What makes someone fall in love with a small business?

And I don’t mean love as in, “I really like shopping there.” I mean love as in love; the business has fans and friends and followers who rave about it and believe in it and root for it.

Certain big businesses definitely get loved that way. Apple is one (or at least before the advent of $1,000 iPhones and mediocre Macs, but that is a column for another day). According to the BrandKey 2018 Customer Loyalty Index, Amazon, Dunkin’ Donuts, Lyft and Five Guys also have customers who are stark raving fans.

And yes, a select number of small business engender that kind of loyalty, too.

So, what’s the difference between the best and the rest?

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I have been thinking about that question a lot this week (and I will give you the answer below) as I have had two opportunities to look closely at some of the best small businesses in the U.S.

Small Business Revolution — Main Street is a show I love, and if small business is your thing, I bet you would, too. Streaming on Hulu and online, and now getting ready to film its third season, the show is sponsored by, and is the brainchild of, Deluxe, a leading provider of marketing services for small business. For its 100th anniversary, Deluxe wanted to do something special to highlight and promote small business in America.

Small Business Revolution was born.

Each season, Deluxe picks one town and six small businesses for a $500,000 revitalization. The previous winners were Wabash, Ind., and Bristol Borough, Pa.

Last week, Deluxe announced the Season 3 winner: Alton, Ill. I had the chance to speak with the show’s host and Deluxe’s Amanda Brinkman about the show. What she hopes is that the show not only highlights the vital role small businesses play in this country but that, by giving the winning city and businesses money, in-kind coaching, marketing help and more, that they can help create a tipping point for that town.

“What we want to do is create a spark for these towns, these businesses, and for small business.”

In the case of Alton, it was an employee of the Old Bakery Beer Company that submitted the winning application. Interesting, no? Not the mayor. Not the business owner. An employee, one that clearly loves the business he works for.

To answer the original question above, then, one reason people fall in love with a business, and not surprisingly when you think about it, is emotional connection. According to that same BrandKey survey, “Emotional values are what differentiate brands from commodities.” Things like

► The business makes me feel good
► The business looks good
► The business knows me
► The business is innovative
► My interaction with the business is effortless

The best small businesses create those sorts of connections with their tribe. I saw this equally this week as I helped judge the SCORE American Small Business Championship. Over 1,000 businesses applied by answering the question, “What makes your small business one of the best in your community?”

The question itself is the answer.

Of the many, many applications I reviewed, one thing became clear: The businesses had all of the things you would expect of course — a good product, a market need, a great team and so on — but the best had something more: They connected to their community (whatever that community was). They served a need. They were about more than money. They were about making a difference, and their customers not only got that, they loved them for that and rewarded them for it.

That’s how you become beloved.

Today’s tip: Speaking of contests, I have one more to tell you about. The FedEx Small Business Grant Contest recognizes passionate and innovative small businesses who aspire to take their businesses to the next level. This year, the contest offers a total prize pool of $120,500 to ten U.S. based small businesses, including a credit for print and business services from FedEx Office. The contest is open to small businesses with less than 99 employees and have been operating for six months or more. To enter, visit fedex.com/grantcontest.