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Promote your business: marketing

Marketing, simply put, is the action of persuading customers to identify with and then to buy a firm's goods or services.

Marketing, like all things in business life, must be adapted to circumstance. That what is effective for a multi-national corporation clearly may have little direct meaning for a small firm trading on a local or regional basis. But the general principle - to think as much about the customer you are trying to reach as about the product you are trying to sell - is relevant for all businesses, whatever their sector or size or location.

Properly pursued, a marketing plan, or even a marketing-driven frame of mind, will help a business think with greater clarity about its aims and how they can be achieved. It will encourage a business to examine its product or service, its markets, its customers and, most importantly, its approach to winning new business. What marketing discourages is introspection; a fastidious concentration solely on the product. Instead, it diverts attention outwardly, to what the market or the customer wants.

The customer, always the customer

Marketing's first step is to map out who a firm's best customers might be. It niggles at such questions as matching products more neatly to customer needs. It looks for new markets outside of the existing customer base. It interrogates the product for weaknesses, flaws or simple tiredness. It speculates on what new products, or what the same products differently presented, can do for sales figures. It does all this by placing the customer at the right at the centre of things.

Whether you are making very expensive cars or whether you are running a small business producing hand-made jam, there is the same imperative to target your customers as closely and as accurately as possible.

Marketing terms

Marketing deals with the very basic, practical elements of business.

One of these is price. Undercutting the competition on price often looks a good tactic: we're cheaper; they'll buy from us. Of course, many people do shop on price, especially where the essentials are concerned. But price should never be confused with the value of a product in the consumer's mind; in many cases it is ultimately value that will create the strongest bond between a business and its customers. The price of any item is finally set by the amount that customers are willing to pay for it, not solely by the cost of producing or delivering it.

Two other important, but sometimes misunderstood, terms are features and benefits. A feature is that which the producer adds to their product or service; a benefit is the advantage that the buyer gains from using the product or service. So while a car manufacturer might invest in adding a sunroof to their latest model, the driver benefits from a flow of cool air on a hot sunny day. The secret here is to convince the customer that the feature represents a meaningful benefit. A good marketing strategy will always seek to describe a feature not simply in terms of itself but as a benefit to the customer. While this sounds like commonsense, many businesses concentrate on promoting the features of their product at the expense of their relevance to the customer.

Identifying your customer

As well isolating the benefits of a product, marketing also concentrates its attention on the sort of customer a business should be trying to win over. One way of doing this is to divide a potential audience up into different segments. This can be done by age, gender, social grouping, geographical area or job, depending both on the general market sector and the type of product or service being sold. Many smaller companies gain from targeting - that is, focussing on - a niche market rather than competing against mass producers. By separating out potential customers, it makes it easier for a company to accentuate what it is about their product that will most appeal to that group.

Differentiating types of customer has another potential advantage. It enables a business to change its method of operation the better to accommodate the needs of its customers. New ways of delivering the service can be tried out; or products can be honed to satisfy specific customer requirements.

Knowing more about its customers, and their distinguishing characteristics, will give a business a raft of vital information. Such information will make it easier to find out who are its most loyal customers, where more of a similar sort of customer can be found and how best to reach them. It will nudge a business towards extra product specialisation if that is what the market is demanding. And it will give a business a head start in spotting those gaps in the market that its rivals have been slow to exploit or have ignored altogether.

Setting out your stall

Where a business places itself in its market will also play a part in its success. If a business has decided to move up-market, it must behave in way that reflects its position. If the service is to be cheap and cheerful, then a firm must make sure that its tone and style are appropriate for its customers. It is even possible to sell the same product to two different audiences, but, with a change say in packaging or tone of voice, sold in two suitably different ways.

Branding

Too often, brand image is presumed to be of importance only to big companies, those with a national or international presence. This is not the case.

Any business can create a brand image for itself, and inexpensively too. Usually, it need consist of no more than a name and a look. It is this name and look, which, once decided on, will set the tone and personality for the business and its products. It also forms the umbrella under which new products and services can be launched.

