Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Bigshots vs. Slingshots

David vs GoliathNo matter what anyone tells you, size matters. It’s a daunting challenge to compete against organizations with more people, more locations, deeper pockets, and a lengthy and successful track record.

Being recognized as a “big name” is a tremendous advantage, and the most valuable benefit of that familiarity is trust: “I’ve heard of them. They must be doing something right.” Whether searching for deals online, comparing products on your supermarket shelves, or listening to your teenager’s excuse for getting home late, nearly every choice we make, every action we take, is processed through a “trust filter.”

Blunt instruments
Big companies operate at a dazzling scale. McDonalds spends $1 billion annually on advertising. There are only two countries on the planet where Coca-Cola doesn’t sell its drinks – Cuba and North Korea (due to U.S. trade restrictions). If Walmart was a country, its annual revenue would make it the 25th largest economy in the world.

The big brands’ ability to broadcast – in the broadest sense of the word – means they can flood the market with every possible means of communication. They don’t need to worry too much about “building awareness.” In fact, they really don’t need to know who their customers are, what they prefer, or where they live. By virtue of sheer size, these giants’ customers are everywhere and include nearly everyone.

A common mistake of smaller organizations is to misunderstand their place in the market, pursuing tactics (“We need billboards.”) or strategies (“Let’s get more people to mention us on social media.”) similar to the big guys – competing in an arena that they just can’t win. It’s like a battle between a cigarette lighter and a flamethrower. You’re toast.

The wedge
When trying to split a slab of granite into smaller pieces, a stone mason uses the sharp end of a chisel. When trying to solve a complicated case, a detective will ask increasingly pointed questions. Working toward precision with the blunt end of a tool is like using a sledgehammer to swat a housefly – your attempts may succeed, but not without great difficulty and unintended consequences.

In order to make an impact, an organization needs to use the narrowest end of the wedge – a well-defined brand promise – to gain leverage. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, maximum leverage comes from a razor-sharp focus – knowing who you are, what you do, and who your audience is.

The one advantage you have over a bigger competitor is an ability to focus on a segment of the market that they cannot possibly serve as well as you – to serve a group of people in ways that larger competitors can’t match. So, instead of spreading a few seeds in a vast parking lot and hoping something sprouts, smart organizations choose to concentrate efforts on only the most well-suited plots of land.

Every single large company was small at one time. What often gets lost when marveling at large-scale operations is that the biggest brands deliver on a well-defined brand promise better than anyone else – every day – again and again and again.

Being small is no sin. Being small and undefined is a recipe for mediocrity.

Promises, promises
What promises do you make to your customers? What promises can you keep? It’s not enough to nod to your competitors and say, “We can do that, too.” It’s not enough to claim location as a competitive advantage. To move people to action and inspire loyalty, a brand promise:

  • Must convey a compelling benefit.
  • Must be believable and defendable.
  • Must be kept every single time.

With its everyday low prices, Walmart promises you will save money and live better. Coca-Cola promises to inspire moments of fun, optimism, and refreshment. McDonalds promises to deliver quality, service, cleanliness, and value.

It doesn’t matter if you order a Big Mac, a Happy Meal, or a Shamrock Shake. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. People choose McDonalds because it consistently delivers on its brand promise better than its competitors.

From a distance, big brands may seem to have insurmountable advantages by virtue of their size. Looking closer, you’ll see that their most remarkable advantage is the million little ways that they keep promises for each customer they serve. As it turns out, it’s not the size of the organization that matters, it’s the quantity and consistency of the promises kept.

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