Entrepreneurial companies face a host of unique challenges as they try to establish themselves: low or no awareness in the marketplace; frequent changes in business direction; Razor-thin budgets.

This article lays out some core marketing principles that will help 1) lay a foundation for business growth, and 2) stretch marketing dollars.

1. Make it Easy for People to Understand What You Do

Companies frequently make the mistake of offering everything (and the kitchen sink) to prospective customers, thinking that something will stick. But what they are effectively doing is confusing the issue. They're not creating a coherent image in the customer's mind about what they do. So the customer is less apt to remember their company down the road.

I was at a networking event recently. An energetic entrepreneur approached me and began rattling off the benefits of his productivity solution. Over the course of our mostly one-way conversation, he offered me what seemed like seven different product offerings.

Every time I tried to pin him down, he'd say, “We can do that, but we also do this.”

I liked his energy, but I wasn't clear on what his company did, and I didn't think he was either. His story changed with the wind, so my confidence that he could deliver on what he said diminished.

We all play the customer role. And when we hire someone for a particular task, we want to hire an expert in one thing. Not someone who claims to be an expert in everything.

It's very tempting to spread your offering too wide. After all, you can probably deliver on more than just a single product or service. But when you're a company that's still struggling to make a name for itself, it's better to be laser clear about what you do.

Virgin has a recognized brand name that can be effectively applied to the airlines, a music business and soft drinks. But as an emerging business, you don't have that luxury. If you do have additional products or services, sell them later in your relationship with a customer.

After the customer has had a positive experience with your company, it's a lot easier to sell them on the idea of buying more. In fact, they'll often come to you.

2. Boil Your Message Down to Its Core

Make sure you can explain what you do in a sentence. Maybe two. This is your elevator pitch.

Test it out on people. Refine it. But most importantly, make sure it's clear and distinctive.

Instead of saying, “We offer productivity solutions for small businesses,” say this: “We specialize in providing outsourced accounting and payroll services for law firms and real estate agencies.”

Then make sure that your core message is replayed everywhere you market your company. On your web-site. In your PowerPoint presentations. On your salesperson's lips.

Consistency will create a stronger image in the minds of your customers--and it will give you more value for your marketing dollar.

3. Project a Polished Image

When you're starting out, it's critical to project the right image for your company. People want to do business with companies that they perceive as professional and reliable. If you're trying to sell your new computer accessory into the retail channel, buyers will want to know about more than the product.

Are you a company that has its act together? Can you deliver on time? Is your packaging going to sell the product?

One of the best ways to look bigger than you are is to create polished marketing materials. Unfortunately, young companies often skimp here, thinking that they can save a little money without hurting themselves. But what they are doing is sacrificing an opportunity to create an image that will generate more sales.

Two good examples:

  • Business Cards - You can have generic business cards designed and even print them on a laser printer. This is fine for businesses that just need the basics. But if you could benefit from making a stronger impression--and it's important that your card stands out from the piles of other cards that are swapped at networking events--then think about having a card designed that's more professional and distinctive.

  • Websites – There are user-friendly software packages out there (Dreamweaver, FrontPage) that let you design your own site without having to learn HTML. Or you can work with a company that will provide you a basic templated approach (layoutgalaxy.com, onlinesitecreator.net). But chances are that the results will be less than spectacular. Today, a web-site is your window to customers. It's your brochure. So it may be worthwhile hiring a strong designer to start you out with a quality look and feel.

Ultimately, the decision to spend more money on marketing materials like these depends on the type of business you are in and your budget. You have to do the math. If an extra $500 spent on business cards or an extra $2,000 spent on a web-site can help generate incremental sales, it's probably worth it.

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Michael Lehman is a San Francisco-based marketing consultant who specializes in working with emerging businesses. Find out more at www.pulsemarketing.net.