Small business owners are ambitious. You want to capture as many sales as you can — and want to build a brand that will get you there. You drool with envy at big businesses like Apple or Nike who can rally their "tribes" with ease when they introduce new offerings.
Wouldn't it be great, sigh, if you I could just launch and the masses come running, Twitter lights up like a house on fire, and the launch video I created with my Flip camera and my dog goes viral?
This is what I love about creating brand strategies for small businesses. They are hungry and they are "biased towards action," as an old manager of mine used to say. That's exciting.
What becomes less exciting is being the headmistress forcing them to walk before they can run. That kind of brand loyalty can't be "created" overnight. It's not about slick ads or cool logos. It's not about how many hits you have on YouTube or the catchiness of your tagline. Brand runs deeper. It's the core and the essence of who you are, what value you provide and to whom you provide it. Good branding starts with crafting a strong brand strategy first that addresses three dimensions:
- Visually: What do you look like?
- Verbally: What do you sound like?
- Experientially: What does doing business with you actually feel like?
Building your loyal tribe means communicating a clear and consistent message across every single customer touchpoint. It means walking your talk and proving yourself over time.
Seth Godin has talked in the past about building tribes. In a 2009 video, he explains that in order to create this zealous following, you need to be specific versus general. That translates to, "You can't be all things to all people." I advise small business clients to create a persona of their ideal customer — not average, but ideal — so they have an actual living, breathing person in mind to which to direct all their brand communications. If they target a few types of customers, then it is okay to create two or three personas, but a small business with a small marketing budget can't afford to market effectively to 20 different audience types. They are better off directing their precious time and resources to really "going deep" and connecting effectively with two or three.
Some small business owners, scared that this means turning down money, refuse to target an "ideal" customer. "But what if someone outside of that ideal wants to buy from me? And someone from this random demographic bought from me once, so we should do a whole marketing campaign for them."
Hold on. Creating a brand that targets an ideal customer does not mean you create a checklist and turn non-ideal customers away like a nightclub bouncer. If someone wants to buy from you who you didn't intend to attract, then you can still sell to them. It's not about who you will sell to; it's about where you will proactively focus your marketing time and effort.
It's like Nordstrom and Walmart. At the very basic level, both companies are retail shops that "sell things to consumers." But Nordstrom goes after a higher-end customer with a quality and customer service brand promise. Walmart goes after a customer for whom low-prices and convenience matter most. Does this mean Walmart is "rude" to their customers? No. It just means they know who they are and who they are targeting, and they don't try to attract everyone in the retail market spectrum. It doesn't mean someone who shops at Nordstrom won't pop into Walmart every now and then for something when the need arises. It just means Walmart is not necessarily spending time and money making a brand promise that speaks to people who care more about high-end customer service and less about price.
Think about your authentic brand: Are you set up to deliver what you promise? And for whom does that promise matter the most? Then use your imagination and market knowledge to build an ideal customer persona so you know who you are talking to:
- Give them a name, an age, an occupation. What are their demographics? What is their household income, where do they live?
- Walk through their day. Where do they work? Do they commute to work? If so, by what means?
- What is their family life like? Do they have one?
- What do they do in their spare time or for fun? Do they like team sports, or solitary activities? Are they foodies or do they mostly just grab fast food?
- What magazines do they read? Where do they get their news and information? Or do they just care about entertainment? If so, what do they watch on TV or what films do they like? Are they active Internet users or strictly offline?
- What groups or associations do they belong to? Could these be places you could join to network with your ideal customers or groups you can partner with to do events or presentations and reach these folks?
Once you create this one- or two-page profile, you can start to see what their life is like — and what problem your products or services might be able to solve. You can then speak about benefits in words they care about. You can also find creative ways to market to them that you may never have thought about. More importantly, this can help you avoid bad investments on marketing activities that seem amazing on the surface but that will never attract this target customer.
Again, this is not a checklist. If others get caught in this net and are attracted to your brand, then great. Something about your message must resonate with their lifestyle or needs and, therefore, they can be great tribe members. What you want, though, is a brand that connects with a target person, not just a generic, average composite of someone who doesn't exist in real life.
Once you start focusing on an ideal customer, you will be speaking their language and they will care more about what have to say and sell. Quality is what makes a tribe successful for your business and brand — not just quantity.
Maria Ross is the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a branding and marketing consultancy based in Seattle. She has advised start-ups, solopreneurs, non-profits and even large enterprises such as Microsoft, Discovery Networks and Monster.com on how to craft their brand story to engage, inform and delight customers. Maria is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (2010, Norlights Press).