Successful small-business owners know that when it comes to the marketplace, change is the only constant they can count on. Perpetually shifting market and business trends require that you stay fast on your feet in order to remain in the running.
The “big guys” are constantly responding to changes, such as Subway, which recently introduced a new carved, healthier turkey option to meet consumer demand for healthier fast food options. But the good news is that small-business owners can react more quickly, says branding and marketing strategist Karen Leland, founder of Sterling Marketing Group and author of The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand.
“Today, shifts in technology, political climates, market preferences, etc. are a constant and should be the expected norm,” says Leland. “The good news for small businesses is that they are much better able to pivot and adapt than large corporations, because with just a handful of people, as opposed to thousands, small businesses can almost instantly react to the marketplace.”
Change in the marketplace is a given, agrees Charles Chehebar, executive vice president of Accessory Headquarters (AHQ). “We like to say that the market changes like the weather, and if you’re not properly geared to combat the weather, then you might catch a cold.”
When It Comes to Business Trends, Being Proactive Is Best
Given that change is inevitable, it’s the small-business owners who stay ahead of the curve and are proactive, rather than reactive, that do more than survive—they thrive. “Being a leader is preferable to being a follower,” says Chehebar. “In the business world it is imperative to be ahead of the curve with trends in order to keep your customers constantly coming back for newness and always wanting more.”
How a small business reacts to change will determine success, agrees Scott Moffitt, president and CEO of the financial planning firm, Summit Financial Group, Inc. and author of College and Retirement: You Can Do Both. “Being proactive or reactive will determine whether your company is a market leader or you are late to the party and fighting for remaining market share. While being an early adopter may at times have a longer gestation period before your target audience embraces, greater success will be had once they do embrace.”
Leland concurs. “Lagging in trends always puts a small business behind, because you end up playing ‘catch’ up and ‘me too,’ rather than being an industry leader. When a company waits until a loss of sales or clients forces them to make a change, they are always behind the eight ball. Not just financially, but emotionally. The mood in a small business that is struggling or trying to change with the times can be one of frustration and fear. As opposed to the mood of a company that is being proactive and future oriented, which is more hopeful and exciting.”
[pullquote alignment="center"]We are in business to serve the needs of others, and when we do so, we prosper. If we can anticipate needs and fulfill even the unstated wants and desires of consumers, we can command a premium.
—Joseph Michelli, CEO, The Michelli Experience [/pullquote]
Anticipate Needs and Desires
When a small-business owner manages to anticipate needs and desires and makes changes in response, doing so leads to “tremendous opportunities for increased consumer engagement and loyalty—even when you charge more,” says Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of the marketing and engagement company DXagency. “Starbucks has done a tremendous job introducing new, healthier food options, including yogurt, fruit and granola.”
It might be difficult to give up strategies and products that led to your success, but it’s imperative to do so when it’s clear that those offerings have run their course, believes Joseph Michelli, CEO of The Michelli Experience and author of seven books, including The Zappos Experience: 5 Principles to Inspire, Engage, and WOW.
“Remember that it’s not about you, it is always about your customer,” says Michelli. “We are in business to serve the needs of others, and when we do so, we prosper. If we can anticipate needs and fulfill even the unstated wants and desires of consumers, we can command a premium. Watching and listening for things your customers are likely to want is the key to innovating rather than following the herd. You have to also be willing to cut your losses and diversify your efforts so as not to get caught on the wrong side of a BIG bet.”
Stay True to Your Company Mission
One of the most effective ways companies can stay ahead of marketplace changes is to be clear about what they stand for, says Jackie Dryden, chief purpose architect of Savage Brands and author of Get Your Head Out of Your Bottom Line: And Build Your Brand on Purpose.
“Businesses that get out in front of changes are the ones that last, and one of the best ways to do this is to be clear about the company’s purpose,” says Dryden. “Taking a proactive stance that clearly states what the company stands for attracts customers who are interested in something greater than just sales transactions. When a business communicates its true purpose beyond making a profit, it will attract and retain loyal customers who are more impervious to trends and market conditions.”
Dryden points to the outdoor clothing company Patagonia and their 2012 message to customers to take back the holidays and focus on family and friends rather than gift giving. “When retailers across the country were releasing advertisements to convince people to buy more, Patagonia encouraged their customers to buy less. The company encourages sustainable behavior, and the customers love that about them. Not only do Patagonia’s customers trust the company, but many are also loyal, vocal advocates. People want to invest in brands that have values similar to their own.”
Identify Market Changes and Business Trends
Staying ahead of the trends so that you can react quickly requires that you identify market changes, and that means remaining interested and curious. “Look no farther than your own backyard to see the market trends,” says Leland. “Pay attention to what’s popular on social media, blogs, online publications, television, and listen to customer feedback.”
The pendulum has shifted and consumers are telling businesses everything they need to know to run a smart and efficient operation, says Pamela Herrmann and Patty Dominguez, co-creators of the marketing company CREATE Buzz. “Small businesses are closer to their customers than big national brands, and the customer insights you need are free online if you turn up your social listening skills,” says Herrmann and Dominguez. “Once you know which social media platforms customers use, it’s easy to track conversations and identify influencers and note their questions and frustrations so you can identify product and service gaps.”
Tips for Introducing New Offerings
Successfully introducing new offerings takes illustrating how the changes will benefit your customers, says Moffitt. “It cannot be about what it will do for the company financially. It has to be about why you are so excited to be able [to] enhance your clients’ experiences and why that has value for them. Increased price will not be an issue if the perception is that the value has increased.”
Cheheba agrees. “People in the know are always looking to be the trendsetters and not trend followers and will probably have no issue paying a bit more just to keep up with the latest style.”
Your most important task is to let your customers know you listen to their desires and needs, Leland says. “A ‘we heard you, and here is what we are doing about it’ response is the best jumping off point,” she says. “Focus on ways to share how a new idea will enhance a customer’s experience with the brand. When a brand is upfront and candid about why a product is being added or changed and how this move fits customer needs, there is a much better chance the move will resonate with customers.”
Beware of Trend Marketing
It’s easy to get caught on the bandwagon. “Customers are savvy and they see through attempts to play ‘me too’ just to boost sales,” says Dryden. “It’s much easier to attract customers with a new product that actually ‘fits’ what the brand stands for. A long-term strategy that keeps a brand aligned with its true purpose— the good it wants to contribute to the world— is much more effective. Companies that stay true to who they are and build their reputations from the inside out are the ones that usually lead the trends, not follow them. They are the bands that customers love and competitors envy.”
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