“How can you tell us that brand relevance is important, but I see numerous examples of nondescript, undifferentiated brands everywhere I look?” asked a small business owner during the Q&A for a small business conference I spoke at in Athens, Ga. She had a point. You see them in nearly every city, usually as part of a strip mall, squeezed between a dry cleaners and an electronics repair shop. The only thing that alerts you of life inside is a lonely neon “Donuts” sign. Nothing else. What appears from the outside to be poor marketing is actually effective in helping these small businesses meet their goals.

These shops cater to the hordes of folks who simply want donuts. Not Dunkin Doughnuts. Not Krispy Kreme Do-Nuts. Just…donuts. They don’t need to try to be something they aren’t. They don’t need a fancy building, ideal location or even a name. They just need somewhere to bake their goodies and sell them. And, because they aren’t counting on familiarity or brand recognition, the concept can work anywhere.

Donuts with chocolate sprinkles

But what’s great for generic donut makers is terrible for 99.9 of  small businesses. Why? Because it’s unlikely that you sell a project or service that looks, feels, performs exactly as the others in the category. Even if you did, are you willing to leave it to chance that a prospect will find and choose your businesses? As a small business, the last thing you want to do is fit in. It’s the shortest path to irrelevance. You need to stand out for your unique offerings, making it clear that your products or services are the best options available.

Make brand relevance a priority

Unlike the donut shop, people are choosing your product or service specifically because of its unique qualities. (If they aren’t, you are in really big trouble.) And to ensure that they continue choosing you ahead of the competition, you need to keep a couple things top of mind.

Be meaningfully different.

I’m sure you are tired of me “saying” that you need to be different. (Me, too.) What I have neglected to make plain, however, is that you need to be different in a way that resonates with your core client base. For example, if your business is selling apparel, and your clients are primarily folks who enjoy the great outdoors, creating a line of brightly-colored shirts with movie catchphrases emblazoned on them wouldn’t be ideal. (Though it would likely be seen as different. That’s being different for the sake of being different, which comes off as tacky.

Ronell Smith fishing from a flats boat at Islamorado with Columbia Apparel guide

You must provide your customer with a benefit that is in some way meaningful and drives home the point that you know and understand them. In the case of the apparel marketer, benefits such as lighter weight, more breathable, cooler fabric would better suit outdoor enthusiasts. Columbia Sportswear’s Performance Fishing Gear (PFG) nails this, creating apparel outdoor apparel with the end user in mind.

Hang your hat on service.

In case you missed it, customer service is kind of a big deal. So big a deal is it that two of the companies that had, in recent years, “enjoyed” some of the worst customer service rankings, are now finding it a key to turning around flagging sales. I know we hear about customer service being important so often that it seems like a cliché. In truth, it’s anything but. No matter what business you are in, take the time to get to know your customers, ask him or her questions and get as much feedback as you can, all with the goal of figuring out how to better serve them.

Remember, the more and the better you know your customers, the less you need to market to them. With that in mind, why aren’t you engaging fans of Instagram or soliciting feedback via Twitter? What’s more, now is as good a time as any to start spending a little time each week on the phone with customers, asking about ways you can better serve them.

Making brand relevance stick

When it comes to staying relevant, a little goes a long way. I’m amazed each day, when I talk to clients and potential clients and I hear them say they cannot afford to do more than they already do to stay afloat. It’s not, I say, an affordability issue. It’s about doing more and doing better with what you have to work with.