Competing Against Big Companies: No One is Going to Save You.

by Eli Altman

In the Mission District, San Francisco, local merchants are banding together to try and prevent Jack Spade from selling tote bags and oxford shirts near them. The same thing happened with American Apparel a few years ago. In Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue, Mokka Coffee’s windows are plastered with “SAVE MOKKA”. (A Starbucks is opening down the block.) I get it: it’s tough having a coffee shop when Starbucks opens up next door. I just don’t feel bad for you. Here’s why:

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Small businesses shouldn’t be afraid to do battle with massive corporations. Quite the contrary, they should welcome the challenge and feel good about their chances of winning.

This is the world we live in. Did Starbucks not exist on every corner in America before you decided to open up your own coffee shop? Did American Apparel not sell Day-Glo deep-Vs in trendy neighborhoods before you thought to open your boutique? This David versus Goliath story is taking place in every city, every day.

As a small business, you have several advantages over your trans-national competitors. Let’s use Mokka vs. Starbucks as an example. Round 1, fight!

1. You have a personality. It’s hard to come across as ‘personal’ when you have a few thousand locations. Fortunately, this is not your concern. You don’t have to worry about international brand standards or usage guidelines or corporate policies. You can work with local artists, have trivia night, try out daring new products. You can make fun of Starbucks (they certainly can’t make fun of you). Understanding what your big competition can’t do starts to create an interesting blueprint for what you can do.

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2. You’re local. For you, this isn’t store #36547, this is your livelihood. You understand the environment you’re a part of in a way Starbucks never could. Your CMO is probably making a latte right next to you, not sitting in a boardroom a thousand miles away. Work on a promotion with the movie theater across the street. Collaborate on local events with other merchants. Give away free biscotti with any coffee when the Raiders win (It shouldn’t happen too often).

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Ever seen a movie chain with free corkage on Tuesdays?

3. Scale. Making 200 pounds of coffee a day is different than making 5000 tons of coffee a day. Do cool stuff with your packaging. Make it personal. Let your patrons taste test new blends. Being huge has its advantages, but so does being small.

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Don’t get me wrong — fending off a big competitor is no easy task. But competing against big companies isn’t a helpless situation either. Strong brands have confidence and wit. They don’t need to be saved. You don’t want customers because they feel bad for you. You want them to feel like you’re providing something a large corporation never could.