Why your brand and your USP are important

Have you ever been confused by a marketing message or an advertisement that seemed out of place with the product? My on-line and sometimes off-line friend Rod Sloane quite rightly described McDonalds’ current TV ad in the UK as “bonkers” which was exactly the word that had come to my mind.

Possibly McDonalds feel that their burgers have to be portrayed as a wholesome product made with 100% British beef but the ad does not even show the product, only pulling us back at the end with the familiar McDonalds banner. Otherwise it is along the line of some of those car adverts where we think “what on earth was all that about?” Of course I understand that the healthy option food police have suggested that burgers are dangerous with all that cholesterol, but let’s be sensible. Healthy sports can be dangerous. As a fit though not talented skier I did myself a lot of damage once. I do not think we should ban skiing and I do not think we should ban Big Macs or that McDonalds should almost pretend they do not sell them.

I have more than one business, and perhaps I should not tell you so as not to confuse you. I think if you are here then you are more likely to buy into me and my personal brand (this is not a selling blog of course). However, my businesses are marketed separately and distinctly, and I hope people are not confused between them. We need to keep our propositions simple. If someone is a landscape gardener who also knows a lot about keeping coy carp and goldfish, and excavates and sets up ponds, it is probably better to keep the propositions separate. Otherwise potential clients will say “is he / she a gardening expert or a pond expert?” They might think that they are looking at a gardener who dabbles figuratively and otherwise in ponds, and it blurs the offering. Of course a person can be very good at more than one thing, as I think I am, but for someone who does not know the business owner, it can be very confusing and that person may go to whom he or she considers the “expert” rather than to a supposed dabbler.

So I believe that when we market our business by whatever means, we need to keep our product or service clear and distinct, and whilst we may talk about the problems we solve, we do not need to get involved in the fluffy stuff such as McDonalds’ pastoral scenes and bucolic frolics. McDonalds are selling fast food, aren’t they? They should stick with their USP.

© Jon Stow 2009

Better to have a business plan than have your dreams shattered

I was shopping in our village this morning and found the butcher’s shop was closed. There was a notice in the window, presumably put there by the shop landlord, which announced that the shop owners had paid no rent since they started trading last April, six months ago.

I always try to support our local shopkeepers, especially on a Saturday when I always go the village, sometimes with my wife. It is hard-going for many local traders. We are blessed with a very successful hardware shop who seem to sell virtually anything from light bulbs through egg-timers and fire guards to those things you use to unblock toilets. The business has been in the same family for 100 years and they know exactly how to cater for the needs of local people. Recently they have expanded into the shop next door.

We also have a successful baker’s shop. They do a roaring trade in the morning and also make sandwiches for the lunch time trade from local workers from the offices, shops and the factory units we now have down the road. They again cater for a known need.

Until a year ago, the village butcher’s shop was occupied by a local family of butchers, who also own a “farm shop” a couple of miles from the village in which they sell local produce – all the usual things you would expect a butcher to sell, including game. They closed the shop last Autumn because as they told me, the overheads in the village were just too high, and whilst the shop was quite busy they were not making very much money. They had decided to concentrate on the business out of town where they owned the premises on the farm and had more control.

The sad reality is that many people now prefer the one-stop shop available at the two large supermarkets within ten minutes drive and where parking is free. In the village, unless you know where to park, you will have to find 60 pence even for an hour, which of course discourages people for shopping locally even with the high price of fuel used in driving to the supermarket.

The people who took the butcher’s shop last April should have asked themselves why an apparently successful business from down the road could not maintain their village venture profitably. The likelihood is that the rents and business rates prevented the shop from being viable. Such a shop would have to rely on a very high turnover to cover the costs, which frankly they were never going to be able to do in the face of supermarket competition, and of course the farm shop owners who were their predecessors.

It reminded me of the cafe owners in a local town who asked me a couple of years ago to help them make their business profitable. They had a dozen tables, but were paying an annual rent of £17,000 as well as a large amount for utilities given that they were cooking all the time. It was clear that they could never make a profit even if they employed no one else. The figures did not stack up and never could have even before they opened. Rents based on floor area tend to reflect a higher expectation of profit often through a turnover of higher valued items. If you have a cafe you have to have a fantastic following or be really exceptional to stand out in a seaside town with numerous similar offerings. My clients lost the business they should never have started.

