As a small business, you might think that you can’t compete with Nike. But you’re wrong.

Sure, Nike has a huge advertising budget, sponsors the most famous athletes in the world, and has produced some of the most iconic branding of the past six decades.

But break down their most successful recent campaigns, and you’ll realize that what they are doing is neither complex nor unique. Their biggest recent success has come with the Colin Kaepernick campaign, explicitly siding with the superstar quarterback in his decision to take a knee during the US national anthem. The campaign generated huge controversy, but it also did much more: it signaled Nike’s brand values, engaged with a key audience for them, and produced many, many headlines.

In fact, the controversy caused by the campaign was a conscious choice, because Nike realized – along with other huge brands – the value of controversy, campaigns based on social values, and the power of influencers. Or rather, their ad agency has.

In this article, we’ll show you how to do the same without paying an ad agency hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’ll explain why these “advanced” types of advertising are so effective, and show you how to use them in small business marketing.

Just one note before we begin, though. These techniques should be seen as a complement to your existing strategy, rather than as a replacement. You need to get the basics right first, and then you can experiment a little. So before you read this article, check out our guide to the most important sales KPIs as a jumping off point. It’s also important to know how to build a buyer persona and the value of customer analytics.

With some basic advertising infrastructure in place, it’s time to cause some arguments! 

Small business marketing: Keeping Up With the Ad Agencies 

Small businesses have a difficult balance to negotiate when it comes to branding.

A huge company like Nike can take risks when it comes to their advertising, because they are able to soak up the consequences of getting it wrong. A case in point is Pepsi, whose 2017 “Live for Now Moments Anthem” campaign was also hugely controversial, this time for all the wrong reasons: the company was seen as exploiting social movements to sell soda. Despite the fall-out, however, the brand sought little difference to its bottom line.

For small businesses, a mistake on that level would likely sink the company. However, at the same time small businesses are able to take advantage of their agility, to carve out a name for themselves in a crowded environment. A controversial campaign, or one that engages with the issues that your customers care about, can be a powerful way to do that.

It is also, dare we say it, a cheap way of amplifying your spend on marketing. Digital marketing is now a major portion of the budget for small companies, and as such has an impact on everything from hiring the right team to calculating proper profit. Getting the most coverage possible is therefore critical for small businesses, and there are few better ways to do that than creating a stir.

All this said, the techniques we will cover in this article need to be used carefully in order to avoid a mistake on the scale of Pepsi’s. So in the following sections will take you through how to use them, and (perhaps more important) how not to. 

Social issues 

Some of the most effective campaigns of recent years have been those in which a brand highlights the importance of a social, ethical, or environmental issue. This was the case, for example, in one of Burger King’s recent campaigns, which elegantly explained the relationship between net neutrality and internet speeds by making some customers wait longer for their Whopper.

The campaign had several huge benefits for the brand. Beyond the basic fact of generating headlines, it allowed Burger King to indicate their brand values on a topic that was trending among one of their key target audiences – tech-savvy millennial and Gen Z consumers. Critically, also, the campaign sought to establish dialog on the topic of net neutrality, rather than the company trying to force a particular point of view.

Other campaigns of this type have focused on labor rights, racial discrimination, gender equality, and air pollution. In all cases, brands are seeking to align themselves with a particular view on an issue, in order to win over younger consumers who want their brands to be socially responsible. 

How to do it 

For small businesses, using this technique should neither be hard nor expensive. If your team is small, in fact, you probably hired your staff as much for their values as their technical or managerial nous. That means that choosing a social issue to engage with need not involve a long design process, because there are probably issues that your team already feel strongly about, and ones that they are keen to use your company’s platform to highlight.

Designing a socially conscious campaign in this way also avoids one of the largest pitfalls that accompanies this technique: you really don’t want to be seen to be cynically exploiting an important issue for commercial gain. If you – and your staff – are genuinely passionate about the issue you are highlighting, this will shine through in your ads. 

Controversial campaigns 

Controversial campaigns go one step further, picking a socially divisive issue (or merely a taboo one) and trying to stir up an argument. Because this kind of campaign is bound to create negative comments – that is, in fact, the point – it can be more risky than just highlighting your stance on an issue. But that means it can also be more effective.

