Bear-making involves a lot of sitting around sewing - being busy with your hands but not with your mind - and I've been determined recently to try and occupy that time better. I was thinking I ought to be listening to something useful whilst I'm sewing. I started out with small business marketing podcasts, but went onto reading about marketing (which sort of defies the point of the exercise, since I can't read and sew at the same time!).
Anyway, I always thought marketing videos and articles tended to be 99% hot air,with just a few nuggets of useful information which - although it's probably useful to have them pointed out to you - are not worth the ten minutes it takes you to read the article or watch the video. When I first started out, I remember watching a lot of selling videos on Youtube - the gist of which seemed to be, stand with your shoulders back; make eye contact; believe in yourself! Important stuff, I'm sure, but easily summarised in a few seconds.
There is another side to it though (maybe). If you draw an analogy with a hot air balloon, maybe you need a lot of hot air to run a small business!
The stuff I've been reading about recently, while struggling with my new prototype (see last post), has brought up a lot of questions which are probably really basic and fundamental to running a business, but which I've always been a bit woolly about. Things like: who is your target audience? Who is your competition? What is your unique selling point?
My target audience is... anyone who likes my bears. My competition is... anyone else who makes bears. My unique selling point is... uh...
I'm not entirely sure what a unique selling point (USP) is. Sure, it's something good which differentiates you from your competitors, but more specifically? Some people state that their USP is good customer service, fast dispatch times, stuff like that - but is that really unique? Isn't that just good practice - something everyone should aim for?
Other people offer customisation of the product. I can see that makes the product unique to the customer, but surely anyone who makes something by hand can somehow work the customer's name into it somewhere - so it's hardly a USP.
Another way in which the USP has been described is as something which allows a customer to instantly recognise a product as being yours - which makes it sound like it could be a ladybird embroidered on the foot, or something. Again, that isn't really how I understand the term.
One conclusion I did come to, reading all this stuff, was that in my case, I should probably focus on a different USP for each of the different forums I use for selling the bears. At the Art & Craft Centre, for example, despite it's name, hand-made items are in the minority. There are lots of manufactured items (indeed, I sell manufactured bears alongside the bears I make), and quite a few people there don't make anything themselves. The fact that BigFeetBears are hand-made locally therefore, might constitute a USP in that particular forum. Selling my bears on Etsy, on the other hand, where there are so many hand-made items, the 'hand-made' thing can hardly be described as unique.
On the other hand, even at the Art & Craft Centre, I'm not sure 'hand-made' is enough of a USP. It is an Art & Craft Centre after all: new visitors might reasonably expect the items sold there to be hand-made - as a bare minimum. Although it's not that way in practice, I could use a similar argument to that used with Etsy: if people expect to find hand-made items there, why should the fact that my bears are hand-made be in any way special or unique?
So what else? It's got to be something that appeals to my customers specifically, and which my competition does not have - which brings me back to the question of who, specifically, are BigFeetBears' customers and who is it's competition?
This might sound like a course of questioning which isn't going anywhere, but I did actually have a bit of a lightbulb moment. First of all, at the Art & Craft Centre, at least one way of defining my customers would be that they are those people who come through the door looking to buy a gift. My 'competition' therefore, must surely be all the other people who sell there - even though they sell completely different stuff. The question is, how to persuade people to buy a teddy bear rather than, e.g. a piece of jewellery or a scarf.
The best comments I've had about my bears - from people who buy them, and people who just come up to tell me this - is that they all have different expressions. Customers seem to 'click' with bears; even where I have several of the same design, a buyer will 'take to' one of them over and above the rest. At the Clare Priory craft fair last year, for example, I had five of my little vintage-style bears - all of the same design, although they came out with small differences - like their heads tilting in slightly different ways. It was really striking how people would come up repeatedly just to look at one particular bear - even though there were five of the same design.
My theory is, therefore, that people buy bears as gifts because they have character - because the customer recognises a little bit of personality in them which you don't find when you're buying, e.g. a scarf. That's no insult to scarves, mind - I guess if you're a scarf seller, you might choose to emphasise the functional and/or fashionable element of the product, which doesn't apply to teddy bears at all. But the point is that you attempt to get the customer to think along lines which best suit your product.
So, the customer comes in looking for a gift and sees a scarf they like - "Hmmm, that would be useful in this weather, and it's a quite unusual design - so-and-so might like that." Then they see a teddy bear with an intelligent expression. If they're still thinking along functional/fashionable lines, they might pass him by. If on the other hand, the teddy bear seller can persuade the customer to think differently - to think of the gift they are giving as something which should express a particular sentiment, rather than just being useful - then the customer might stop and pick up the bear.
And of course the customer might leave the Centre, completely confused after thinking in so many different ways, having bought nothing. We do often get people coming up to the cash desk - "it's like an Aladdin's Cave in here - I could buy everything!" Then they buy a card.
Anyway, after all that hot air, I do have a few useful conclusions - albeit only minor ones (maybe I ought to go into marketing myself):
- When you define your 'competitors', you might look - not just at people selling similar things to yourself - but also at people selling within the same website, building or shopping centre.
- The USP of your product might differ according to where you're selling it. So, for example, if you have a high street shop, the USP might be that your product is hand-made, whereas if you're selling on Etsy or Folksy, you would need to emphasise some other aspect of its appeal.
- Whilst the USP is often defined as a benefit which you offer and your competitors do not, in the area of non-functional gifts you might need to throw out the idea of 'benefit'. Instead, think about the appeal of your items and how it differs from the appeal of your competitors' products. You don't necessarily need to suggest that your products are better than those of your competitors - but you do need to get your customers to think along lines favourable to your own products.