Branding: Small Businesses Vs Big Businesses

Published on 23rd January 2007

Strong brands have the ability to command better pricing, attract more quality customers and weather competitive storms. The virtues of having a strong brand are almost endless. On the outside however, building a strong brand appears to be the preserve of the big boys; the organizations with sufficient financial muscle to virtually blanket the globe with sheer presence. The Coca-Cola’s and Googles of this world have mind boggling budgets that go into brand building. Does the small business stand a chance in this race for global brand supremacy? Is it possible to remain small in terms of turn over, reap an above average return on investment, while commanding a world class brand? Can a small business boast of having a world class brand? These questions formed the basis of the fifth bi-monthly BRANDforum convened by multidisciplinary brand strategy think tank, Brandscape Africa and sponsored by events firm Impact by Design at the Palacina in Nairobi. A variety of professionals graced the occasion to discuss the challenges the small business owner faces as he or she tries to build a world class brand.

Tom Sitati, Executive Director of Brandscape spoke of the economic advantage being enjoyed by the West, and now increasingly, the East, which he attributed to their focus on brand building. Africa by contrast has remained in the trenches of mere product and service development. This imbalance has seen Africa remain unrecognized and the rear in both the national brand index (ANBI) and the Interbrand Top 100 brands. The ANBI (Anholt National Brand Index) list is done by brand guru, Simon Anholt, while Interbrand, the world’s largest branding agency is responsible for the product, service and organizational brand ranking. 

Brands, the Sum Total of Attributes

Brands are literally on everybody’s tongue but it is interesting just how many varied definitions there are for brands. In defining what a brand is, Paul Nganga, a founding director of brand design firm, GreyOwl, opted to start by stating what a brand is not. “It is not a logo, colours associated with a product or service, the product in the package, advertising but a combination of these”. Interbrand defines a brand as the total sum of a product attributes conveyed by the external characteristics.

Participants agreed that brands have a target audience and it is their dominance of this target audience and ability to command superior pricing in market that determines whether they are big or small. A brand needn’t endear itself to a market it doesn’t and can not serve. Brand building therefore needs to be targeted at the relevant audience especially for a small business with limited budgets. There are several small businesses which are huge brands but remain unknown in the public domain as they do not serve the masses. Zainab Yahya, the Managing Director of a travel firm, Travel Creation, highlighted the power of networking and the need to harness it to grow the small business brand. In her experience, word of mouth worked wonders for small business brands. This is especially true when one considers that the small business brand doesn’t have the financial muscle to reach audiences through the mass media. If the business wishes to remain small but give a great return on investment while creating a great brand, then going mass media would actually frustrate this goal.  

Mr. Oluoch Olunya, Director of St. James Hospital spoke of the fluidity of brands in the healthcare industry. Hospitals are a high stress business as people go to hospitals when they are unwell. Service levels have to be of the highest standards and health care must also not be compromised if the brand is to remain top. Hospital brands that had invested in brick, mortar and high tech equipment didn’t necessarily have an edge if they didn’t have good service levels. Poor service would still damage the brand. 

Competing with the “big boys” 

The small business finds itself existing in the real world. This means it must be able to compete and beat the big businesses to survive and have some hope of thriving. Sometimes the small business will find itself going head to head with large businesses. How does the small business surmount this challenge? Pitching against large businesses seems to always put the small business at a disadvantage. Certain clients demand financial statements over several years as proof of the supplier’s financial capacity and stability. How does the small business manage to beat larger and more financially stable organizations? One thing participants at the Brandscape BRANDforum agreed on was the need to be different. It is impossible to compete on the same footing as the larger businesses. The small business needs to find its unique strength that cannot be matched by the larger firms. In essence, the small business is more in need of a strong unique brand than the large business as this is its only hope of standing out of the large shadow of the big business. 

Small Business, Big Brand

Jebet Chemgorem, the creative director of GreyOwl noted that one can have a small business with a large brand. The small business can impress the client by being nimble and flexible, attributes that large businesses are unable to replicate. This can be the small businesses brand. The world is moving in a direction which favours the small business. More demanding consumers means higher demand for more personalized services - a strength for the small business brand. Njambi Kiritu, Managing Director of Impact by Design spoke of the need for consistently delivering and satisfying the client. Small businesses have the advantage of being able to bend for clients. For this reason, more clients are going for the smaller businesses that have distinguished their brands by providing exceptional personalized service. 

You Can’t Beat the Internet!

Writing in “The World in 2007” which is published by The Economist, Google Chief Executive, Eric Shmidt had this to say, “Betting against the internet is foolish because you’re betting against human ingenuity and creativity.” The power of the internet cannot be ignored even in the developing world. Ravinder Singh of Kulwant remarks that most estimates given on internet usage ware conservative as they ignore the cybercafés which have mushroomed everywhere and have close to eighty percent occupancy. Through the internet, it is now possible for a small business to grow a large presence and large brand as the internet is accessible to billions of people. This power of the internet caused Time magazine to name “YOU” the person of the year due to the fact that the media scene has now turned upside down. You used to wait for the media to talk to you, now you have the power of a media house though the internet. Successes stories like “You Tube” are proof of this. The internet is likely to tilt the power in the global brandscape away from large businesses in favour of the small and nimble brand. All that small businesses have to do is harness this power to create the next big brands because small businesses can be big brands.


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