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There are plenty of case studies, agencies, and data out there to help large, behemoth retailers create their brand strategies, but small business branding? It’s a modern-day “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” for mom and pops who want to create brands that help build their businesses, regardless of its size.

In honor of the American Express Small Business Saturday(r), we take a look at five opportunities small retailers have to turn the tables on the big ones. Granted, it is easier for companies to build their brands when they have enough resources for Super Bowl ads, subway banners, and free shipping or severe discounts. So, how can small business branding help?

The answer here for small business is customer advocacy through both word of mouth and social media. Businesses have to go beyond meeting customer expectation to make word of mouth work. They have to find ways to surprise customers. They have to give them something positive to tell everyone. A robust social media program will also help customers share their good experiences online with friends and friends of friends, etc.

Five tools for small business branding

Fingerprint. More than just the size of budget size differentiates small from big retailers. Let’s start with competition. Not only do small businesses have to compete with other small businesses, but they also have to compete with the low prices and free shipping of and other online retailers.

Small businesses have to find something that only they can offer, a fingerprint if you will. Whether that’s white-glove customer service or bespoke products not available in mass production or distribution, small retailers have to find something that big retailers do not. It could also take the form of hot chocolate in the winter or lemonade in the summer. Maybe it’s even the reverse! Perhaps it’s free repairs or liberal exchange policies. For example, a local pet supply store once in my neighborhood (notice the operative word “once” here?), had a stringent and limited return policy. Until that affected me, I always went there over their online competition. My allegiance changed as did, apparently, a lot of others’. They closed.

Expertise. Cynicism runs rampant in our society today and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. It’s hard to know who is worthy of our trust and who is not. products may have thousands of thumbs up and hundreds of reviews, but how many people have a sneaking suspicion that many just aren’t legit?

A small retailer can build its brand by becoming a trusted expert in its category. Develop a level of trust with customers that is beyond reproach or suspicion. The owner of my local wine shop has this trait down pat. It’s not hard to imagine replicating that in other businesses. Most people will take advice from one person they know and trust more than thousands of people they’re not even certain actually exist.

Human connection. Large retailers have tools that small ones just never will: massive inventories, lower margins, and impressive technology infrastructures.

One of the best ways to take on an unfair playing field is to change the rules of the game and turn what might seem like a disadvantage into an advantage. The ability to connect with someone on a personal level is one such opportunity. For example, Macy’s may have the capability of thanking me for my purchase or offering me a discount on its homepage. They cannot, however, send me a personal greeting, call, or text from someone I know there. By developing real, personal relationships with customers, small retailers can turn the table a bit on the big ones.

Also, small retailers can leverage that human touch through events that can help create a sense of community: trunk sales, fashion shows, and demonstrations by experts.

A little more conversation. Despite the fact that there are thousands of real humans working at large retailers, it’s not always easy to find one to talk to. Here, too, small retailers can compete at a level larger ones cannot.

Give customers as many opportunities as you can to speak with a real human — particularly when there is a problem. It’s not enough just to have a human around when a problem does arise, he or she must face it head on with sincerity, humility, and appreciation.

  • Sincerity: be in the moment when speaking with customers, make them feel as if they are your only priority.
  • Humility: without going so far as to say that the customer is always right, do not get defensive. If there is a problem, focus on fixing it, no matter who was at fault.
  • Appreciation. Even if the conversations are difficult, thank the customer for them. The good news is that you don’t have to manufacture your gratitude. You really should be grateful! Remember, more people talk about bad experiences than good ones so solving problems before they are coffee talk is money well spent.

When it comes to small business branding, remember to always focus on what makes you, you, and not just another version of your competition.

— Douglas Spencer

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