What Today’s Small Businesses Can Do to Beat Giant Competitors

"Craft brands" are winning market share by focusing on what makes them unique
(Photograph: iStock)

Retail used to be about shelf space. Own those precious inches, and you controlled the consumer relationships. But the multitude of new buying channels enabled by e-commerce platforms has exponentially widened the shelf. Small brands now have far more control over who sees and has access to their products, as well as where and how.

The decision between two products no longer comes down to how they look side-by-side in-store, but how well the mission and vision of the companies producing them are communicated through a screen. Consumers are hungry for information on which to base their choices, so it’s imperative small businesses tell their stories. That’s creating a new class of “craft” brands, which thrive on their uniqueness and connection to their customers.

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Brands no longer need to rely on retailers to build relationships or transact with customers. Online platforms like Shopify enable direct-to-consumer sales. Meanwhile, companies have unprecedented access to audiences through social media—buy buttons on sites like Facebook and Pinterest allow users to purchase items their friends share.

Market share is shifting, and the little guys—with their leaner teams and smaller budgets—are increasingly challenging large corporations. It used to cost millions to bring a product to market, what with the expenses of organizing a sales team, setting up manufacturing facilities and fulfillment warehouses, connecting with distributors, and advertising to consumers. Now small players can leverage technology to connect with an outsourced manufacturer, list on marketplaces like as eBay or Amazon, or advertise for pennies or dollars through social media and search.

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The nature of shopping has also changed. We’re now seeing the rise of “invisible commerce,” in which products and services are purchased automatically without the consumer having to think about it. (Think subscription services for razor blades, pet toys and so on). Eventually, that will eventually give way to “unconscious commerce,” in which transactions will happen by themselves based on historical data and purchasing patterns. The grocery store will be able to deliver goods to replenish your pantry before you realize you’re low on sugar.

Almost every transaction today is researched in advance, and influenced by information freely available online. Consumers are more knowledgeable and capable of discovering new products than ever before. They can now easily figure out what ingredients are in the food they eat, where the fabrics in the clothes they wear were sourced, and where the gears on their bicycles were manufactured. Brands’ commitments to the environment or other social goods are equally easy to track. With all this information available to shoppers, decisions are based on a simple underlying rule: They want the best available product, or the best available price.

The new crop of craft brands has mastered the art of using their stories to win customers. Many were created to meet an unmet need in the marketplace or solve a consumer problem, while others break into categories occupied by existing companies but put their own spin on a familiar product or service.

E-commerce does not follow a “build it and they will come” approach. A brand that doesn’t meet customers where they are is destined to fail. It’s critical for brands to communicate directly with current and possible customers, to find out what they’re saying and what they think they need, and then to fulfill those needs.

Ben Zifkin is the founder and CEO of Hubba. This article is adapted from his book, The Rise of the Craft Brand.