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Small businesses shouldn’t try to hide who they are

“Fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s the working mantra for many small businesses overwhelmed by larger, more established competitors. It’s a mindset that spawns bombastic marketing claims of all things to all people. But to a skeptical consumer, it never quite adds up.

There was a time when universal marketing worked. The problem now is that prospects are blinded by a blizzard of messaging they rarely believe. Fake news, post-truth politics and marketing hype have eroded the public’s trust in small businesses struggling to be known.

But many customers don’t always want the biggest and best. They often just want a vendor that fits – fits their needs, their culture and their service expectations. They want a hardworking company that’s honest about who they are and what they do. Some prospects even seek out smaller vendors hoping they’ll work harder for the business.

A few years ago, a handful of successful attorneys in Toronto split off from their large-firm jobs to start their own. Most worked from home on cell phones and laptops. Their web site highlighted denim-clad employees in a communal office that better resembled a Starbucks than a law firm.

Their web site resisted superlative headlines. Instead, they focused on the proposition of reducing fees by stripping out the pomp and circumstance. Their web site said: “Our fees are lower because we don’t wear $1,500 suits.” Another image held the caption that read “our work is just as good at home as it was in a high-rise office.”

It’s a big step for a small firm to narrow its focus and communicate unique value in excruciatingly blunt language. They not only admitted who they were, they owned it. They tapered a pompous elevator speech right down to an uncomfortable pair of skinny jeans.

Billings doubled in the second year. The next year they tripled. A few years later the firm was acquired in an eight-digit deal that made the equity employees rich. Throughout their rise, they remained confident in their abilities. Their marketing resisted tired accolades that lull readers into a coma. For their clients, those things were understood. Overstating them would appear desperate.

It’s difficult to look past catchall marketing when every garage-band startup claims to be the next great thing. A good business needs an authentic voice that resonates with its audience. It should be honest and sincere – something prospects don’t feel compelled to question.

Focusing on a niche can take the same shape. Bruce Hennes of Hennes Communications decided years ago, that his PR firm would focus only on crisis communications, and the strategy continues to resonate throughout the region.

As an unintended consequence, the crisis firm receives countless requests for traditional marketing – a service Hennes does not promote. This is an important point because many small businesses fear that narrowing their marketing message prevents other revenue opportunities.

Ironically, the opposite often occurs. Companies well known for a specialty unintentionally invite additional lines of business. The thought is that if the company is perceived as an expert in one area, they must be great in others. This is how Porsche inexplicably completes with Range Rover in the luxury SUV market.

The challenge is first becoming known in an area and controlling that market. Once a company establishes a leadership role, opportunities emerge beyond the specialty and become far more attainable.

If you don’t think your company has a unique and believable value proposition, create one. Yes, that’s easier said than done, but it doesn’t require retooling the company. It just changes the way you take your existing business to market.

Joe Mosbrook is managing partner of Acclaim Communications LLC, a full-service marketing agency in Cleveland that employs only senior-level account executives, designers and web developers. For more information visit