This post is republished from my original article on the Amex Open Forum website. It is part of “Small Business Friday” on this blog, where I share ideas and marketing techniques specifically to help small businesses stand out. To read more articles like this, visit the “Small Business Friday” category on this blog.

IStock_000009612906XSmall In any business, there are things that your customer cares about and things that they don’t. You may think that you know this off the top of your head, and that is probably true, but being strategic involves one very simple first step … writing those things down. This will seem like the most basic advice ever, but take a piece of paper and make a list of the things that are most important to your customer at this particular moment. The simple reason this is essential to do before you create any sort of marketing or advertising is because you can test it against those things to see if it actually addresses them. That’s the definition of being strategic – doing something that will result in your desired impact.

To bring this to life, let’s take a look at some marketing that is un-strategic. A great industry to focus on for this is the domestic US airline industry. For some reason, it has been an industry where marketing campaigns are launched based on little more than a creative concept and little strategic justification (with a few notable exceptions such as Southwest Airlines or Virgin Airlines). So taking the advice from earlier in this post, if you were to outline the things that a typical airline flier cares about you might end up with some version of this broad list of four things:

  1. Time & Efficiency – Will you get me where I’m going on time and with as little waiting around as possible?
  2. Comfort & Experience – Will the experience be as comfortable as possible with minimal suffering?
  3. Price & Fees – Is the price reasonable and can I avoid getting charged lots of extra fees?
  4. Frequent Flier Miles – Will I collect frequent flier miles or accrue some other long term personal benefit?

The order of these items may shift depending on if someone is travelling for business or personal reasons, but in general this list could represent the vast majority of the population of travelers. Now imagine some of the marketing for airlines that you might have seen – such as the cartoon character animations set to the Gershwin instrumental music which has become the signature theme for United Airlines. It is very tough to relate a campaign like that to any one of the core things that an airline customer might care most about. More importantly, there is little relevance to the things that are happening in the airline industry today, such as concerns about security, backlash against moves to charge for check in and carry on bags, and general unhappiness at the shrinking levels of customer service.

Contrast that with recent marketing from Southwest Airlines which is all about how they “love your bags” and don’t charge extra fees for you to check your bag on one of their flights. The strategy behind a campaign like that is clear – they know their customers care about cost and not paying extra, and appeal to that by ensuring customers that when you buy a ticket on Southwest, you won’t be nickel and dimed for every other little thing.

Applying this to your own small business, the most strategic marketing you do will be all about something that your customer cares about right now. It is not just about doing something evergreen, such as promoting how your business may offer a lower cost or higher quality than others. Most customers care about those things all the time. But taking advantage of the moment that is happening right now means something more.

Scott Jordan, the CEO of ScotteVest (a small business that sells “gear-enabled clothing”) is a great example of this. When the iPad first came out, Scottevest was among the first to have “iPad-enabled clothing” with pockets that could fit the iPad. Then when airlines announced that they would be charging for carry-on bags (except Southwest, of course), Scott promoted one of his vests that was basically a “wearable carry-on” – strategically exploiting the fact that jackets are not considered carry-on bags by most airlines.

When you have the right strategy behind your marketing, standing apart becomes much easier and it puts less pressure on you to have an amazing creative concept. Creativity is great, but strategy is what separates great marketing that actually sells something from marketing that might end up being fun but delivering nothing.