Branding For The Small Business

It’s competitive, it’s tiring, it’s challenging. Starting and scaling a business is not for the faint of heart. As a business owner, you’ve no doubtedly had to take on tasks that left you scratching your head and flipping a table. And in the sea of all the things you’ve had to learn, branding is an elusive fish that keeps swimming by. You need it to scale up, but it’s overwhelming. Worry not, tired business owner, this comprehensive article is for you!


As a brand strategist and designer, I’ve interacted with plenty of struggling business owners. The pain point is common: they are ready to grow, but their branding is getting in their own way. There comes a time in every business where a DIY approach no longer cuts it. If this feels like where you’re at, then you’ve landed on the right web page. We’re going to cover three main topics:

  1. What is a brand?
  2. Brand Strategy vs. Brand Design
  3. Branding for the small (but growing) business

By the time you arrive at the end of this article, you should have a solid grasp on what branding is and all the important facets of it. And you will then be able to evaluate your own business and how it shapes up. My main goal for you is that you gain clarity on what to do with your brand. Do you need a rehaul? Do you need a better strategy? Are you rocking it on all accounts? (Spoiler: I’m dropping a quiz at the end that will help you point your compass in the right direction! But don’t cheat and jump ahead, we have some groundwork to lay first.)


What Is A Brand?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a brand?


“Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind.” – Waltor Landor (This guy knows what’s what, having designed such brands as Coca-Cola and Levi Strauss)


“Brand” is a word that gets thrown around, and it seemingly means different things to different people. If you hop on LinkedIn for a second, you’ll see some marketing gurus yelling at you about how a website is vital to every brand. You might get people selling to you on Facebook groups about how they can help you brand yourself. It’s something that everyone is talking about, but not everyone understands. So let’s boil it down to it’s core.


A brand is the feeling or promise people associate with your company.


There it is, in all its simple glory. As the brilliant Waltor told us, it’s something that is created in the minds of consumers. It’s not your logo, it’s not your product, it’s not you. When someone brushes against your business, how do they feel? What emotion will they convey when telling their neighbor about your company?


This intangible nature of a brand is both a blessing and a curse. It’s something EVERY company has and can leverage, but it’s not easy to control. To give you some context, the big guys like Coca-Cola or Nike have entire global departments dedicated to their branding. 


Does that mean your three-man shop is out of luck? Not at all! In fact, this controlled feeling/promise is what can help turn it into a fifty-man operation.


You’re probably wondering how emotions turn into $$$.


So what if people feel something about your company? Let me assure you, it matters a lot. People are more often than not emotional buyers. This doesn’t mean that everyone is spontaneous in their purchases, but rather that positive or negative emotions will impact a buying decision. Across the board, people buy from companies they trust.


You’re probably thinking about the fifty things you bought in the last week. I’m going to guess for most of those, you a.) don’t remember what company they came from, and b.) you wouldn’t claim to have any relationship with said company. So how can we say that people buy from companies they trust?


Let’s push away the big-box brands for a moment and think about an interaction with a smaller business. When you go to get a haircut, there is a required moment of trust that has to happen between you, the buyer, and the salon, the business. You are about to put something very precious in their control! 


Imagine walking up to a salon, and the lights inside are dim. You don’t see much activity inside, and you’re having a hard time finding a sign that tells you what their hours are. You assume they’re open and in a moment of courage, step through the door. It takes a few minutes for one of the stylists to notice you, during which time you’ve already taken note of the dust bunnies in the corners and the peeling pleather on the seats lining the wall. Everything in the salon looks like it hit its peak twenty years ago. By this point, you might have regretted your decision to enter. 


You get your haircut, but it’s not quite to your liking, and the stylist wasn’t very friendly. By the time you pay, you’ve already resolved to never come back. You leave the salon having established its brand: outdated, unkempt, and disappointing. These are the emotions that will be conveyed when you tell your spouse about your day, or when someone at work compliments your haircut. Even the end result, which is adequate, is tainted by the poor encounter that preceded it. These emotions will rub off on the listeners, and now from one bad brand interaction, there will be a dozen people who have mentally crossed that salon off their list of places to try. Through a series of ‘touchpoints,’ or small interactions, that salon had not built trust with you and it resulted in a negative feeling.


The lingering interaction with a company is where brands grow or die. This is why it matters how people feel about your business, because it impacts their purchasing decisions and the people they talk to. Even a small business needs to guide those feelings, because word-of-mouth is going to be one of your biggest marketing tools.


Brand Strategy vs. Brand Design

Okay, but how can you control how people feel about you?


It seems like a tall order. But as we can see in the scenario above, a company will have multiple moments of interaction that will all play a part in the consumer’s final opinion. These are called ‘brand touchpoints.’ And that is where the actual brand work comes in.


