The small brand’s guide to dating

  • Opinion
  • September 22, 2016
  • Jessica Venning-Bryan
The small brand’s guide to dating

Bringing a new brand to market is much like a first date. It comes with all the hand-wringing over first impressions – how should I dress, what should I say – and all the excitement of unknown potential. 

But once you start courting your audience you discover that they don’t necessarily see all your nuances. The little details that make you better than the rest. Especially when the other suitors you’re up against are well-resourced, established brands. Your initial enthusiasm gets sapped, and dating becomes a chore.

Or maybe they do get you. They like that you’re a bit different. You’re not as flashy as the others but you’re charming and friendly, honest and fun. You get a second date, and then a third, and before long you’re living together, buying a pug and eating breakfast at Loretta every Sunday.

But whether your arrival in market is successful or not, it’s easy for laziness to creep in. When there’s more swipe left than right, in a desperate effort to be attractive, you start grasping at ideas with no focus or discipline. Or you get bound up in your own success, and the agency Moët, and stop holding yourself or others to account for ongoing excellence. You start to let go of the hygiene factors. You stop brushing your teeth before you go out. You overlook the stain on your shirt. You get comfortable running late. 

For a small, new brand wanting to survive, nay thrive, in a tough commercial environment this is the death knell. Success relies on being the best at all the little things. And working damn hard. 

As a small business your strategic advantage is being agile, responsive and creative with your limited means, while your big competitors flounder under the weight of bureaucracy and entrenched processes. Taking it back to the dating analogy, the broke suitor will put more effort into planning the perfect, romantic day out to woo their muse, whereas the wealthy will get their EA to book the fanciest restaurant in town and prefer the sound of their own voice at the dinner table.

In a big business you have more resources but less pace; greater specialisation but less autonomy. In a big business you can hide behind your agency, and blame them when it goes wrong. In a big business you inevitably slip into planning and campaign cycles, rather than constantly assessing the market and finding opportunities to engage. 

But we all know the thoughtful lover wins in the long run. Customers figure out which brands really understand them, are sincere, and add value to their lives. If you have the discipline to make sure they meet and get to know you, you’ll be the one they take home for Sunday roast. Trust me, you don’t want to be Becky with the good hair. 

So what gets a small brand with big aspirations past the first date and on the path to suburban utopia?

Relationships - and I don’t mean the grand-gestures variety. You must have collaborative, practical and mutually respectful relationships with the most important people in your marketing network: your creative director, your suit, your copywriter, your PR guru, and your production companies. And quality relationships should come ahead of the comfort of the status quo agency model. 

Exceptional relationships with creative partners that believe in your business and have a vested interest in your success, help your dollars stretch and enable small brands to make the most of last-minute opportunities. Recently, we made six 15-second TVCs in three days, from briefing to output. We never would have managed that under a traditional big-business-big-agency model.

Responsibility - It’s not good enough for marketers to outsource the responsibility for campaign outcomes to their agency partners. It’s like pegging the success of your date on the tailor who made your suit. Brand owners should have high involvement, and high accountability for campaigns.

This means writing impeccable briefs, rich with insight and setting clear, measurable objectives; knowing how channels work, especially ever-changing new media, so you can provide robust feedback and participate in strategic planning decisions; and constantly assessing impact and directing improvements. 

Rigour - Small brands can get ahead by being more disciplined than category incumbents. Rigour is what makes limited means pack maximum punch. Ask yourself these tough questions: 

  • Are your agencies held accountable for measurable results, campaign-by-campaign?
  • Are you critiquing the ability of big ideas to deliver hard results, or are you being wooed by campaigns that are geared to win awards?
  • Does everyone in your team know what your customer acquisition cost is, and are they actively working to make gains as efficiently as possible?
  • Have you got all your internal stakeholders fully engaged in the brand vision and marketing strategy so the best ideas get through?
  • Are you constantly looking at your competitors and making sure your brand is truly differentiated?
  • And if you’re being honest, how much of the hard lifting are ‘you’ doing?

When we think about the qualities we admire in marketers, disciplined rarely makes the list. But if you’re a little fish in a big pond and you want to get noticed, diligence, differentiation and attention to detail is how. Challenge yourself – have you inadvertently got lazy with the little things? Are you putting your very best foot forward, all the time? Are you proving to customers that you care about their business, every day?

Small brands succeed in tough markets when they’re seen and heard, and when they listen in return. They build enduring relationships on the basic principles of human interaction. 

Challenger brands are perfectly placed to constantly learn and adapt, and to be the best in category. But it’s something we work for, it’s not a given, and we need to critique ourselves as much as our work. Polish your shoes, iron your blouse and update your profile. It’s a combination of all the little things that will make your customers fall in love. 

  • This article first appeared in the Awards issue of NZ Marketing.
  • Jessica Venning-Bryan is general manager of brand for Flick Electric Co.

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