Big names step up in support of small business customers

President Barack Obama called US small businesses the "engines of growth" during the presidential debates.

President Barack Obama called US small businesses the "engines of growth" during the presidential debates.

According to the US Small Business Administration, 65% of new jobs during the past 17 years were created by small businesses. But small firms have struggled under the weight of a weak economy. A survey by insurance group The Hartford in August found 67% of small business owners did not intend to hire over the next year because of economic concerns. Recognizing these struggles, many large companies are ramping up efforts to assist small businesses, a key part of their customer base.

"If you were to ask a small business leader, they would say they are looking for partners to help them reach the next step," says Marisa Puthoff, SVP and group head of the corporate practice at Edelman Atlanta.

A study by The UPS Store earlier this year found many small business owners feel they don't have the support they need to face daily challenges. Most respondents said they would prefer to do business with other local owners. With that in mind, The UPS Store began a brand repositioning in September with the tagline, "You're not alone," pointing out that its store locations are locally owned and operated.

The ongoing campaign has included traditional media relations, print and TV advertisements, social media, and videos.

The UPS Store launched a website in October called Small Business Solutions, which gives exclusive offers such as IT support or Internet marketing services to small business owners. It also includes a blog with tips and resources from experts.

"Small business owners have always been a part of our audience, but times have evolved.People do more shopping online, so we wanted to make sure we were speaking to the right customers," says Chelsea Lee, PR manager at The UPS Store. "We found this was a huge part of our business and we needed to start talking to these people."

Saturday specials

Many small businesses that have participated in Small Business Saturday say they saw increases in sales and publicity compared with other years.

Butterlane Cupcakes, a bakery in New York City, quadrupled sales compared with the same day the year before. The bakery dropped the price of one dozen cupcakes from $36 to $25 and used email, Facebook, Twitter, and the company blog to encourage customers to take advantage of the deal.

DJ Crater, a clothing boutique in Chatham, NJ, launched an email campaign leading up to Small Business Saturday reminding customers to “Shop Small.” The store opened at 7am, offering 20% off accessories that morning along with free homemade muffins and coffee. The boutique saw a $10,000 increase in sales from the same Saturday the year prior.

Dell reached a similar conclusion about the importance of entrepreneurs to its business and has since begun investing in startups with the goal of creating long-term partnerships. In June, it launched the Dell Innovators Credit Fund, an initiative that provides entrepreneurs with financial and technological resources during the early stages of their companies.

It also expanded the Dell Entrepreneur in Residence community, where entrepreneurs can receive videos, case studies, and advice from Dell and industry experts.

"Dell knows if it helps us succeed as a business early on, we will stay connected for life," says Dell's first Entrepreneur in Residence Ingrid Vanderveldt, who leads the program.

Industry advice
American Express is a veteran of helping small business owners. Since 2007, the company has operated Open Forum, a web-site offering articles and discussion boards where small business owners can share ideas.

Its annual Small Business Saturday event, launched in 2010 to promote shopping at small, independent stores on the day after Black Friday, has become a holiday staple for many consumers.

Promotions like this clearly tie back to the company's business goal of increasing the number of small merchants accepting its credit cards, but its success is due to a "brand agnostic message," says director of corporate communications Scott Krugman.

"For it to have taken off, it couldn't be about us. To reach its full potential the promotion had to be about small business owners. It gave it credibility," he adds.

Promoting small businesses resonates with consumers who want to help their communities, Puthoff says. "When small business does well, so does the community," she explains.

"They are all interconnected. A lot of these large companies started as small businesses and grew into behemoths." 

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