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Small Business Owners Aren't Big Fans of Big Brands

America’s 23 million small businesses should represent a giant market for big companies, particularly as small businesses leave the Great Recession in the rear-view mirror and look to invest in new equipment. One problem: Main Street doesn’t seem to like large corporations much.

That’s according to a recent report from the CMO Council, a trade group that surveyed 160 senior marketing executives at companies that included Capital One (COF), SAP (SAP), and OfficeMax (OMX). Seventy percent of respondents said selling to small and midsize businesses is “extremely important” to them, but only five percent said small businesses view big brands “very positively.”

“That’s kind of painful,” says Liz Miller, a senior vice president at the trade group, whose 7,000-plus members spend more than $350 billion on marketing each year. “You say the market is critical, you say it’s going to be more important over three years, but then you say that [small business owners] don’t really like you.”

One reason Main Street isn’t over the moon for Big Corporate: Large brands tend to lump small business into one category, says Harris, failing to adjust their sales approaches when calling on, say, an architecture firm or a tech startup. (The federal government, on the other hand, has hundreds of categories for small businesses.)

For their part, respondents to the CMO Council survey expressed frustration that they don’t have better information on their small business sales targets. Improving their abilities to gather data and personalize sales pitches are both at the top of respondents’ to-do lists.

That sounds like it should help. But the CMO Council survey recalls research published last year by the Boston Consulting Group, which sought to understand why online marketing companies haven’t had an easier time selling to Main Street. One reason the consultancy came up with: Small business owners wanted word-of-mouth referrals before shelling out for a new online marketing tool. In other words, the best way to sell a hardware store owner is to start with the dry cleaner down the street.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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