Small Talk

Get to know your small business customer a little better.

2015 Year In Review: Where We Were, Where We’re Going


Well, that’s 2015 here and gone.

When presented with the clean slate of a new year, I find myself reflecting on what’s gone by and feeling hopeful about what’s to come. Here at Cargo, we find it good practice to look back in order to move forward.

Feeling inspired, I thought I’d examine 5 marketing issues that emerged over the past year, and how they’ll guide you through marketing to SMBs in 2016.

1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

No look at a year in marketing and advertising is complete without the strong reactions certain campaigns have elicited. Therein lies the beauty (or cringeworthiness) of advertising — it certainly evokes the full range of human emotion. And if you want to engage the SBO, your marketing needs emotion behind it.

One of the most viral ads of 2015 was Purina’s “Puppyhood,” an integrated campaign consisting of a 3.5-minute BuzzFeed video and a content-rich website. The adorable is near unbearable.

But we’re all seasoned cuteness viewers by now, so why so viral? Because of its relatability. And it’s funny. Also, it’s unobtrusive; it doesn’t feel like an “ad” ad. Although we’re examining a consumer ad here, these characteristics should be in your B2SB marketing arsenal.

Kicking the syrupy-sweet up a notch is Budweiser’s Super Bowl hit, “Lost Dog.” It tugs the strings of even the most dark and shriveled of consumer hearts. But this approach is likely too sugary for the pragmatic SBO.

A dull thud resounded throughout the Super Bowl with GoDaddy’s ad. Interestingly, its original submission also included a puppy, but was pulled mere days before the big game due to backlash from animal rights’ activists. In its place was a spot directed at the hardworking SBO, who didn’t have time to watch the game.

Unfortunately, GoDaddy’s re-do was quickly mashed together from file footage and narrated by the agency’s creative director, who had never before done a voiceover. All of GoDaddy’s last-minute efforts show. Too bad, with enough time to execute, it could have hit the mark.

Does this mean you should include puppies in all your marketing efforts? While I would like to say, “Yes, and please dump a pile of them on my desk while you’re at it,” unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Take a look at the brands and products mentioned above, and think about who their target audiences were. A “release all of the puppies” approach works in these cases. But you’re looking to engage time-strapped SBOs. I’m sure they love squirming baby animals as much as anyone else, but pets may not be relevant, and would likely prove a distraction.

However, don’t forget that SBOs have a lot of heart and passion, so you need to find that sweet spot between dull and sickly-sweet. In terms of their business needs, what tugs at the SBO’s heart? What makes her laugh? What makes her angry? And definitely forgo the traditional sell.

The marketer’s 2016 mantra: A bit of metaphorical puppy, a lot less literal salesman.

2. The downlow on the SBO

In 2015, SBOs were smiling more, as optimism was up compared to 2014. According to reports by Capital One and The Hartford Financial Services, 50% of SBOs said business conditions were good to excellent, and 77% said their operations were successful.

This aligns with our own research into the SBO’s mindset conducted last summer, which showed an overall sense of optimism about future growth.

Also worth noting is that small business bankruptcies are on a significant decline.

According to Manta’s Semi-Annual Wellness Index, issues that concern SBOs for 2016 are: an unstable global economy (29%), quality of partnerships and vendors (25%), healthcare costs (22%), presidential election results (12%), and rising minimum wage (11%).

SBOs remain positive, however, “83% of respondents are optimistic about business prospects in 2016, up slightly from 82% in 2015. And on the hiring front, 39% of respondents plan to hire in the first half of 2016, up from the 35% that hired in the latter half of 2015.”

Also of note is the rise of the female entrepreneur. Between 1997 and 2015, women-owned businesses grew by 74%. That’s more than 1.5 times the national average. More specifically, businesses owned by African-American women grew by a staggering 327% in the same period.

This year may prove to be the golden age of the female entrepreneur — throw all assumptions about this demographic out the window and focus your research efforts on how to speak to women business owners, as they face unique challenges and successes.

Sounds like SBOs are on great footing for 2016.

3. Damage control

The importance of social responsibility has grown steadily since the 1990s, when corporate environmental damage and sweatshop usage were first exposed. Today, it’s often consumers’, including SBOs, number-one factor in deciding to purchase a product.

This year gave us an excellent example of a big brand failing miserably at social responsibility, as well as probably the greatest scandal in automotive history.

Dubbed the “diesel dupe,” beloved German car giant, Volkswagen, admitted to selling VW vehicles in America with a “defeat device,” software in diesel engines that could detect when it was being tested and thus change its performance to improve emissions results. Yikes.