Brands looking to create controversy generally go about this in one of two ways. One is an extension of the kind of social engagement mentioned above, and is well illustrated by Nike’s campaign. The other is to choose a subject that is taboo, as Marlo Marketing did in their “Girls Poop Too” campaign.

The key, with either type of campaign, is to stick to the facts. Your customers – and especially younger groups – will likely respond well to you being brave and looking to challenge damaging stereotypes. They will be less enthused if you end up coming across as preachy, dogmatic, and unable to respond to fair criticism. 

How to do it 

Implementing a campaign designed to cause controversy requires careful planning. When choosing a topic to engage with, the best plan for most small companies will be to choose a social issue on which there is a large degree of consensus among your customers, and not one that is taboo, because this latter type of campaign can be harder to handle.

You should then think carefully about how you present your position on an issue. Some of the most successful campaigns of recent years have been designed around “knowledge exchange” programs in which a brand does not explicitly choose a side, but which aim to improve communication between customers who may hold differing views. This was the case, for example, with a recent campaign by UN Women. 

Finally, make sure you are prepared for a backlash. If your aim is to stir people up, you are going to get negative feedback from your customers (and the general public). How you handle this can make the difference between a successful campaign that highlights your brand values, and a disaster that damages your reputation. In short: respond to criticism made in good faith by sticking to your guns, but also be willing to look at new evidence and perspectives as they are pointed out to you. 

Influencer marketing 

Influencer marketing is a technique that is quickly gaining popularity among huge brands, but is one that many small businesses feel is too complex for them to embrace.

That is not the case. Influencer marketing can be easy, and can also be extremely effective if you have identified (as you should have) extremely specific target groups. In some senses, though the term “influencer marketing” is pretty new, it is actually a technique that has been around for decades: sports companies sponsoring athletes would probably be called “influencer marketing” had it started happening this year.

The key benefit of influencer marketing is that it can be extremely specifically targeted. Though AI-driven ad targeting algorithms are getting better all the time, nothing yet comes close to a celebrity (and one who a customer has chosen to follow) recommending your products.

This means that influencer marketing is effective for brands that are seeking to build a name for themselves among niche audiences, or those that are hard to reach by traditional means. Influencer marketing is less effective for large companies, or those that are seeking a broader customer base across multiple demographics. 

How to do it 

When it comes to implementing an influencer marketing strategy, there is a fairly obvious way for small companies to go about this: hire an agency to do it for you. A quality agency will be able to take your market research, and your target audiences, and recommend the right influencer to push your products. They should also be able to give you an indication of the levels of success this kind of campaign will achieve.

The other approach is to do it yourself. That might sound intimidating, but in reality your team is probably already aware of who the key influencers are in your sector. Building an effective influencer marketing campaign is therefore more of a question of leveraging your existing knowledge, and reaching out to influencers in a spirit of free exchange, rather than attempting to convert mega-celebrities to the value of your brand.

The bottom line 

All of the above techniques can be seen as a way of creating cultural branding for your company. Many small companies, during their first few years, focus their marketing on stressing the value and quality of their products, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is only so long you can keep pushing the same message. Using your marketing budget to indicate that you have a social conscious, are brave, and are engaged with the movers and shakers in your sector is a powerful way of distinguishing your brand from all of your competitors.

Ultimately, these techniques will also generate long-term value, because they can be the first building blocks of a unique “brand story” that your customers will come to know very well. For this reason, and in closing, don’t be too keen to assess the effectiveness of these techniques using short-term measures like website traffic or cost-per-click. Short-term metrics such as these are unlikely to reflect the actual value of these campaigns over the entire business cycle, so a more holistic approach to ROI should be taken, in which the way in which your customers associate with your company should be a key measure.

For example, I didn’t comment on Nike’s campaign, nor did I buy any shoes after I saw it. But I sure know what Nike stands for, respect them for their bravery, and wrote about them in this article. And in the end, that might just be more important than selling some sneakers.



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