We’re going back to the basics to discover what marketing is, what marketing is not, and why you don’t have to scam, trick or fool anyone in order to run a successful business.
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One thing I love about small businesses is how much passion goes into them. Many of us start businesses based around things we love, or love learning about, or love teaching. Which can be truly awesome. But it’s often not enough.
Being great at doing something – say, cutting hair – doesn’t always mean your business – a hair salon – will succeed. Because between the thing we love to do and business success, there’s a lot of stuff we have to learn, fast.
Like marketing. Did you just have a physical reaction to that word? Did you flinch, or sigh, or wince?
People have strong feelings about marketing, and it can be a bit of a dirty word. But what is marketing, exactly?
Are there toxic marketing practices out there? Yes. Do some people try to take advantage of others with misleading, predatory marketing? Yes. But marketing itself is pretty neutral. It’s the other values people bring to it – greed, arrogance, entitlement – that can make marketing feel scummy.
Marketing covers a lot of ground. It begins with your business idea, and the research you do to see if it’s realistic. You identify a need in the market, through experience or research, and start creating a product (either a good or a service) to meet that need.
When you start building a brand look and feel for your business, that’s marketing too. The colors you choose, the font you pick, the type of materials you use in your packaging or the way you design a website to appeal to the kinds of people who might want your product. All marketing.
Once your product is ready, marketing includes the price you decide to sell it for, where you decide to sell it, who you want to sell it to, and the way you want to sell it. Deciding to run ads on Google is marketing, but so is creating a social media channel for your business where you try to grow your audience organically. (In marketing terms, organically means naturally, or without spending money. The opposite of organic in marketing is paid.)
Let’s take a look at each one.
Willy Wonka’s products are candy. A yoga teacher’s product might be a yoga class. An author’s product is a book, and a babysitter’s product is the service of making sure your kids don’t kill each other while you grab your first nice meal in months.
A product does not need to be totally unique to be successful. The other week, my husband brought home Blue Bunny ice cream sandwiches, because the store was out of all the other brands. They were more expensive, but so incredibly good that it made me rethink my opinions about ice cream sandwiches. When I ate them, I could taste all the different ingredients – butter and a little salt in the cookie sections, quality cream in the ice cream section. It tasted like someone had made it at home, rather than the flat sweetness of a lot of mass produced products.
But I bet if you asked someone, “Does the world need another ice cream brand?” the answer would be a resounding, “No way.” Because one look at the dessert freezer in any grocery store would make it clear that there are plenty of ice cream products already.
So what did Blue Bunny do differently to stand out? They just made a really freaking good ice cream sandwich. And then they made a bunch of other classic-but-inventive ice cream products to go with them, like “bunny tracks” ice cream bars and mini-cones you can eat if you want half a dessert. They catch your eye with products that are a little different, and win your heart by making sure they’re really, really good.
When you ask yourself, “How is my business different from the competition?”, remember that. You don’t have to be wildly different. You just have to know which corner of your market you’ll occupy. Will you be a Blue Bunny, with high-quality ingredients and a slightly left-of-center take on old standbys? Or will you be a popsicle brand, leaning into lower prices through bulk buying and making popsicles easier to eat by putting them in a freezable tube? Both are valid.
In the example I gave above, Blue Bunny ice cream bars were absolutely more expensive. Not crazy expensive, like you’d need to skip dinner to afford them, but relatively expensive compared to other ice cream sandwich brands. It’s a leap of faith to try a more expensive version of something you know you can get for less. And brands have to earn your trust by making you feel like that money was well spent. If the product is better quality than the cheap version, customers will feel like the extra money was worth it.
That’s the thing with price. You might think, “My business needs to charge less than other people to succeed.” That is definitely one model for pricing. But it fails a lot of the time because unless you have some trick for keeping your expenses lower than your competitors, you’re just cutting your own profits to try and outbid another company for a customer.
They’re searching for the right product within their budget. If you needed to buy a pair of plain cotton underwear, you could get them from Amazon for pennies per pair. Is that how you buy your underwear? Some of you may be saying yes, but the majority of people factor in other considerations. The kind of cut they like, the quality of the fabric, how they wear over repeated washings, etc.
Most people don’t want to pay $0.10 for a pair of underwear, and they don’t want to pay $50 for a pair, either. They want something in the middle, with a decent quality they can enjoy at a price that gives them confidence they’re getting a good value.
For example, a divorce lawyer on New York’s Upper West Side is going to sell different services to different people than an environmental rights lawyer in Miami. Same profession, different locations, different audiences, different avenues for how their customers find them.
Here’s another example: two house painters. One specializes in exterior house painting – removing old paint, sanding and prepping surfaces, laying down tough-wearing paint that stands up to the elements. And the other specializes in custom murals – painting a pretty scene for a brand new nursery or restoring a fading mural in a historic home.
People might find the exterior house painter through services like Yelp or Angi’s List, or by searching nearby on Google Maps, eventually leading to their website. And for the custom muralist, people may not be seeking them out – customers might find them more often through word of mouth, social media discovery, and press featuring the painter in a local publication.
For example, think of a meal kit service like HelloFresh, which does a LOT of promotion. You might see their ads on recipe blogs, hear endorsements on podcasts, or get a referral code from a friend who already uses the service. You might discover them while you’re searching for weeknight meal ideas, but you might also see your favorite YouTuber doing a promo at the beginning of their video, which was sponsored by HelloFresh.
Online, there’s your website, Facebook page, search engines, social media channels, ads on Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest, ads on Google or specific ad networks, referrals from other websites, press from news publications or through guest blogs you’ve written for other sites.
Locally, people might find your brick-and-mortar business as they drive by it, or through word of mouth, local-focused apps like Yelp or Google Maps, ads in community circulars, flyers at local coffee shops, billboards, or through partnerships with other local businesses where you promote each other. They might find your product in local stores, learn about it through a friend or be gifted something from your business and get inspired to seek out your other products.
As you can see, marketing affects all areas of product creation, from the audience you’re making it for to the price to where you’ll sell it and how you’ll promote it. Every single product or service you’ve ever used has relied on marketing to find you and sell to you.
Right? How many emails do you have in your inbox from companies you love? Your favorite clothing retailer, or hair care company or local doggie daycare. I write a newsletter for my friend who owns a local coffee shop. It goes out every few weeks with the shop’s new menu and a list of upcoming events people might want to know about. No hard sells, no scams. Just information that opens a conversation with customers and helps build a relationship between the business and real people.
Giving them what they want, at a price that’s reasonable. Keeping the conversation going so that they remember you when it’s time to shop. Being visible when people are searching for what you have to offer.
Not so bad, right?
So now that you understand the basics of marketing, your next step will be to write out a marketing plan and marketing strategy. I’ll be walking you through both of those in a post, coming soon.
I’ve spent 16 years in advertising, and now I’m using that knowledge to help creatives grow their own small businesses. Will that include you this year?
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