With 7 billion people in the world, it can be a daunting task to stand out from the crowd. While we like to think we are unique, so does everyone else…right? No less apparent in the business world, it can be difficult to differentiate between similar businesses. So, what makes one bug exterminator, or plumber, or dentist different from all the others in your city? What distinguishes your branding from your competitors?
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In an earlier post, “Forgetting that small can be BIG”, I reviewed one of the branding mistakes discussed in an iStock Hangout entitled Top 5 Small Business Branding Mistakes (full video below). Today, we will focus on another common mistake made by small or micro-businesses: Blending in with the crowd. Here are a few common problems afflicting small business owners who are just getting started, and more importantly, ways to solve them.
Problem #1: Business owners think more about the category than they do about the brand
For example, a bookstore uses canned stock photos of books on their brochure. Yes, it communicates that they are a bookstore, but it doesn’t do anything to differentiate themselves from the bookstore down the street. This is why it is important for your marketing materials to promote YOU, not “you and others like you.” Pictures of books are okay, but it needs to be more than that.
Take your marketing materials/website and those of others in your industry. Cover up the logo/name and see if you can identify the businesses. Think about what is distinctive about them that allows you to still identify them. Is it:
The subjects of the images?
A particular theme?
A particular tone of voice?
What can you learn from this exercise that you can apply to your own marketing?
Advice from the video:
Use images that have a twist that communicate your benefits, but maybe not in the way that people are expecting. Take the bookstore, for example. Instead of just using stock photos of books, you might have a bespectacled cat reading a book or sprawled out over the pages of a book. The image communicates the benefit of getting lost in a book, but in a cute, endearing, inviting and unexpected way.
Have a fresh tone of voice. As a small business, you don’t have to go through levels of bureaucratic approval, you have the freedom to express your business through creative marketing. Whether you want to convey humor, or intellect, or charm, or grit—let your voice be a reflection of YOU, not your competitors.
Think outside the category. What if one of your favorite brands (Apple, Starbucks, Geico) took over your marketing? What would they do? Don’t be limited to what others in your category are doing. Let your own ideals, values and objectives guide your decisions in creative ways that help you stand out.
Problem #2: Business owners fall into one of three traps
They Stop Trying—Sometimes it feels futile to try and stand out. “Branding” is some ambiguous high-falutin’ thing you don’t think you need or want to invest time and money in. Well, if you’re not going to bother with it, why should anyone bother with you? People want to be enticed by your business, which is initiated through your branding.
They Try Too Hard—Your audience is smart and will recognize branding that seems unnatural, forced, or even unethical (making false claims that sound great, but can’t be proven, or that you don’t intend to back up). Attention hogs will do or say anything for attention, but don’t realize they are sabotaging their own efforts.
They Are Oblivious—thinking they already do stand out, when they really don’t. Because you won’t even know if you fall into this category, it might be helpful to seek the advice of a professional—just to be sure!
Don’t give up, and don’t be an attention hog. Do this instead:
Identify what you do well. If it’s something generic, pick it apart until you can find a nuance that is specific enough for someone to remember. It’s the difference between “Customer Service” vs “Resolution in 15 minutes, guaranteed.”
If there are multiple things you can identify, package them together. Create a combination of skills/features/benefits that are unique and marketable together. The whole is stronger than the part.
Determine how your competition holds up against your strength. If they offer a resolution in 10 minutes (as opposed to your 15), then that’s not something you want to highlight after all. Find something else.
Consider not just skillsets, products, or services. Think about your business personality. What personality traits would be appropriate to describe your business – cheerful, patient, authoritative? How can that be combined with the strength you already identified to make it more unique?
Build this identifier (your unique selling proposition) into your marketing in creative and consistent ways. This is really what gives your marketing strategy legs to stand on. Otherwise, your marketing pieces will be generic and could be easily confused with others in your category.
Be authentic. This is crucially important. Your brand should be natural and apparent. Don’t try to create an image of something that you’re not. There’s a difference between telling somebody you’re really funny, and making them really laugh at your joke.
Yes, branding is an investment.
If you want to stand out from the crowd, you will need to invest time, thought, effort and money into your branding. While this may sound like a lot to take on, the success and growth of your business depend on how you differentiate from your competitors through unique branding.
The above tips provide a jumping off point to encourage building a brand that speaks to your audience through your unique prospective. You don’t think of Starbucks as just another coffee house. It’s a brand. As you develop YOUR brand, you will become more than just another generic business in your category—you will become a brand people recognize and want to give their business to—and your investment will have paid off.
Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.
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