6 ways local firms can compete with global brands

It's possible for small, local businesses to thrive in the shadow of big ones.

A second-generation Brisbane menswear retailer shows small, local businesses how to compete with global goliaths.

By David Harland

Mitchell Ogilvie has run his eponymous boutique in the luxury precinct of Brisbane's Edward Street for over 30 years, stocking high-end men’s fashion labels as well as offering customers a European-style tailoring “experience”.

Since opening in 1981, he has never wavered from the top end of the market and has more than held his own against competition from international brands such as Prada and Gucci.

According to Ogilvie, local business knowledge, a commitment to flexibility and innovation, as well as personalised customer service, has been vital.

Mitchell Ogilvie Menswear continues to rank among Australia’s top premium menswear retailers and is recognised as one of the Brisbane CBD’s greatest retail success stories – proving that it is possible for small-to-medium-size enterprises (SMEs) to protect their market niche against much larger competitors.

Here are six tips for success.Mitchell Ogilvie

Know your local market

Location, location, location. It’s true in business as well as real estate.

Larger companies might have the resources to do in-depth brand studies and market analyses, but they don’t have the boots-on-the-ground perspective of a smaller firm.

For example, through experience Ogilvie recognises that fashion in Queensland is about colour and excitement, whereas in Melbourne people tend towards darker shades. In other words, he has the advantage of being able to deeply understand his customers’ preferences, which in turn gives him an edge in satisfying the specific demands of the local market.

Despite the resources at their disposal, it is not uncommon for big firms to get micro-marketing wrong. Capitalising on local knowledge is one of the best ways for local firms to level the playing field.

A great example is Google, which emerged from a university dorm to beat technology giants Microsoft and Yahoo at their own game. How? By focusing on what its users wanted: more relevant search results.

Focus on the client

Customer service often gets short shrift, but it can be a huge differentiator in almost any industry.

By offering both off-the-rack and bespoke attire, Ogilvie gives clients options at multiple price entry points. However, whatever the garment purchased, the retailer also offers complimentary tailoring and alterations; free home and office delivery; and product specialists who can assemble sartorial packages to suit specific occasions.

Again, knowledge of local tastes not only serves to increase client satisfaction, but is used to build brand loyalty and generate repeat business.

“Thank God we decided to stay at the upper end of the market, as it’s been our saviour.”  Mitchell Ogilvie

Be market-responsive

Unlike their global competitors, small firms don’t usually have to answer to shareholders or a board of directors. This can mean greater manoeuvrability in terms of taking advantage of emerging opportunities and, equally, not necessarily being beholden to quarterly earnings and short-term profit projections.

In contrast, large firms must consider their entire market with every shift in strategy, new product, or change in services.

However, although small firms can more immediately respond to changes in their environment, they also need to stay close to customer needs and avoid making reactionary decisions.

“It probably took a good 10 years to build my credibility,” Ogilvie has said.

“The 1980s were about price: it was a time of sales and discounting at the expense of quality and the artisan. Particularly in the late 80s, when we were heading into a recession. We had to hold our nerve, protect our reputation and ride through it. Thank God we decided to stay at the upper end of the market, as it’s been our saviour.”

Innovate to stay relevant

A marker of long-term business success is the ability to continuously innovate.

Ogilvie constantly updates his brand by pushing the fashion envelope just enough to bring customers along at a pace with which they’re comfortable. If he moves too fast he risks alienating them; too slowly and the store might lose its reputation for quality and relevance.

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By keeping ahead of customers, small firms can offer leadership while staying in tune with their evolving needs. It’s an area where large companies can falter; they lose granularity and fail to adapt to what the market wants. Small firms that know their clients well can use this to uncover unmet needs and develop products and services in new ways.

Develop strategic partnerships

Strategic partnerships – a mutually beneficial business alliance between two firms – can give smaller firms an edge over larger companies, despite their superior marketing, product development and technology resources.

Organisations with a strategic partnership will almost certainly be better placed to not only retain the qualities that made them successful in the first place, but (depending on the nature of the business) to value-add by offering customers access to the tools, technology, brands and services more often associated with larger competitors.

This also applies to innovation; a great way to bring new products and services to market is to join forces with a related organisation.

Play to your strengths

Studies have repeatedly shown that small, locally-owned firms have an inherent advantage in terms of customer loyalty, and even the way their brands are perceived, over larger and frequently foreign-owned brands.

Qualities like family and/or local ownership, long-time loyalty to clients and proven commitment to customer satisfaction can create a powerful empathy within the local market. At every opportunity, reinforce these qualities to differentiate your brand from larger competitors, and to capitalise on the advantages you have.

Size doesn’t matter nearly as much as success, profitability and longevity. Small firms can successfully compete with global competitors by carving out a niche and making the most of their strengths.

By staying connected to customers, being nimble and building strategic partnerships, they can even up the playing field and continue to dominate their local market.

David HarlandDavid Harland CPA is managing director of FINH, an organisation that specialises in the provision of advice to family groups in business across the Asia-Pacific region.