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Stick It to Them

Author Dan Heath explains how small businesses can make their brands memorable.

If you've been in a bookstore recently, chances are you've noticed Chip and Dan Heath's bright orange book with the duct tape on the cover. It glaringly caught my eye the other day when I was walking past a Barnes and Noble.

Chip, a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, and Dan, a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, write about what keeps an idea stuck in the brain better than gum in a toddler's ponytail.

In their book

Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

, which has been featured in


and on

The Today Show

, the brothers talk about the six key traits of stickiness: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion and the use of story form.

But what works for the average-sized corporation doesn't necessarily gel with a small business and a modest budget.


caught up with Dan Heath to learn how small businesses can apply the stick. What sparked your interest in stickiness, and why is this concept so important?

Dan Heath

: A sticky idea is a successful idea. I think most brand marketers are well aware that their messages need to stick, but good intentions aren't enough to make it happen. Advertisers spend millions of dollars on campaigns that are forgotten days, if not minutes, later. How many ads do you remember from the Super Bowl? ... Lots of companies wasted millions that night.

One common mistake advertisers make is to create a very entertaining spot that doesn't hook back to your core brand. For instance, one company ran a spot about "connectile dysfunction." Very funny concept, but I bet you don't remember the company, so what's the point?

So which one of the six key traits do small businesses struggle with the most and why?

Large companies struggle with the "emotion" part; it's hard to make a big company seem warm and human. Small companies struggle to establish their credibility ... but focusing too much on credibility can be a trap.

If you puff up your chest rhetorically and use big fancy words to signal your seriousness like "top-of-class service" ... what you're really doing is making yourself forgettable in the quest to make yourself credible.

Small businesses are almost inherently easier to care about than big businesses. So their branding efforts should capitalize on that, but often they don't.

How can small business owners highlight their advantages?

Be personal, tell stories, and give us a reason to care. There's a start-up restaurant chain in Boston called

b.good, which sells healthy fast food. They talk on their site and in the stores about one of the founders, Uncle Faris, a great cook and great dispenser of advice, who inspired them to start the restaurant.

Large businesses are going to have a much tougher time building that kind of relationship with their customers. ... People should always have warmer feelings about Big Ed's Diner rather than Denny's. If they don't, there's something broken with the local business' branding campaign.

Use concrete language that lets customers visualize what you do better than other companies. Here's a case study in two local ads from a periodical in Sanibel Island, Fla.

Ad one is from a local construction firm: "Building is a series of conversations, interactions and collaborations with a focus on creating the kind of synergy that produces extraordinary results." That's intended to sound impressive and credible, but I find it meaningless.

Ad two is from a wedding and event-planning firm. They say: "Who designs it, arranges it, brings it, loads it, drapes it, pins it, hangs it, lights it, serves it, coordinates it, maintains it and then takes it all down so you don't have to? We do." That is brilliantly concrete and is sure to stick.

Does budget matter, or can you make branding stick just as effectively with a small income? What are some ways around a limited budget?

Clearly, budget matters. But here's the good news: The success of an idea is not proportional to the budget. Look at urban legends -- they spread far and wide with no resources behind them.

A sticky idea is a great equalizer: It can easily wipe out a better-funded competitive idea that's not as sticky.

You can overcome a limited budget by using your customers' word-of-mouth as your advertising. The easiest way is to do something that is so unexpectedly valuable that they can't help but tell someone about it.

One example that I love is You pay them $5, and they'll guarantee you an "A" boarding pass

the first boarding group on


, which eliminates all anxiety about the Southwest cattle call. I must have told a dozen people about it. It's not that it's such an interesting story -- it's just an incredibly valuable service, and it makes me feel good to share it with other frequent travelers.

Can you give an example of a small business branding campaign that really stuck?


Shiner Bock beer brand nailed it. It's brewed in the town of Shiner, Texas, with population 2,000. For years it competed with other down-market Texas beers like Pearl and Lone Star. Then a shrewd entrepreneur and marketer bought the Shiner brewery in 1989 and added some fizz to the brand.

The marketing team did a great job of harnessing the emotion that locals felt for Shiner. The team managed to keep Shiner's local authenticity while not pegging the beer as a "Texas" brand -- for instance, the beer's tagline, "Brewed with an Attitude," plays well anywhere. You can get Shiner Bock almost anywhere these days.