For some small businesses, building their brand might seem like an afterthought or something that only well-known national advertisers do. Why should they invest time and money into strengthening their brand identity when the business has been doing well without the added effort? But a clear, thoughtfully executed branding strategy plays a key role in business growth and market dominance, as the experts below demonstrate.
Branding can be an elusive umbrella concept made up of many parts. "From the customers' perspective, it's how they perceive your company. That includes visual aspects, like the colors you use, your logo, and your typefaces," says Bryon McCartney, a founding partner and creative director of Be Brilliant!, a Fort Myers, Florida-based branding, marketing, and visual communications agency. "But it also encompasses how your employees treat your customers, the experience those customers have when they're in your store, and the messages you're communicating to them, whether through brochures or articles on your website."
McCartney suggests coming up with a set of guidelines that "define the brand experience for the customer. This needs to be communicated to employees so they can be stewards of that experience and help cultivate it" to ensure a consistent voice and image through every customer touch point, from marketing material to customer service.
"When you enter an Apple store, for example, someone will ask you what you need [and direct you to the right place]," McCartney says. "But they're also repeating that by walkie-talkie to someone in the back of the store, who's going to casually come up to you. This seamless hand-off is part of the experience that Apple wants to create in their store."
McCartney says that small business owners should determine the type of experience they want customers to have when they interact with their brand and train employees in how to deliver that experience time after time. "If you have multiple stores or multiple salespeople, you don't want your customers getting a different experience at each of those points," he explains. "That is not to say that every word should be scripted, but creating guidelines for how to treat customers should be an important part of creating a consistent and positive brand experience."
To be successful in articulating your brand, it's vital that you understand the core of your business—what you do well, who you are, the language and images that capture your essence—and then set goals with a realistic timeframe for achieving them. McCartney tells business owners to think about their expectations and then work backwards. "The people who are putting effort into helping their business grow in a focused and directed way are the ones that stand out," McCartney says. "The others tend to look like they're doing things on a shoe string or they're struggling somehow. Don't over think it, but be consistent with your brand."
Coming up with a striking logo that captures the essence of your business in a memorable way is often considered the first step in building your brand.
"That's the foundation upon which everything else is going to be driven from," says Dan Antonelli, president and creative director of Graphic D-Signs, a Washington, New Jersey-based ad agency focusing on branding, web design, and marketing services for small businesses. "It helps deliver a brand promise and establish a basic expectation of value from your particular company."
Antonelli says that most small businesses do an inadequate job of conveying their brand experience. Customers and prospects have either a neutral reaction—they are neither thrilled nor turned off about doing business with you—or a negative response, where the company comes across as unprofessional or not worth the money.
"We see a lot of guys who go in [charging a premium], but none of their branding matches that perception," Antonelli explains. "It's harder for them to make the sale because the consumer doesn't feel like there's a reason they should be paying more for their products and services versus someone else's."
Businesses that do pay attention to burnishing their brand image can see astonishing results. This was the case with Timo's Air Conditioning & Heating, a Palm Springs, California-based business that wanted to rebrand their image. Antonelli leveraged the contractor's well-regarded reputation by creating a retro-themed design, including hand-drawing a new icon and typography to reinforce a blend of trust and modern service. According to Antonelli, Timo's saw a 60 percent spike in business within one year of the makeover.
"[It's been said that] ninety-five percent of every small business has a poor brand," Antonelli says. "If that's true and you're in that five percent, right off the bat you're doing something that no one else is doing and you're standing out. That's the beauty of a great small business brand."
Spread your brand far
"By not branding, you're sending your market a message that you don't think your brand is worth spending time on," says Heidi Cohen, president of Riverside Marketing Strategies, a New York-based consultancy that provides marketing and content services. To help business owners get a firmer grasp on shaping their brand, Cohen recommends these five questions to help them define the unique character of their company:
Why are you starting the business? "Think holistically about what you want to accomplish in terms of work, family, finance, and other outside exercises."
What does your company do? "If you're offering services, consider how you can make them more tangible. What is your point of differentiation? How are your products positioned in the market?"
What is your company name? "Can you incorporate your product or location into your name? Is there another name association you want to leverage? Are the related sentiments positive or negative for your objectives?"
Who are your prospects and customers? "Create a marketing persona so that you have some basic concepts about your buyers and their influencers."
What makes your firm unique?: "If you have a difficult time figuring out what makes you different, chances are so will your customers. Sometimes, it's easier to approach this topic by examining your competitors and what you do that they don't."
Business owners can also follow Cohen's 21-point branding checklist. "Branding provides small businesses with the ability to be recognizable and to cast a bigger shadow," she says. "It should be part of every image and message that's incorporated in every interaction you give across owned, social media, and third party platforms."