Strategies for Small Businesses to Thrive in Vermont: Navigating a Unique Market

Last week, I wrote about trying not to fool ourselves into believing Vermont,  specifically Burlington and its surrounding area is more populous than it actually is.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start your business but its unique demographic and economic landscape requires a nuanced understanding of the local market and a strategy tailored to its strengths and challenges. Knowing that you need a marketing gameplan, here are some strategies that small businesses in Vermont can adopt to thrive:

1. Leverage Localism: Emphasize the local origins and connections of your business and products. Customers in Vermont, and increasingly elsewhere, are interested in supporting local economies and appreciate goods and services that reflect the local culture and environment.  The Vermont name means something,   There is a reason why so many companies include the name of the state in their company name.   The Vermont Brownie Company,   Vermont Teddy Bear, and Fiddlehead Brewing come to mind as uniquely Vermont.

2. Focus on Quality: Everyone should focus on quality, I get it but, in a smaller market, a reputation for high-quality products or services can be a significant differentiator like say Jasper Hill Farm which makes some of the best cheese in the country or Hill Farmstead maker of may be the best beer.  Especially when you factor in the next strategy.   Strive to exceed customer expectations in every interaction and use the small market base as a testing market.

3. Tap Into Tourism: Vermont’s natural beauty and cultural attractions draw a significant number of tourists. Businesses can cater to this transient customer base by offering products or services that are unique to the area or that can serve as mementos of their visit.  Beer tourism is big here, but so is cheese and textiles.  Your tourist friends will share on their socials so remember to be sure to have something they’ll show their thousands of followers.

4. Build Community Relationships: In smaller markets, personal relationships are key. Engage with the local community through events, partnerships with other businesses, and involvement in local issues.  Family-run companies dominate in Vermont as they’ve built community relationships.  That is a head start you can overcome by including other companies and non-profits from your business’ launch on through.  Folino’s Pizza has numerous locations but doesn’t a create job working with non-profits and ensuring those relationships are sustained as they grow.

5. Sustainability: Vermont is known for its commitment to environmental responsibility. Businesses that adopt sustainable practices can appeal to eco-conscious customers and align with the state’s ethos.  The Green Mountain State name is everywhere and those who move or visit here expect it to be clean and green all year.  This is a great way to build those community relationships.   Ben & Jerry’s maintained this as a core principle as it grew from a gas station to a  global ice cream maker.

6. Online Presence: A strong online presence can help Vermont businesses reach beyond their local market. This can include selling products online, maintaining active social media accounts, and ensuring your business is easily found and positively reviewed on search engines and review sites.  This goes for just about anywhere, but including social media as the largest part of your marketing strategy will create at worst create a dialogue with customers and at best create a buzz you’ll need to overcome an offseason.  I immediately think of the Canteen Creemee Company in Waitsfield and their massive creations people can’t wait to share before they even taste a bite.

I realize I’m food focused, but that’s what works here.  We do have bigger companies like Burton and DR Power Equipment but many others have moved out of the state when they reached a certain size.

The above strategies aren’t the only items to pay attention to in your marketing plan.  Pitfalls can hinder the success of small businesses in Vermont and these are the biggest:

1. Overdependence on Tourism: While catering to tourists is a significant opportunity, it can be risky to rely on it too heavily. Tourism can be seasonal and subject to factors beyond your control, like economic downturns or travel restrictions.  Talk to any tourist business in Vermont and they will tell you the year they almost shut down.  COVID slowed a lot of these businesses

2. Scaling Too Fast: In a smaller market, growth must be managed carefully. Expanding too quickly can lead to overextended resources and a dilution of the qualities that made the business successful in the first place.  Vermont forces you to open multiple locations to maintain the volume necessary.  There is risk in that.  Sometimes quality suffers, and you may not focus on localism or community as much, so be sure with each step you maintain the strategies above.

3. Ignoring Local Needs: You need a baseline income that pays the bills.  While tourists are important, don’t forget about the year-round residents. They form the core of your customer base and can provide steady income during off-peak tourist seasons.

4. Neglecting Online Presence: In today’s digital age, a poor online presence can severely limit a business. It’s crucial to engage with customers online and keep up with digital marketing trends. Don’t rely on customers to be your strategy.   Be sure to keep the dialogue going on your own.

In a smaller market like Vermont, small businesses have the opportunity to forge strong relationships with their customers and the community. With a thoughtful strategy that plays to Vermont’s strengths and avoids potential pitfalls, small businesses can not only survive but also thrive in this unique environment.

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