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Small teaches big, big teaches small

Small versus bigBig and small organizations can learn from each other. A great example of this is in product safety, and the impressions consumers have about it.

The safety concerns of consumers ebb and flow with episodes of systems breaking down, product tampering, product recalls, new developments in science, etc. And at the same time, commerce is changing. That means things we might have focused on, or counted on, related to product safety, are not stable either.

The big shifts include:

  • Global production shifts, notably the movement of much of production to Asia
  • A re-localization of production for certain craft products and foods
  • More niche marketing and small-scale production of products
  • A proliferation of products and different formats and sizes for the same product
  • More products bought, sight-unseen, online
  • A rapid rate of change in buying habits and product preferences (i.e. less brand loyalty)
These changes make it harder for consumers to be sure their products are safe. There are distinct differences in what you do and what you assume, when you consume things. It often matters a lot if you are buying from a big company, e.g. a global or national branded goods company, or a small company—e.g. your local farmstand. Each has an approach to safety, and with each, consumers have a view of product safety. Businesses on either side of this equation can learn from each other about how to ensure safety and reassure consumers about safety. Some of the differences are shown below.
  • Uses a system you (might) trust
  • Familiar brand
  • You see media buzz about new products
  • Regularly available
  • Government, other oversight
  • Kosher, Halal inspection
  • Quality assured by brand equity, you know the brand
  • Oversight by NGOs, consumer groups, bloggers
  • You can’t interact with producer or grower
  • You may struggle to lodge complaints with maker
  • Uniform quality (good or bad!)
  • Aseptic packaging, pasteurization, etc.

  • Can come from a person you trust
  • Localness
  • You get friend and neighbor buzz about new products
  • Available when in season, etc.
  • Limited direct oversight
  • May have no religious inspection
  • Quality assured by local connections—you know the backstory
  • Oversight, possibly, by local opinionmakers, local listservs
  • You can, often, interact with the producer/grower
  • You can go raise hell with a local business if there’s a problem
  • Quality might vary from purchase to purchase
  • May be hand packaged, may not be preserved, pasteurized, etc.
What “big” can learn from “small”
Consumers can be reassured about a product if they get the sense of real people, with real skills, behind the product. For example, an artisanal cheese maker, selling in her region in Eastern Pennsylvania, is a face and a name for her customers, or at least for the gourmet shops who sell her cheeses. The shop owners can tell customers about her and her operation, and reassure them that they will let her know about a question or concern. The shop owners, and often the customers, will have met the cheese maker.
For a big company to get closer to that kind of relationship would mean telling a true and compelling story about the product, the company’s approach to quality and safety, and so on. Also, a clear and easy path for the consumer to offer feedback to the company—no matter its size, is extremely valuable. Emails, texting, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are a channel for your customers to interact with you, but don’t even begin to offer those connections if you can’t actually use them sincerely. If you are on Twitter, you need to look for consumer feedback there, and respond to it. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh does this well (http://twitter.com/Zappos). He may have his staff helping, but he makes sure there’s a personal touch in his communications.
What “small” can learn from “big”
Small-scale producers should make sure they have clear and consistent standards of process and practice. These are part of the reliability people see in a big player’s products, and part of what can reassure consumers. The small player may come across as sincere, but a little too folksy and casual to some consumers.
Research and testing, as done in corporate labs, may be out of reach for the small player, but there ought to be an equivalent focus on assessing what processes matter, scrutinizing the practices and specifications behind inputs to the products you make, e.g. by ensuring you know your vendors and the reliability and safety of what you buy from them. Consumers will be reassured if they can tell you pay attention to these things.
This “small safe versus big safe” example is just one framing of differences and cross lessons between big and small organizations. It’s valuable to think about other examples, such as in marketing, human resources, production and distribution, and so on. Where does the big company offer a best practice lesson to the small, and vice versa?
Image: foxtwo, via Flickr CC license
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