The lesson is to always have a business plan. A business plan is not just something we put together for the bank to raise finance. Sometimes we have to look past our romance and our dreams and think whether we really have a shot at making our ideal business work. If we have not done our sums properly and have not thought about contingencies for our teething problems and things that go wrong, our dreams can become nightmares and our hopes can be wrecked, as well as our financial security. A business plan is not just for the bank manager, but something that has to be carefully thought out, and adhered to. It can be changed as circumstances alter, but always has to make sense, otherwise starting a business will just be a leap in the dark.

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
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Social media experts

The word “expert” is not a word I am comfortable with. One of the sites to which I am contributor, and for which I am grateful because of the additional exposure does describe me as an expert author. Whilst this is a sort of compliment, I write about what I know through experience. After all, I write this blog about small business life because I have a small business of my own (well, three actually), I help other small businesses, and I have formal training in addition to my experience to assist me in finding resources which I cannot supply myself for the businesses I help. I am not a salesman, though I have learned a lot about marketing, I do not sell quality control marks or broker finance, and I do not provide support on health and safety (or risk and safety as I understand is more appropriate). However, I know people who can do this. So, I am not an expert on all aspects of running a small business, or indeed a big business.

I have a tax practice too. I advise people on taxation issues; I advise both businesses and individuals. I am the first port of call for many who have problems with direct taxation or simply need compliance. I know my stuff, I do my CPD religiously and I enjoy it. However, ask me about customs duties, petroleum revenue tax, landfill tax or even some of the finer points of VAT, and I will find you a specialist. I am not a tax expert because that is too general a term. I am very strong on most day-to-day direct tax issues and I advise other tax practitioners and accountants, but I do not profess to know everything about taxation, and actually no one does. I am a facilitator or conduit for provisions of services outside my own area. You would not expect a biologist to be a whiz on particle physics or an astrophysicist to know all about plastics production, but the specialists in these areas are all scientists, aren’t they? Some of them may even have trained in the same basic disciplines once upon a time.

So, I am a tax specialist. If you had asked me twenty years ago where taxation in the UK or internationally would be today, how it would have been structured, and about inter-government cooperation against tax avoidance and evasion, I would not have had a clue and I doubt anyone else would. Ask me today where taxation will be in twenty years time and I will decline to answer, because I do not know.

Ask an economist where taxation or indeed the economy will be in twenty years time and you may get an answer, but I doubt it would prove very accurate. One of the reasons it would not be accurate is that such predictions are modelled on what has happened previously. In the current recession and following the banking crash, people tend to look at the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. That was a another time though. One of the knock-on effects of the poverty and difficulties in Europe coupled with events in the USA led to the rise of European dictators and eventually the Second World War.

The situation is different now, and part of what has changed the world is the media explosion of mass instant communication which started with the much greater availability of the telephone, through to the internet. It is more difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the public even in modern totalitarian regimes. How many media “experts” of twenty years ago predicted the internet as it is today? Some might have forecast the real-time communication element but not the vast heaving chatter of Twitter or even that (nearly) every serious business should have a website.

We have specialists in media technology, those geeks and early adopters who try every new gizmo and gadget, and who are currently trialling Google Wave. I read their reviews avidly and and appreciate their technical knowledge and insight. They are specialists but do not know what will happen in twenty years time or even five. Twitter was founded only just over three years ago and even the guys who started it cannot have known where it would lead in so short a time.

So what about social media? Are there any experts? I think there are specialists, but nobody knows where we will go, inextricably linked with the technology. The most successful networkers are those who understand about people. That is nothing new. A few are trained in psychology, which is about understanding behaviour. Most are just natural networkers. They understand human nature and that giving should always come first, but that idea pre-dates all technology and was reinforced by Dale Carnegie and others in the thirties and since.

I am not knocking the leading social media networkers. There are several I would count as dear friends and many I know well enough to trust implicitly. However, they are not futurologists any more than I am, and those who write or make a living talking about social media or even just Twitter are advising from their own experience and knowledge as I do in my fields. Even then some social media environments are so new that we need to form a view based on a basket of opinions, because some may be wrong. In the end we are engaging with human beings on-line, and are acquainted with far more individuals than we could have dreamed about only a few years ago. As long as we remember they are people and treat them as we would our traditionally-acquired friends and good neighbours, we shouldn’t go far wrong.

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
Have you submitted your Tax Return yet?
Follow me on Twitter