Expert Byron Sharp knows exactly what works and what fails in marketing a small business.
One of the world’s leading marketing experts has some good news for small business: keeping it simple is the best way to succeed.
Byron Sharp, who heads the world’s largest centre for research into marketing – the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia – spends his days talking with the headquarters of some of the world’s best-known brands.
He is also the author of the best-selling How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, a book that shook up the marketing world globally when it was published five years ago.
Sharp has seen marketing mistakes aplenty, and most revolve around marketers following the latest trend or making unnecessary changes to a product’s branding.
According to this expert, small businesses need to focus their limited resources to get the biggest return. And the best way to do that, says Sharp, is to go back to basics.
1. Focus on becoming famous
“A lot of small businesses think a large chunk of their job is to tell the world why they should buy from them,” says Sharp. But the biggest battle for small businesses, especially those starting out, is “no one has ever heard of them”.
“They’re tiny and it’s a whopping big world out there and it’s very busy and everyone is spending all their money quite happily already, without giving it to them.”
Small businesses should constantly strive to be better known.
“Look at everything in the marketing area in terms of ‘how much will we reach people who don’t know about us at the moment?’” advises Sharp.
“A lot of small businesses fail to grow because they aren’t so single-minded on this. They’re much more about thinking about convincing a few people, rather than reaching many and doing it over and over and over.
“Once people hear of you they’ll work out for themselves whether you’ve got something that is good. The biggest problem is people don’t know who you are and they don’t know how to buy from you. They don’t know what you sell. Or they did know you, but that was last Tuesday and life just got in the way.”
2. Work out your “distinctive asset” and stick to it
Understanding what your customers associate with your brand – what Sharp calls “distinctive assets” – will help you protect it.
It could be colours, shapes, packaging, your retail building, your brand name or even your country of origin.
“Looking like ‘you’ is really important because if you change or you don’t always look the same way, that just makes it really hard for people to remember you,” says Sharp.
Businesses regularly err by changing the wrong parts of a product, label or branding, and unintentionally make themselves invisible to customers, says Sharp.
Researching what your distinctive assets are is straightforward.
“It’s pretty simple research because you’re just going out and surveying people,” says Sharp.
“Take some de-branded colours – yours and some competitors, for example, and put them down and say ‘tell me, which brands are these?’ See what it is that they use to recognise you.”
A distinctive asset can sometimes be an unexpected element.
“At the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute one of the things people think about us is we’re Australian,” explains Sharp.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with what we offer as a service to them, but of course they think of us as Australian because we speak funny and we come from the other side of the planet, so it is something very distinctive that they remember about us.
“So whenever we do our annual report I always say ‘make sure the sky is very blue’ and I like to have a beach in it if we can.”
“Looking like ‘you’ is really important because if you change or you don’t always look the same way, that just makes it really hard for people to remember you”
For a small business, that “distinct asset” could be the staff customers see regularly or even the shop a retail business operates from.
If that’s the case, says Sharp, feature pictures of the staff in communications, or show your retail store in marketing materials.
3. Be selective about social media tools
A big problem for small businesses, says Sharp, is that they often jump at things that are seemingly low-cost – social media, for example.
“Where small businesses get clobbered is they are very attracted to things that they think look free but are not terribly effective, and are going to gobble up lots of their time and staff time and distract them from the things they are good at doing,” says Sharp.
“A lot of times in business we even get bullied into things. Someone says ‘Oh everyone is talking about Twitter now. Has our company got a Twitter account? We’d better have one of those.’
“People often aren’t brave enough to just ignore that.”
Using social media as a free engagement tool rather than for advertising can be a trap, says Sharp.
“They end up engaging just with the same customers over and over and over, and it’s not a great growth thing,” he warns.
It’s about selecting the right tool for the business depending on its product or service and the customers it is trying to reach.
“If you’re selling something specialist like hand-painted Russian dolls, you’re selling to collectors all around the world so some social media can be really useful because you can find people who are interested in that obscure product that you’re selling,” says Sharp.
4. Competitions? Loyalty programs? Don’t do it.
Sharp is cool on marketing fads, including loyalty programs, which he argues rarely work.
“Quite bluntly I would advise ‘stay away from it’. Stay away from things like competitions, too. Again, who is going to join those?
“If people ruthlessly think about reach and particularly reaching people who know nothing about them or don’t know how to buy from them or haven’t bought from them in the past, these decisions become much clearer.”