A brand should be held to consistently and should be visible and memorable. The sort of branding a business should adopt will be determined by both its product - serious or inexpensive - and its position in the market.

Marketing is good for you

All businesses actually have sales, pricing and customer strategies by virtue of simply being in business. What marketing can do is to shape and mould those strategies so that they are coherent, relevant and workable.

A broad business process, marketing has many sub-disciplines: advertising, direct marketing, packaging, new media presence and customer relationship management to name but a few.

Planning a marketing campaign

The last thing a business that wishes to promote itself should do is rush out and book an ad space or request a fulfillment cost on a multi-sector direct mail campaign. First, as with all good business practices, it should draw up a marketing plan.

The purpose of a marketing plan is essentially twofold. It should define where a business already is and where it would like it to be within a given period of time. To be relevant, the marketing plan must also indicate how the transition from one point to the other is to be managed.

Know yourself

Self-knowledge is invaluable since this will allow a business to set itself realistic sales and development targets. Before anything else, therefore, a business should conduct a self-assessment study known as a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis gauges a firm's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Under strengths, a business should list those things at which it is particularly adept, such as, for example, product quality or customer service. Ditto weaknesses. Opportunities represent openings in the market which are new or which appear relatively unexploited by the competition. Threats summarise the strengths of rival businesses.

The words or phrases arranged beneath each heading will, if the analysis has been rigorously honest, produce a reasonably accurate picture of just how well a business is able to deliver its product or service.

Market assessment

To the SWOT analysis should be added what the business already knows of its customers and market. This should include how well its product or service fits in with existing customer needs; whether a product or service should be refined or added to so that it is better able to compete or attract a broader customer base; whether the pricing policy matches the market's expectations; whether the profile of existing or potential customers is changing; and where the best and most loyal customers are likely to be found.

The market should be scanned for shifts in buying habits. Customer groups can shrink and grow according to broader social changes or for quite specific and precise reasons (there's a better or less, or more, expensive product elsewhere).

It is also important to read the short-term future. This will help a company anticipate such events, say, as imminent technological advances or fluctuations in buying cycles, which can be either disruptive or an opportunity.

Any increase in activity from the competition also needs to be measured as this will affect the way in which a business might choose to promote itself (by price, by quality).

Most firms lack the resources to carry out the sort of detailed research that will allow them to establish an exhaustive market overview. But there are still data and information available to them that will help them to a clearer idea of product performance and market penetration. A look back over past sales figures may give some clues as to buying patterns (is there a seasonal trend to them?) and the durability of a product's popularity (is it waning and why?). Sometimes, a brief survey of existing customers - a simple, easy-to-complete questionnaire or a friendly, won't-take-a-minute market research phone call - will yield valuable information on attitudes to price, perceived value, product suitability, service needs and likely future demand.

Aims

From all this, a business can then set itself some goals. How best to mine its market for the most profitable returns; how to position the product or service so that it most closely matches customers requirements; and how to develop its spread of customers. These sales aims should be specific in their expression and in their measurement; a business must give itself actual, not wishful, targets, and must then accurately track its progress towards them. For this reason, a marketing campaign must include a timetable detailing how its objectives can be met. Once a timetable has been agreed, it should be stuck to.

Marketing activities

By now a business will be on the threshold of deciding which method, or combination of methods, it wishes to adopt in its efforts to reach more customers more often and more persuasively.

There are some final considerations that need to be borne in mind. The more competitors a business has, the noisier its market, and the more it must shout to make itself heard. The longer the gaps between sales, the more forgetful the customer is likely to be, and the more reminders and prompts they need. Special offers on price need to be promoted - so will the hoped-for increase in discounted sales offset the promotional spend? The more tightly a product fits a niche market, the higher its likely profile, and the lower its marketing budget.

A business can then decide exactly where its promotional energies and budgets - into advertising, direct mail, email campaigns, customer relations management - should go.