How SMEs can compete with their industry’s Goliath

By Jason Ball, below, founder of B2B marketing agency Considered Content

Is your biggest competitor a monster of gargantuan proportions with a colossal revenue, a headcount in the thousands, and household-name clients? If yes, here’s what you should do.

Maybe you’ve built a world-class piece of software but you’re forever in the shadow of the number one brand on the market. Or perhaps you’re an accountancy firm trying to steal market share from the Big Four. Maybe you’re an agency that keeps losing out to a bigger fish with a more impressive client portfolio. How on earth are you to compete?

Probably not on price. For a start, the behemoths can offer loss-leading introductory offers you can’t. And while price comparisons can have significant sway in B2C sales, small differences in price are less relevant in B2B where you’re likely talking five- or sometimes six-figure deals.

What about quality? Competing on service or product quality sadly isn’t as effective as it ought to be. The fact is that what you offer is likely broadly comparable because, today, there’s nowhere to hide for poor products and rubbish customer service – review sites and social media have made darn sure of that.

No, B2B buyers, almost without fail, default to the lowest-risk option, even if the features aren’t as sharp. And the #1 brand in any category is always deemed ‘safest’. It isn’t fair, but it’s what happens, time and again.

There are good reasons for this. B2B sales are often high risk. If a decision-maker is involved in a bad selection, it’s their reputation and livelihood on the line, not to mention huge upheaval for their disgruntled colleagues. But there is some good news. A post-pandemic survey of 250 in-house buyers by B2B marketing agency Considered Content revealed that the majority (55%) of buyers are now considering more vendors for each purchase.

While this will inevitably add more time to the decision-making process – as more suppliers and products are assessed – it also means more names on the shortlist than just the market leaders. And you’ve got to be in it to win it. Your job, then, is to make sure you’re on that shortlist. So what’s left to compete on? You have some choices.

What’s your brand really about?

First, spend time determining why your brand exists and what makes it distinctive. Then communicate, furiously, why you do what you do. What motivates you? Why do you and your team get out of bed and show up every day? Why are you different than the faceless megacorps you’re up against?

A word of warning: it’s really easy to get this wrong. Most companies, especially the gigantic ones with huge budgets, do it quite poorly.

Just look at all the greenwashing going on. Either they pay lip service to environmental and social causes (e.g. they bang on about their charitable giving while finding neat ways to avoid paying tax) or they simply talk about themselves, failing to understand why this might not be in any way important to their customer.

The key here is to become memorable, to be a bit famous in your market. Brand leaders don’t have to worry about this, they’re already the default. Challengers must try harder and take more risks. It’s better to be disliked by 50% of the market than ignored by 100%.

Importantly, be focused and consistent. Once you find your North Star, stick with it. Communicate consistently over time. Don’t change things up every few months when you get a bit bored (remember, you’re seeing your brand way more than your customers). The creativity will be in finding new ways to communicate your core message.

Identify your enemy

Option two is to find an enemy. Be the outlier of your industry. What do you hate about the status quo? What should be done better? How do customers deserve more?

Point fingers, be bold, rustle feathers. Suggest fresh, punk alternatives (that you just so happen to offer). There are industries that historically shy away from being “radical” – they tend to be professional services firms who think their clients would prefer safe and bland than different and bold.

In the real world, this makes these industries ripe for an outlier to cut through the blandness and stand out. Don’t know about you, but I’ve still not seen an accountancy firm that’s refreshingly different.

Jason Ball is the founder of Considered Content, a B2B marketing agency which helps marketers differentiate their brands, generate demand, and reduce friction from the buyer journey. He has worked with many of the world’s leading technology brands, as well as professional services organisations, startups, and charities