Leadership & Productivity

We are family: The risks and rewards of promoting your SME as a familial concern

6 min read

01 March 2019

What happens when SMEs on the larger side begin to promote themselves as family businesses? Well, they can attract more employees, yet they can also raise concerns about nepotism and lack of equality in the inner operations of a business. I give you the perks and shortcomings of 'keeping it in the family'.

With so many of us happy to shop online, have our customer service questions answered by a chatbot or choose the self-serve line in the supermarket, you might be forgiven for assuming that the notion of a family business is dead.

After all, it’s so synonymous with customer service, the personal touch and attention – things we’re happy to shun in our hunt for the lowest prices. Yet when we studied the attitudes of over 500 consumers, just 4% across all age ranges said they feel family firms are an outdated notion.

Consumers still have a place in their hearts for family businesses

As our Family Business Brand Report shows, family firms carry so many clear and positive connotations that when comparing like-for-like businesses, only 3% are less likely to buy from a family business and 46% are more likely to buy from one.

Furthermore, our research found that consumers expect family businesses to be ‘long-established’ (51%), ‘providing value for money’ (51%) and in service terms ‘good’ (69%), ‘personal’ (75%) and ‘trustworthy’ (62%). In today’s ephemeral online environment, where businesses come and go and where e-tailers rely on algorithms and cookies to second guess our interests and preferences, it seems that ‘long-established’ ‘trustworthy’ and ‘personal’ are powerful qualities.

Things to consider

However, this doesn’t mean that all businesses should suddenly start talking about themselves as family-owned or run, as our research suggests, there are some downsides which need to be factored into any marketing strategy. In terms of size and reach – firstly, many consumers associate family firms with being ‘small’ (69%) and ‘local’ (66%).

Larger SMEs

So larger companies, or those with national or international capabilities, you need to make sure your marketing counters these potential misconceptions. Furthermore, well-known, bigger companies such as Warburtons may have much to gain from playing up their family credentials; our research shows such firms doing this will attract 15 people for every one person they alienate.

However, larger, but lesser-known companies need to tread with care

Our research showed that 23% of consumers say a family connection makes an already unfamiliar larger business sound worse. So what can such businesses do to combat this view of them?

Be organised – our research suggests a family firm may be viewed as a little less professional or reliable. So, if adopting the ‘family tag’ also make your reliability another key virtue. Those who get this balance right have much to gain as our research suggests 32% of consumers believe a larger, systemised company which is also a family business offers the best of both worlds – ‘reliability’, ‘quality’ and a ‘personal touch’.

Be sector aware – some sectors really lend themselves to family firms and others don’t. For instance, irrespective of size, 45% believe that manufacturers of products associated with the family, such as toys and baby equipment gain from being a family business. The same is true of retail businesses, restaurants, pubs and hotels.

However only 6% of people associate family firms with ‘high tech production’ and only 3% with ‘mass production’. If a business wants to be known for its large scale, advanced operation and also wants to market itself as a family business, it should also ‘dial-up’ its production credentials.

The Employer Brand: Family companies attract talent but also raise fears about lack of democracy

Calling your firm a family business also has ramifications for the employer brand. Our study found that 44% of people across all ages are more likely to want to work for a business if they know it’s a family enterprise; seeing such firms as more caring and attentive to the work/life balance.

However, perceptions around nepotism, poorer pay and job security may need to be corrected. For instance, almost two-thirds of people believe that top jobs will be reserved for family members and 35% feel that non-family members of staff will have fewer opportunities to shine. Furthermore, 32% perceive that job security is less assured in family businesses.

Family business marketing, do it right

Lastly, the term ‘family business’ cannot simply be stuck on to a company’s marketing like a label. To be meaningful it needs to be evident in the way an organisation behaves. This is because people expect family businesses to live up to certain standards, to do more in the community (44%) and embrace a clear set of values (49%) which drive the way the business operates.

These are just some of the many things we help family businesses think about. There are also considerations around timings, how crises involving family members will be handled, the semantics – ‘family owned’, ‘family run’ – and how the family connection is to be played out across the marketing mix. In short, there are lots to gain, but lots to think about.

Read the full report here.