficult to differentiate from one supplier to another except in pricing, packaging, or amount of advertising. But white sugar substitutes like aspartame (e.g., "Nutrasweet brand") or saccharine (e.g., Sweet 'n Low brand) have important product feature and benefit differences that help determine consumer purchase decisions.
Define Your Unique Selling Proposition
In order to successfully market itself, every business owner needs to focus on what's special and different about his or her business. The best way to do this is to try to express this uniqueness in a single statement. If you cannot concisely describe the uniqueness of your idea (and create some excitement in potential users), you may not have the basis for a successful business.
Rosser Reeves, a pioneer of television advertising, was the author of the phrase, "unique selling proposition," or USP, which is a unique message about itself versus the competition that each business or brand should develop and use consistently in its advertising and promotion. By USP we don't necessarily mean a slogan or a phrase that will appear in your advertising, although that's one possible use for it. However, at this point we're focusing on its usefulness as a tool to help you focus on what your business is all about.
There are several questions to ask about your business to determine a USP:
- What is unique about your business or brand vs. direct competitors? You'll probably find a whole list of things that set you apart; the next questions will help you decide which of these to focus on.
- Which of these factors are most important to the buyers and end users of your business or brand?
- Which of these factors are not easily imitated by competitors?
- Which of these factors can be easily communicated and understood by buyers or end users?
- Can you construct a memorable message of these unique, meaningful qualities about your business or brand?
- Finally, how will you communicate this message to buyers and end users? Marketing tools to communicate USPs include media advertising, promotion programs (e.g., direct mail), packaging, and sales personnel.
For examples of USPs, think about different brands of products you've seen advertised on TV. What's the main message underlying the ad? Different brands and types of products utilize different primary themes, attributes, or ideas associated with each brand.
For example, cigarette, liquor, and perfume advertising tends to sell brands based on emotional, "borrowed values," instead of strictly product features. Users are encouraged to fantasize that they may accrue the "benefits" of sex appeal or a more satisfying/fun lifestyle, perhaps portrayed by the famous or beautiful spokespersons for a particular brand. However, products like medicinal brands (e.g., cough and cold products) work hard at identifying and promoting unique features that will provide more relief faster than competitors. For these types of products, the way the product works is the most meaningful factor for customers.
It is important to focus on the "unique" in USP. For example, if you provide free delivery service because no one else in town is doing so, you've constructed a USP based on service that you provide. However, if you offer free delivery service because everyone else in town does and you need to provide it simply to keep up with the competition, it's not something that sets you apart and should not be the focus of your USP.
Do Customers Value Your Uniqueness?
One of the quickest ways to fail in business is to market a product or service that hardly anyone wants, needs, or understands. Find out if there is a real need for your idea. To see if there is a real need for what you want to provide, ask these three questions:
- Who are the people willing to pay for it?
- How many people will pay for it?
- How much will they pay?
Ideally, you should always research and test your idea against the realities of the marketplace. Many business owners have tested their ideas by working as employees in their industry for a number of years and have seen firsthand what works and what doesn't. But even well-seasoned industry experts can benefit from analyzing the market environment in a way that will help to evaluate the potential of an idea.
If you are just starting out and are not sure of what business to look into, look for anomalies in the marketplace that you can capitalize on (preferably something that you know about and are interested in). Webster's Dictionary defines anomaly as, "departure from the...usual method; abnormality," in other words, something out of the ordinary.
In marketing terms, an "anomaly" is an unsatisfied need that you can make a profit from.
Before Federal Express came into being, a great number of business people wished there were an affordable way to send important packages and documents overnight. However, the tremendous startup costs (over $500 million) and logistics problems (coordinating a national fleet of trucks and planes to start business on the first day) made it seem an impossible dream until Federal Express showed the world how to do it. The "anomaly" was the great unsatisfied need for overnight package delivery that everyone thought was impossible to do.
In order to be able to accurately determine whether your business idea has enough appeal to a sufficient number of customers, you'll have to become very aware of who your target buyers are.