Small brands are edgy, attuned and preferred. That seems to be a common sentiment right now. But there is nothing to suggest that any of this makes it easy to win as a small brand today.
Last week, in response to my piece on whether brands should be un-designed, Paul Bailey made an excellent observation: “as long as we consider people as consumers then they will continue to be passive recipients” he pointed out. “Consumers ‘consume’ value. They are at the end point of the industrial era value chain. For people to be encouraged to find meaning in a brand, it has to be in what they share rather than what they buy.”
I liked Paul’s comment for two reasons. First of all, I thought his point about consumers was astute. As – can I call them buyers? – look to participate more fully in how their lives happen, they are less interested in what gets served up, and more focused on having a stake in what they get. They want to feel acknowledged. Secondly, they don’t want to do so alone. They want to be able to share and socialize what they are involved with, with those that matter to them. There’s a level of intimacy and trust in both those actions that marketers can easily overlook.
Big brands have some distinctive advantages. They’re everywhere. They’re famous. They have big budgets and big ambitions. They have influence. In some sectors, they dominate how things happen and what gets talked about. But in their rush to achieve convenience, prestige or some other ‘compelling’ emotion, big brands easily mistake personas for people. They serve up broad-appeal offerings to profiles and feel they have achieved consumer intimacy. They mistake visibility for effectiveness.
And that’s the opportunity for small players. As Maclean Fisher points out, “As incumbents exploit market dominance and economies of scale, they forget to explore ways to better tailor offerings to customers and strengthen relationships yielding trust. In turn, individuals – hungry, excited, ambitious – are identifying areas where there lies potential to change the dynamic, where individuals could be treated better, and where those in power have either grown complacent, or seemingly lost focus on who they serve.”
The secret sauce for small brands is also size. But in direct contrast to the big brands, that size is focused the other way: on intimacy; on the changes that those who buy or support see themselves championing; on interactions that mirror the ways customers feel comfortable interacting; on the feelings that should be being heard by larger competitors, but usually aren’t. Maybe that’s the new differentiation for small brands. It’s not about being a big brand in the making, it’s about being a kindred spirit. It’s about how you behave as a brand, and how that makes people feel. It’s about, as Jack Trout once pointed out, being mentally closer to what’s important to customers than the big companies dare.
A brand like this is relatively easy to start, but it’s a very hard brand to grow. That brand cannot rely on efficiencies or technology or even products to lift its game. Instead it must scale its empathy. It must maintain eye contact. It must fight the tendency to broaden its appeal and focus on its constituency. Maybe that’s the real challenge, and the new success.
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