Of course, corporate scandals are nothing new, perhaps we’ve even grown immune, but this, this was different. It stung more. Why? Because we were all enamored with VW. And, ironically, it was its “honest” image that duped us.

While marketing, advertising, and business are often accused of being misleading or of telling half-truths (and rightfully so), VW took dishonesty to a whole other level. In an era of consumers demanding more corporate responsibility and social good, the elaborate and willful deceit here is stunning.

Cue the chief executive’s resignation and the launch of an internal inquiry. We have yet to hear what the cost of car owner and shareholder legal action will be. Oh, and EPA fines alone could reach $18 billion.

As demonstrated by VW (and many companies before them), it is incredibly costly to deviate from your stated principles. SBOs pay close attention to brand behavior and make purchase decisions based on a company’s values and social responsibility.

The key message here for brands? Don’t. Even. Think. About. It.

And what a perfect segue into the biggest trend for 2016.

4. Big brands take a stand

Brand “authenticity” ruled in 2015 and it will only become stronger this year. Consumers want your brand to mean something and to stand for something. A purchase is no longer just a purchase; customers are seeking “attached meaning,” such as a social good. Today, they strive to align purchases with values, and SBOs tend to have a strong set.

We saw an interesting movement this past Thanksgiving — retailers disrupting the highly profitable Black Friday space.

Perhaps you heard of Patagonia coming out of the anti-Black Friday gates in 2011 with their full-page print ad in the New York Times, consisting of a photo of a Patagonia jacket and the bold headline, “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” The company wanted consumers to weigh the environmental costs of purchasing something they may not really need, a striking anti-consumerism move for a large and popular outdoor clothing company.

This year, outdoor retailer REI announced it would close on Black Friday to give employees paid holiday time to spend with their families, and even gave itself the hashtag #optoutside. Similarly, clothing retailer Everlane opted to remain open without discounting any products, and announced it would give all Black Friday profits back to its factory workers.

We are firmly in an era of movement marketing, where brands are taking on the role of activists. Your marketing strategies need to be values-centered, specifically on major social and political issues. SBOs are highly aware of the political and social landscape, as it can have a significant impact on their businesses.

As such, brands need to connect to this passion. Playing it safe today is the surest way to brand invisibility and irrelevance. Granted, people won’t be rising against you. Worse, though, they’ll be ignoring you. According to JWT Trends 2016, “having a social mission is like free Wi-Fi—no longer a bonus but a core expectation.”

Speaking of expectations…

5. Mobile, mobile, mobile

By now you know everyone googles everything, to the point where we all get annoyed when someone deigns to ask us directions or an easily-googled query. Not only do we expect everything to be google-able, we expect the online experience to be a user-friendly, mobile-optimized one.

According to a recent Pew Internet Research study, “nearly two-thirds of Americans are now smartphone owners, and for many these devices are a key entry point to the online world.” Since customers are increasingly searching for websites via their mobile devices, they’re demanding a satisfying experience, and promptly leaving if that experience is not fast and easily consumed.

So while 2015 saw a trend in mobile-friendly websites, consumers in 2016 will expect even faster mobile page-load times. And SBOs are glued to their phones like the rest of us. According to Manta’s 2015 survey, 81% of American SBOs used their mobile devices for business once a day or more.

While the marketing world has been obsessed with targeting those online-savvy Millennials, keep your eye on Gen Z. They’re coming up fast, and they are a mobile-first and mobile-only generation.

It may be easier for the B2C space to take advantage of mobile marketing, given its less formal nature, but there are plenty of opportunities for brands to meet SBOs on their smartphones. For example, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found marketing texts have an open rate of 98%, compared with 22% for email marketing. Remember, though, that the power of mobile marketing lies in its familiarity and that it works best when built on existing relationships and respects the SBO’s privacy.

If getting mobile wasn’t on your new year resolutions list, add it. Now.


As you examine the year behind you, keep in mind nothing going forward is for certain.

So is this entire article for naught? Of course not. Research and statistics make it likely to spot trends that matter, so that you can build a solid marketing strategy. And at the heart of your marketing-to-SMBs strategy are relationships built upon trust — this is your constant.

And while it’s easy to get caught up in trends and analytics, perhaps we could all use a dose of the risk-taking entrepreneur and SBO. Accept randomness, unpredictability, and uncertainty. Be willing to go places you didn’t plan for. There’s beauty in the chaos. It’s what business, work, and life are all about.

Here’s to an informed and chaotic 2016.

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