How can SMEs compete with big-name brands with big marketing budgets?

Gaining market share from any successful competitor can be a huge challenge, but if your competitors are big-name brands with healthy marketing budgets to match and you’re a cash-strapped start-up or SME, this can seem even more intimidating.

Nevertheless, by adopting an innovative approach to marketing collateral and carefully designating ad spend, even the newest online business could have the potential to compete against the big players to increase their market share.

This article will outline the challenges of trying to compete against big-budget brands on a level playing field, what you can learn from your competitors, and how to build your own customer base and establish brand loyalty without a huge marketing budget.

What can you learn from your big brand competitors?

It’s understandable that businesses of all sorts and sizes keep their cards close to their chests when it comes to their marketing campaign ideas, building brand loyalty and increasing sales. But by examining where, how, and to whom your competitors target their campaigns, you can gain valuable insights that will help you to determine and tweak your own approach.

The very first step is to understand who else is selling what you sell successfully, and investigate their marketing activities to determine the channels they use, the demographics they target, and how they frame their language style, tone, calls to action and incentives.

This can help you to build up a working picture of the prospects that your competitors have determined are worth their ad spend and efforts, taking out some of the hard work of establishing who and where your own prospects can be found and targeted.

Why innovation is important when you can’t compete on a level playing field financially

If you know you can’t compete on an even footing financially with brands that have a huge ad spend and utilise a multitude of different channels to spread the word, you‘ll need to innovate.

Competing like-for-like with a competitor means you’ll be fighting for a share of the same market and the same prospects; however, by innovating and taking a different approach to catching prospects’ attention, you can potentially pick up those prospects your larger competitors miss out on or deem not worthy of a bespoke-targeted campaign due to the size of the potential buyer pool.

For SMEs, these smaller, more niche prospect pools can be very lucrative, and may soon form the bread and butter of your operation; as can prospects that can be reached with a unique angle and approach that your competitors aren’t using.

To get yourself seen by these smaller, more niche prospect pools and new audiences and to catch their attention effectively, you don’t just need to find them and show them your wares; you also need to highlight the benefits of purchasing from you. Work your USPs, and tailor your ad approach and brand persona to appeal on an emotional level to people who have not already established loyalty to a competitor, or who might not have considered the need for what you offer at all.

Budget-friendly angles that help SMEs when competing against big brands

How do you innovate and find the right angle to compete against large brands when cost is a big concern? Here are some approaches to consider.

Find and utilise your USP

To take some market share from a big competitor, you have to make every ad impression or chance for engagement with each prospect count. There may only be one chance to get your message across and spark your prospect’s interest.

This means you need to establish and commit to highlighting the USPs of what you offer and what you do – what makes you different, better, or more in line with your prospects’ preferences than a big-name brand.

A good place to start with this is to look at some of the very features that are apparently hampering your ability to compete in the first place and turning them into advantages and USPs for your prospects.

Shopping locally is widely considered to be a good thing these days and doing so is a point of pride for many shoppers. Targeting local buyers with a geographically targeted campaign that highlights your role in the local community and appeals on an emotional level to buyers who want to support local businesses is a great place to start. For example, if your business is based in Swansea you might want to experiment with a campaign that only targets customers located in Swansea, rather than throwing the net out to the whole of Wales or the UK. The aim here being to motivate them with the benefits of buying locally and supporting local businesses.

The small size of your operation might seem like a disadvantage when your competitors are big names, but this is another great USP that SMEs often overlook. People like to feel good about their purchases and to feel a personal connection with the businesses that they support, and if you can give them a chance to do this, you can potentially achieve brand loyalty within just one transaction.

Quirky, eco-friendly, charming? If you handle orders and customer service personally, highlight this benefit and don’t miss a chance to point out that your buyers will be supporting a small business and their families and not funding the shareholders of a big brand’s next private yacht.

Small partnerships between friends and family businesses can make for an appealing brand story too, and encourage prospects to root for the smaller players and not the big multinational conglomerates.

Make smart choices about your ad spend

You’re going to need an ad budget to support your campaign, however, you choose to approach it. When your budget is small, spending it wisely is essential because you don’t have a lot of margin for error or funds in reserve to recover a campaign that misses its mark.

There are many ways in which you can make the most out of your advertising budget to maximise yield, here are just a few examples:

  • Have a clear understanding of your target audience – determine your prospect demographics and be clear about why the demographics you have chosen are viable targets, and what you’ve got that can turn their heads away from larger brands.
  • Identify where and how your demographic groups shop and browse online. Establish what social media platforms they favour, the groups, pages and accounts they follow, and how they like to spend their time online.
  • List some of the viable avenues you could reach prospects, taking into account social media, automated ad placements, Google Ads, in-app mobile ads, and more.
  • Investigate costings and coverage for different channels, such as the average cost per click for Google Ad campaigns, and the viability of winning clicks from competitors without breaking the bank.
  • Don’t spread your budget too thinly. This can be a huge challenge for SMEs who naturally want to reach as many prospects as possible and don’t want to place all of their eggs in one basket. Throwing your marketing budget at one demographic, channel or approach is a gamble. If it’s successful it can yield a great return, but if it fails, it could potentially cripple a start-up or a growing SME with a cashflow problem.
  • Look at ways to integrate the same types of ad collateral used by competitors but at a lower cost. For example, picking up the slack with lesser-used keywords and lower-value search terms that relate to your specific product or offer. These will give you a better chance of competing and winning these smaller groups of prospects that together, can soon form a strong customer base all on their own.

