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Does Your Small Biz Appear "Big" Enough?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does Your Small Biz Appear (GIFTBEAT)

By Natalie Hammer Noblitt

Does your small business appear big enough to your customers? While many large companies find value in looking smaller, there is such a thing as being viewed as too little, according to marketing expert John Moore. Moore, author, speaker and head of Brand Autopsy, helped market retailers such as Starbucks and Whole Foods, learning how they grew from one storefront to hugely successful companies. In his book Tribal Knowledge, Moore shares a variety of insights on how to solidly grow your business and brand.

Q. Why is it important for small businesses to look bigger? What does this accomplish?

A. There is a paradox of growth, and it says that the smaller you are the bigger you must look, but the bigger you are the smaller you must get. What I mean is that small businesses today need to look bigger in customers’ eyes. To be clear, bigger is not defined by size in growth but in size of stature. A business that looks bigger is the one that can be trusted, respected and recommended.

Sometimes mom-and-pop shops can come across as looking too small and too incomplete. They have great ideas and passion, but it can look too homemade. It goes beyond just looking professional. I would instead use the term intentional. Professional can come across sometimes as being too polished or slick, which isn’t necessarily good. That is not at all what I think small businesses need to do. Another challenge comes when a business gets too big, because it must begin to act small again. The rules I talk about for how a small business can look bigger also can be used by bigger businesses to look smaller.

Q. What messages can small retailers deliver that will show passion and a sense of purpose?

A. Business owners must make one important decision, and that is they must decide to be obvious about what they are and what they stand for. And by doing that they must communicate purpose at each customer touch-point. This is the opportunity where a small business should showcase its unique personality.

It’s so easy to make a decision to buy a standardized sign coming out of a catalog. It’s convenient, but that sign is so devoid of any personality. I cringe sometimes when I go to a small restaurant with a standard sign that says, “Please wait to be seated.” That’s a customer touch-point opportunity. Give me something that showcases your personality there. Let’s say you are a small restaurant offering Tex-Mex food. Put a sign in Spanish with a smaller English translation. That showcases personality. Signage, however, is also an area where business owners must be careful about looking too homemade. Don’t go the easy route; make it look professional, but be intentional about the small decisions you make.

Q. What if a business owner is struggling to know what he or she should be communicating?

A. All small businesses start out with a passion. Owners should have a really unique point of view about what they are selling and what they are passionate about. Use that unique point of view to showcase your products.

When Starbucks began they were a mom-and-pop shop with a unique point of view about coffee. As they grew, they went into new places and showcased their coffee by calling their cup sizes by different names — Italian-sounding names instead of just small, medium and large. They could have gone the easy route, but they made the intentional decision not to be ordinary. They showcase a different personality by calling their beverage sizes tall, grande and venti.

Q. Are there common mistakes made by smaller stores that hurt their image with shoppers? How can they fix them?

A. I’m going to change up this question and tell you how to find where you’re potentially making a mistake. Watch out for the time when you find yourself saying, “A customer will never notice that.” If you find yourself saying this, chances are the customer will notice whatever it is — and that you have not corrected a potential mistake.

We would ask ourselves questions like this at Starbucks. When we went out to do tours of stores, we watched for this. If we ever found ourselves saying, “A customer will never notice that,” whether it was about signage or a stain on the wall, we jotted it down. As an example, you’ll hear retailers say, “A customer will never notice that we closed up shop 10 minutes early,” or “They’ll never notice a bad link on our website.” But chances are your customers will notice. Customers are smart, and that’s why they’ve chosen to do business with you. Smart customers are going to notice the littlest of things. Little mistakes can really hurt a store’s stature.

Q. It’s hard to remember that Starbucks and Whole Foods were once small businesses. What can be learned from their success?

A. All big businesses began as small businesses. Dell began its business life selling computers out of a college dorm room. Nike began by selling shoes out of the trunk of a car. You’ve got Whole Foods that started with one shop selling natural foods. Starbucks started as the quintessential mom-and-pop shop with three coffee-loving pals in Seattle who started a business because they couldn’t get the coffee they so loved in Berkeley.

Where businesses come from gets lost sometimes. Big businesses don’t just pop up. They have a past. But how does a mom-and-pop shop grow to create a great brand? A great brand never began with the sole desire to become a great brand. Dell, Nike, Starbucks and others didn’t start with the idea to be a great brand. The best brands begin by being a viable and profitable business. This is also important for big businesses to think about and to make sure they are true to their roots, what brought them success in the first place.

Q. You suggest retailers build their businesses to build a brand. How does this work?

A. It may sound odd coming from someone who has spent his whole professional life being a marketer, but here is what I tell businesses: Forget branding strategies. Instead, concentrate on “being” strategies. By that I mean focus on being a business that makes a profit and makes customers happy.

Also, be a business that makes employees happy. I can practically guarantee that if you build a business that does these things and makes money, you will create a strong brand. We have complicated how we grow a business today. This philosophy is a more basic way of going about it. If I spend my time building a business that jazzes employees to the point where they jazz customers, then those customers want to tell their friends and family about the business, and then a powerful cycle develops.

Q. In your book Tribal Knowledge, you talk about how the employee experience impacts the success of your business. What does this mean?

A. Employees are a key element of building your business. If employees enjoy working at your business, most likely customers will enjoy shopping at that business. The most important thing a small business can do to look bigger in a customer’s eyes is to hire the right employees and train them correctly. It’s critical because employees have direct contact with your customers and there is so much competition out there.

Competitors can replicate the products and programs you sell, but they can never replicate the people you hire and train to work in your store. Don’t just hire warm bodies, hire somebodies — hire people that get it.

As an example, come to Starbucks. Back in the day, Starbucks had a passion test that was very simple when someone applied to be a barista. They would fill out the application and then the manager would say, “Let’s sit down and talk. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” Just that question was the passion test. If the prospective employee said, “No thank you, I’m fine,” the manager would question why he or she just turned down a free cup of coffee. If this person just expressed an interest in working at a coffee shop but didn’t want a cup of coffee, even decaf coffee, there’s a doubt there. If that prospective employee doesn’t knock the socks off that manager, then he or she might not be hired on the basis of turning down a cup of coffee. Baristas must convey passion to the customer and they can’t do that if they don’t enjoy the product.

Q. Once you find good employees and train them, is there a reason to hold onto them?

A. Yes. It really comes back to the fact that companies need to be intentional with their everyday decisions. Don’t worry about having the best logo or best tagline. Those are branding strategies. Think about what will build the business. All customer touch-points matter and create a business that can become a great brand.

Employee longevity is a key consideration when companies look to measure success. If the company has lots of loyal employees, most likely they also have loyal customers. If a business doesn’t have many longtime employees, they are going to have the same type of churn with their customers. As a company gets bigger, it should also keep employee loyalty in mind.

Q. Is there any other advice you can share with retailers on making their mark in 2011?

A. Be personal and be passionate in your business. In today’s world where things have gotten so polished and so slick, people cling to things that are real. By showcasing passion and personality in your business, you will be able to stand out from the crowd.

Note: John Moore was formerly in marketing for major retailers such as Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods. He is the author of “Tribal Knowledge” and “Tough Love.” Today, through his Brand Autopsy Marketing Practice, John writes, speaks and advises companies on how to create sound marketing and business practices. For more information on Brand Autopsy, visit You can reach Moore at

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