Every business can benefit from two main areas of branding: strategy and design. Brand strategy is the behind-the-scenes choices of how you engage with people and what is driving your business decisions. Brand design is how you appear on the outside to people, including things like your logo and colors and website design. 


Without brand strategy in place, you’ll be spinning your wheels. Even if you have great interactions with people and are running a dozen ad campaigns, without a brand strategy defined, those efforts are likely not very effective. 


If the word ‘strategy’ is overwhelming, then think of it as a road map. This is a term I use with my clients, because it helps explain the purpose of the strategy. We start by identifying where your brand is at. We then figure out where you want to be. And from there, we’ll work out what steps need to be taken in order to get there. (This sounds simple at its core, but it can be an extensive, time-consuming exercise done with the guidance of an expert.)


A small business might have a basic road map. There’s not a lot of data to draw from, and there’s not a lot of mistakes to correct. Bigger companies have more to work with and more things to align, so they could have an exhaustive strategy.


Let’s peel back the curtain and see some of the things that go into an effective brand strategy.


For most small businesses, there are seven things that you really want to hash out. If you don’t have these defined, then you could find your brand stagnant or growing in all the wrong directions. Take note that this list is not in great detail, nor am I giving instructions of how to apply this to your brand. These are terms to be aware of when bringing on a brand strategist. Hiring an experienced strategist is going to provide you far more value than trying to hash these things out on your own.


Brand Overview: This is 2 – 3 concise sentences that encapsulate what your business is. Think of this as the blurb that you use when telling new people about what you do.


Target Audience: A brand can not be all things to all people. Every company needs to define who exactly they’re trying to reach. The more detailed this target audience is, the more effective your marketing efforts can become.


Key Differentiators: Every brand should have 2 – 3 things that are unique about their offering. This could be things like innovative techniques, superior customer service, lowest pricing. These are the value points that your marketing efforts should center around, since it will be the things that convince people to buy from you instead of competitors.


Primary Emotional Promise: This is the defined feeling you want people to walk away with. It should relate to the key differentiators, and is going to become how you evaluate your brand’s health. If people are feeling this way, then you’re on the right track. If not, you have some aligning to do.


Brand Voice & Tone: This is how your company sounds. Some brands are playful and jovial, some are serious and somber. Depending on what you offer and who you sell to, your defined brand voice & tone will help direct the copywriting of your company.


Top Competitors: A business needs to know who’s in the ring with them. Consumers will be selecting one company out of many, so identifying who your primary competitors are will help guide your differentiators and brand position.


Brand Position: This is a summary of where your brand falls in the market. Your position is a defined place that you want to be, and will impact your decisions moving forward as you try to navigate your brand into that position.


Of course, it’s not enough to have these things defined for your business. A strategy road map is important because it provides steps of how to align your current brand to your desired brand.


Again, this is where having a brand strategist is key, because they will help you identify specific actions to do this. For many small businesses, one of the first things the strategy sheds light on is how their brand design is not working well. So they might undergo an identity refresh, meaning new logo, better colors and elements, and more cohesive designs across their company. It might also mean hiring a copywriter to craft better headlines and value propositions. In working with clients, I make sure I hand them a branding checklist, which is a tangible list of things they can do, (or hire people to do,) that will help get their brand in the right direction. 


To summarize, a business’s first step is understanding their brand and coming up with a road map. The second step is having a plan to take action.


Branding For The Small (But Growing) Business

What does this mean for your small business?


If you’ve reached this point, you should have a better grasp of what a brand is. You probably are now questioning how this should impact YOUR company. We know that any business can benefit from having a strategic brand in place. For the small business, it can start with these three questions:


  1. Do I know my company’s value?
  2. Do I know my company’s audience?
  3. Do I know my company’s promise?


If you can’t confidently answer any or all of these questions, that’s the first place to start. As the owner, you can work through that on your own. Once you have some definition in these things, then you’ll be prepared to work with a strategist. 


You might be balking at bringing someone in to handle your brand. I get it, it’s a precious thing to hold! But it’s that outside nature of a strategist that is often the catalyst to a better brand. A strategist will come in without the emotional bias you have towards your company. (It’s okay, every owner has a bit of bias!) This allows them to be surgical in their approach, giving you the accurate assessment of what’s working and what’s not. Without that, you’ll have a hard time being effective in crafting a brand strategy. 


To have an even better starting point for a brand assessment, you can take this brand health quiz that will help shine light on where your brand is at. And if after taking in this article, you’re ready to jump right into a brand consultation, then head over to my contact page and let me know who you are and when you’re able to chat!