As mentioned, one virtually sure-fire way to waste your ad spend is to spread it too thinly. For instance, by splitting it between a Google Ads campaign with a low capped cost-per-click value, in-app mobile ads and a social media campaign. If you don’t have the funds to make an impact across all of these channels at once, you’re likely to see your ad budget dwindling quickly with little to show for it.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it is better to do your homework on your prospects and then commit your ad budget to just a couple of demographic targets, channels and approaches than it is to try to juggle too many things at once without a budget to match. Running a dual campaign or targeting two demographics at once provides some security against a lone campaign crashing and burning, without spreading your budget so thinly as to be ineffective.

Request buyer reviews

Most net-savvy shoppers will check out product reviews before making a purchase, even if those reviews are located on a different site than the product being sold is on. Building a large number of positive reviews for your services can increase customer perception and help prospects find your business.

You might not be able to achieve top three ranking on Google for the standalone name of the product you’re retailing, but if you can achieve a high ranking for searches such as “XYZ product reviews,” this will bring shoppers to your website and give you a valuable chance to pick them off, even if they were about to get to the checkout stage with a competitor.

Encourage reviews and commentary on social media platforms too, as these are not only highly sharable and potentially exposed to a large audience, but also will help to make your products and brand pages and accounts on social media easier to find as well.

Establish a brand persona and engage on social media to generate an organic buzz

The holy grail for both cash-strapped SMEs and big-budget brands alike is to generate an organic social buzz around a product or brand that generates its own momentum and provides a highly effective and virtually cost-free form of ongoing word of mouth advertising.

If you as the owner of an SME can achieve this, you might find yourself with more orders than you can handle, but this is rarely a quick or simple process. Managing to put out a viral tweet, video or Facebook post can shine the spotlight on your brand and raise awareness, but to support this you need to have a strong social media presence and established brand persona and tone of voice in place from the get-go.

Updating social media pages, promoting your content and engaging with prospects takes a lot of time and effort on an ongoing basis. But particularly if your ad spend is limited, making full use of social media and the ways it can be used to reach prospects without spending money is something that every SME should concentrate on.

Get people talking with topical or seasonal tie-ins

Creating a trending hashtag is lucrative but very hit and miss – with more “miss” for most and a lot of luck in play for those that succeed. Piggybacking a trend, on the other hand, is much easier; so keep your finger on the social media pulse and check trending hashtags, current events and hot topics, and get in on the game with appropriate, carefully crafted content of your own.

Make sure that your content is relevant, tasteful and has a clear correlation to the topic at hand, otherwise, people will immediately disregard your content as spammy or even offensive, which can harm brand perception for the long term.

Seasonal promotions and tie-ins with hot pop culture topics also give SMEs valuable opportunities to get themselves seen by prospects too.

Invest prospects in your brand story and key players

Getting your product or brand seen by prospects is hard, but it is only the first step. To catch your prospects’ attention and incentivise their purchase from you rather than a competitor, you need to give them a reason to do so, and for SMEs, the most effective way to do this is to invest your prospects in your brand story and key players.

Establish and use an appropriate and vitally consistent tone of voice across all of your online collateral, and make it one that is likeable, engaging, and relatable. Humour, self-depreciation, and sharing the ups and downs of the life of an SME can all help to achieve this, as can putting a human face on your brand, or even that of a mascot.

Make prospects like the people behind the brand, and you will make them like the brand too; so don’t be afraid to share, interact and engage with prospects to generate a human connection.

Personalise content

Content personalisation has been proven time and time again to produce a better yield than generic materials, and SMEs can use the same tools and insights to create bespoke product suggestions and personalise automated ads as big brands do.

SMEs do have a big advantage in this area already, as their service is by design more personal than the average large brand can hope to achieve. Therefore, you can highlight the personal nature of the buyer journey within your business, for example how exactly the purchase process is carried out in-house, and by whom.

Go the extra mile

When providing the same product as one of the big brand competitors and you can’t best them on price or quality, you’ll need to be prepared to go that one step further in offering something that will encourage consumers to view your brand in a more positive light.

Both surprising and delighting your prospects will incentivise repeat business, but it will also get them talking. Have a think about what small extra touches you could offer customers that are rarely offered by the larger brands.

Unexpected free gifts, samples, and enticing offers will all play well with jaded prospects and those that appreciate the small, personal touches that make them feel valued as a customer.

Make sure that your customer support is faultless too. Ensure prospects can get in touch with you, respond promptly, take personal ownership over enquiries, and try to make a personal connection with each person that contacts you.

Points to remember

There is a lot to bear in mind when attempting to gain market share from a big brand, and it can be easy to lose momentum, get side-tracked, or lose your nerve when you don’t see results immediately.

Keeping your momentum going on social media by means of posting and engagement rather than paid promotions can be a challenge and sometimes time-consuming, but if you put the work in, this is a real investment in the future of your brand and its long-term success.

When directly competing with one or more of the larger brands, it’s important to be mindful of implying anything that could be construed as an infringement of copyright, libellous, or otherwise likely to attract the ire of a rich corporation that will protect its income and brand reputation at all costs.

If you attempt to deliberately harm your competition’s brand or cross the line between emulation and copying, you may soon find yourself buried under an avalanche of legal threats that your smaller company won’t have the budget to defend.

Whilst attracting the negative attention of a big competing brand is a position that no SME should seek to find themselves in, it does provide a great example to finish off with of how an SME can take on the big boys with an innovative approach and come out on top with a little luck and lateral thinking.

Original post created by Polly Kay on the UK Domain

© Nominet UK 2019