It’s no secret that business online is skyrocketing. This year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday pulled in a combined $11.6 billion dollars in online sales; that was up about 16.5 percent from last year. So, it’s safe to say that when the dust settles, many online business owners and entrepreneurs will have reason to celebrate: Clearly, this year’s rise in Black Friday online sales represented a shift in consumer preference for the online options available.
With so much money on the table, it’s no wonder that competition for consumers’ eyeballs, and wallets, is stronger than ever. The question for prospective online entrepreneurs then becomes: How do I differentiate my business to take my piece of the pie?
Certainly, the barriers entrepreneurs face to entry into the lucrative markets are low, but the challenge they do face is how to set themselves apart from others in their category. After all, a sizable market is no use to any business that can’t gain the attention of, and ultimately convert, potential customers.
It’s no longer enough to build a killer product or site: You need to be able to effectively market your brand if you’re hoping to grow. So, with all that money going to online sales, how can you ensure that your own small business or startup will thrive? How do you distinguish your product from the 1.3 million other stores here just in North America alone?
There is no simple answer. But there is an effective one: branding. And that doesn’t mean just slapping the logo you bought from Fiverr on your business card and landing page and leaving it at that. Instead, you have to invest time and capital into building an identity that resonates with your audience. Reason: Your brand may end up being one of your business’ most valuable assets.
Looking for role models as your proceed in this effort? Here’s a look at two highly successful brands, how they got where they are today and what you can learn from them.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 30 years, if I say “Swoosh,” odds are you’ll think Nike. Of the three major sneaker companies, Nike is far and away the market leader. In 2016, the company’s revenue was $19.87 billion — 60 percent higher than Adidas’s’ and Puma’s, combined.
Nike spends an undisclosed fortune on research and development and would likely argue that it’s quality that makes its brand number one. But is Nike’s product really 60 percent better than those of Adidas and Puma, combined? Or does its dominance have more to do with branding and marketing?
Here are three brand-building takeaways from Nike:
Stand alone. Nike has worked with many sports superstars over the years, including Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, but the Swoosh — and the brand’s “Just Do It” tagline — keep the focus very much on Nike the brand. Nike has few equals when it picks the right talent to promote its products, but it never makes those picks at the expense of brand identity. Instead, Nike utilizes many spokespeople, never just one, because hitching your wagon to one star is a risky proposition. Similarly, a company’s founder, should never becomethe brand. Tying his or her persona too closely to the brand’s identity makes it much harder for the founder to exit without damaging that identity in the eyes of customers. Any would-be buyer or investor will spot this weakness in a minute. Build a stand-alone brand that is adaptable and easily transferable, from the start.
Consistency. Visuals, messaging, color scheme, campaigns, social media and advertising should be consistent and represent your core business values. This will ensure that your branding and marketing strategies stay closely aligned. Think critically about how every message you send (including tweets) will be perceived by your audience.
Execution. You’ve probably heard the story of how the Nike swoosh was created by Carolyn Davidson, who was initially paid $35 for the job. I’ve heard it told time and again by entrepreneurs. Usually, they’re trying to make the point that design is unimportant and branding is easy. I would posit the opposite. The logo existed long before Nike became the dominant force it is today. The swoosh was first used by Nike on June 18, 1971, nine years before the company went public. It built a story and identity around the logo through endorsements (think Air Jordan sneakers), marketing (Just Do It) and product innovation. The logo itself is not responsible for Nike’s success; it is a symbol of the Nike brand’s promise to its consumer.
Dollar Shave Club
Did you do a double-take at the suggestion that you not become the face of your business? Undoubtedly, you thought of many examples where the founder is closely identified with the brand: Steve Jobs with Apple, Elon Musk with Tesla and Richard Branson with Virgin.
One founder who hasn’t quite reached that rarefied level (yet) is Michael Dubin, CEO of men’s grooming business Dollar Shave Club (DSC). A true entrepreneur, Dubin tried and failed to launch several businesses before hitting a home run with DSC. His success should be an inspiration and example to nascent entrepreneurs everywhere.
Dubin launched DSC in 2011 with virtually zero capital and a dream. His first focus wasn’t learning everything there is to know about razors. He didn’t do extensive market research or impanel focus groups to validate his concept. He paid no heed to the naysayers.
Knowing that the story behind the brand was even more important than the product, Dubin spent virtually all of his startup capital on one thing: branding. The promotional video he created to launch DSC has now racked up more than 25 million views on YouTube. Five years later, he sold DSC to Unileverfor $1 billion, having built up to that point by employing the following:
Storytelling. Dubin inherently understands the most important part of branding. You need to tell a story, one that resonates with your target consumers. In Dubin’s words, “Nike sells the idea of winning; Starbucks sells the idea of togetherness and productivity. DSC offers their customers the idea of being the best version of themselves, and that’s a very powerful idea.” Other promises conveyed by the brand have included convenience, trustworthiness and value.
Knowing he should be the spokesperson, not the brand. No one is better positioned to be a brand evangelist than its founder. The key is to build a strong brand that exists alongside a founder, rather than within it, so the brand can stand alone. Perhaps no founder is more identified with a brand than Steve Jobs, but it’s telling of the power behind Apple’s brand that its shares dipped briefly when he passed away — though not for long.
Knowing he should go to war with the army he had. Michael Dubin is a funny guy. He actually was a comedian! What does that have to do with selling razors? It turns out, quite a lot. Dubin didn’t sink his startup capital into R&D; he spent it creating that viral YouTube spot. Within 90 minutes of its airing, the flood of people wanting to sign up for DSC crashed the company’s server.
The message here? Launching a new online venture is exciting. It’s easy to get wrapped up in concept and functionality and forget to tell your “story” to your target audience. Remember, you don’t need to have a huge marketing budget at first. Play to your strengths and utilize the tools and channels available to you.
Learn from the examples above and you’ll be off to a good start.