“Small businesses provide the feeling that a real person is behind it all, someone who cares more about giving us a quality product or service, over just taking our hard-earned dollars.” —Annie Bukhman

Most small businesses miss out on the biggest advantage they have over chains and big companies: community relationships.

Before big companies began to dominate the landscape, small businesses were just people in the community offering their services, skills, and products. Everyone knew who they were and what they did best.

When industrialization made growing super-sized companies possible, people became disconnected from the businesses they patronized. And the challenge for these big companies was to persuade their market that bigger was better: standard quality, more efficient and predictable, consistent supply, and many other so-called advantages over small-business-made-with-care options. These were messages like the Wonder Bread variety: selling the advantages of white, soft bread over both local rustic breads and homemade breads. They convinced people to trade nutrition, great taste and texture for consistent cake-like bread. And they did that with huge marketing budgets and people like the ones in the show Mad Men: 1960s Madison Avenue advertising whizzes.

That whole huge tsunami of big company marketing with tons of money behind it worked across a lot of products and services: trading quality for standardization and possibly lower prices. And the hidden tradeoff was giving up community relationships for the latest technology innovation. In many cases the innovation served to help scale the company, not improve the end product. (I realize a lot of innovation helped get everyone fed, clothed, and sheltered: things were not all negative.)

The most tragic (in my mind) result of this was the impact on small business. Not just from a financial perspective, but a positioning of small business as lower quality, not as desirable. Compounding that problem was the shift in marketing by small business to compete on big business terms, rather than their own inherent advantage. This is still going on…

During the pandemic, many small businesses might have finally gotten an inkling of how they matter to the community they serve: some were helped by spontaneous gofundme campaigns or purchases of gift cards or free business services by members of the community that realized how important these businesses are to their lives. (I understand that in many cases this wasn’t enough to keep businesses going…sadly.)

The bottom line: emphasizing relationships, connection with community, and the personal touch that no big company can offer reframes the entire competition with big companies. They can never authentically offer those things. That coupled with the new emphasis on experiences, artisan quality, unique offerings, and custom touches puts small businesses in a unique position for winning hearts and minds. All of that requires a new way for small business to think about marketing themselves. And leave the big companies’ marketing tactics in the dust.

“Small businesses are the heartbeat of your neighborhood, the spine of your local economy, and spirit of your town.” —Anonymous