SMEs have no right to customersIt’s easy to paint larger competitors like Amazon =as villains, to say that these firms are killing smaller businesses and that the right thing to do is support British SMEs. The problem is that SMEs have no more right to people’s custom than anyone else. Should we get money just by virtue of existing? No. We should be winning customers by adding value to lives that other brands aren’t. I work in the crowded fashion ecommerce sector, and the only way a business like mine can succeed is by carving out a unique space and creating a strong brand identity. While the fashion industry may seem particularly conducive to individuality, I firmly believe the same opportunity is there for any SME that wants to put in the hard work.
What sets your business apart from competitors?The first step to creating a strong brand identity is working out what you think should (or already does) set your brand apart. To put it another way: what does your brand do differently that adds value to your customers? For example, an independent cafe in a town centre might make cakes by hand from locally-sourced ingredients, supporting farmers in the area. Customers would go there for the quality of the cakes and the knowledge that they’re bringing business to farmers in their community. Or an online bookseller might post a number of weekly reviews that help customers find the best books to read. Buying from that retailer would be as much about supporting the excellent reviews as about acquiring the same book that you could get off Amazon or Waterstones. Whatever your business does, if you want to win customers you need to give them a reason to buy from you.
What’s important to your customers?It’s not enough to come up with a way to add value if it’s not something your customers are interested in. And what’s interesting to your customers might not be what you expect. Who would have predicted that the “digital native” millennials would shift their buying habits towards vinyl records, books and board games when there are so many online alternatives out there? Consumers tend to vote with their feet, so if you’re not sure what they value, see what it is that your most successful competitors are offering. The likes of Amazon and Argos caught onto this, realising that customers wanted ecommerce businesses to replicate the convenience of a local store, improving shipping until same day delivery became a possibility. You might not be able to replicate that kind of resource-heavy change, but there are other things that can be implemented more easily. In many industries, customers still value reviews and word of mouth recommendations. How could you showcase your own feedback? Other values could include a desire to buy sustainable products, or bespoke products. If these values are there, you can position your brand as the most reliable green supplier or the best manufacturer of bespoke products. Your brand identity should always include aspects that consumers are actively looking for.
How do you get your brand out there?A well-positioned brand identity alone isn’t enough to bring in the customers. You need to be visible. This isn’t the place to go into detail about different marketing channels, but there are some tactics regarding brand identity to bear in mind. Online adverts, whether on search engines or social media, are perfect for encapsulating your core messages. You have a headline and a short bit of copy to play with in an ad, so you need to distill your brand down to key values and USPs. If you know that there’s something that gives you credibility or supports your claims, like reviews or great offers, this is the place to use it. And because advertising is paid, you can guarantee exposure that organic methods might not provide. You also have to keep your brand messaging consistent across all channels. The tone in your ad copy, emails and social media interactions should match. You need to be drawing attention to the same things again and again. Even if it makes you feel like a broken record, it’s the only way to cement your identity in your audience’s minds.
Inspiring customer loyaltyFinally, the most important thing your brand can achieve is customer loyalty. If you can win customers who come back again and again to make further purchases, you’re doing well. It then doesn’t matter what the giants of your industry are doing, because you have a dependable source of income that doesn’t rely on additional marketing efforts. Creating loyalty through values that customers identify with and offers that make them feel special is a key part of an ongoing brand identity. Ultimately, whatever brand identity you go for, it needs to make people want to spend their money on your products and services. If it doesn’t, it will always be an uphill battle to succeed against the online giants of your industry. Ian Blackburn is managing director at fashion ecommerce business Hidepark Leather
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