Marketing: For small-business operators, it’s good to remember the basics

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC Coverage

Looking back, things were probably challenging enough for small-business owners even before the economy got redefined. For them, the responsibilities are endless, the hours thankless, and the job description includes everything from sales to service to fixing the plumbing.

Even in the best of times, owning a small business is hard work. But when business slowed in recent years, many found that elbow grease alone wasn’t enough to bring it back, and they started tinkering with their marketing.

Board spinners at intersections, special-deal incentives, cheesy utility pole signage and poorly conceived Web and social media strategies reflect good intentions, but aren’t often the ticket back to financial success.

So I decided to seek some tips from Bill Marion, a managing partner and part of the brain trust at Purdue Marion & Associates, a talented team that specializes in marketing, communications and public relations in both the private and public sectors, and who devote actual time to strategic thinking.

Marion is seriously skilled in public relations and political consulting, once taught college English and history, helped develop programs for Nevada’s arts, culture and humanities, had headed up numerous community boards and committees and has worked successfully for and with our state’s most influential business and political leaders. These days, he helps direct strategic planning and implementation for an array of clients and businesses.

He seemed like a good guy to ask what small-business owners should be doing these days.

“I think one key to small business is reputation management,” he said. “Commitment to quality. And the ability to do something different than the big guys.”

I asked how, for example, a neighborhood cafe might do that, since it is a typical small business.

“If you take a small restaurant, they don’t have the advertising budget that a national chain does. So one way you do it is through ‘earned media’ — seeing if you can get a story as opposed to paying for an ad.”

Since this likely will result in many phone calls to companies like ours, I asked for another recommendation.

“Well, you rely a lot on referrals. Your customers have to be out there telling your story.”

Small restaurants generally don’t often draw customers from across town, something they may need to be realistic about.

If your competitor is a national chain, it’s important to emphasize how your own business is special or unique.

“Know how to tell your story — that you’re different or better or that the service is better. That whatever service or quality you’re providing is at a level that people want to talk about.”

If you own a plumbing supply, for instance, it’s critical to know exactly why consumers might prefer you over Home Depot. And you have to determine how broad an area you can realistically draw customers from.

Another important exercise is to form a clear picture of who exactly your ultimate customer is.

“Is your product or service designed in such a way that you have a particular type of consumer?” Marion asked.

He added that small businesses need attainable goals and a reasonable chance of meeting them. “It’s better to grow your business than to start out where you want to be in five years.”

In the end, one of the things that makes small businesses work is the commitment and passion of the owner. “When you have a stake and an investment on the line, you’re that much more dedicated,” Marion said.

He noted it was almost always possible for the owner’s passion to be reflected by employees, creating a single unified team that takes good care of customers.

“People hate it when they go into a place and it’s obvious they don’t care, that you’re just a customer, and that if you don’t buy, someone else will. It’s an overused cliché, but a successful small business truly is like a family.”

But even when a small business performs in each of these areas, there will always be cyclical setbacks in the economy.

Although that doesn’t mean surrendering to the big guys. Marion used the analogy of a cruiser and a battleship.

“A small business is like a cruiser. A cruiser is speedier, more efficient, more maneuverable, so there’s a demand for it. Just because it’s not a battleship doesn’t mean there’s a weakness. Because you can do things battleships can’t.”