Small Business Branding
Ready or not, from the moment a small business starts trading, it also launches its brand. This article outlines a budget led strategy for creating and launching a successful small business brand.
Business branding - Do you really need it?
Your brand is much more than your logo. It's the very personality of your business. It's the feeling people are left with after any and every interaction they have with your business.
So it's not really a question of whether you need branding. You have a brand whether you want one or not. It's not a choice, it's a state of being.
Think of it more as your reputation than a collection of components. Far better then to positively influence people's perception with a planned approach, than leave their opinion totally to chance.
Brand messaging - don't try to go it alone
Good branding empowers a new business. Strong brand components are loyal allies in a competitive and often indifferent world. They will begin fighting for your cause from day one. Helping you make that vital first impression with greater confidence and conviction.
Poor branding can be more of a hindrance than an aid. If your budget is small or zero, keep things very simple. Create a few, straight forward brand rules and stick with them until you have the budget to do more.
Launch a business with no branding however and the odds of making a memorable impact get close to zero. With no visual identity or messaging in place the brand by default becomes the person representing the business. Just another face in the crowd that's so easily forgotten. How you look and what you say becomes the brand messaging. But people are always changing. Clothes, mood, energy levels and body language can vary from day to day or even hourly. That's not what a brand needs. Brands are all about consistency.
Consistency, clarity and familiarity are the prerequisites of a strong brand. Unless you are a trained actor don't rely on your personality and smooth talking to get the job done. Let your logo, visual identity and core messaging lead the way. Your role is to follow their lead, reinforcing and expanding on the brands values as you go.
Follow your own brand's lead and others will slowly start to follow it too.
Where to begin
Branding aims to summarise the ethos of a business whilst making a connection at an emotional level. That’s a pretty slick act to pull off, but one that's well worth the time and effort if you can get it right, - if!
Great brands usually start life as a great idea. An idea that can be refined, distilled, and finally transformed into simple components. Images, words and colours that reassembled, form a recognisable identity. A visual, portable representation of a great idea.
A few, considered brand rules can help ensure this happens consistently. Created during the design phase, rules preserve uniformity and aid scaleability. From a business card to a digital hoarding, the core message needs power to punch its way out of the crowd and get seen. That power relies on uniformity. Always recognisable. Always the best it can be.
Creating your brand on a budget
If you are serious about saving money you will need to put in some hard graft at the start. This process will take up your time. But it will also empower you. You will become your own Brand Manager. You'll gradually learn exactly what you do and don't need.
This understanding will pay dividends as the project progresses. You'll be better equipped to brief, guide and manage your own brand's development. Who better to be managing your brand than the person who understands it like no other – you.
How to save money and get a better result
When it comes to your business, your market and your vision for the future, no one knows better than you. But when it comes to developing the brand components and creating a cohesive set of rules and guidelines. You need the help of a design professional.
Things you can do yourself
- Market research and developing audience personas
- Crafting your core message(s)
- Brainstorming logo ideas and branding concepts
The things you'll need help with
- Logo design, development
- Advice with brand colours and fonts
- Creating the brand assets and compiling a list of rules
1. Start with some honest research
- How well do you know and understand your customers?
- What are their expectations when it comes to your business?
- Do you have target personas (your ideal client). If not it's well worth the time and effort to develop a few at this point.
- What do your business partners, employees, family and friends think about the business? How do they think the the world will see it?
- What about the competition? How have they approached branding? Can you learn anything valuable from their look, feel and messaging?
When you're happy you've completed and learned from your research it's time to turn the spotlight on you.
2. Soul mining - extract your brand's core message
Dig deep and keep it honest when trying to find your core value(s). Why did you start this business? What do you want the business to become? What few words could sum it all up for you? What's the single most important quality you'd like it remembered for?
This isn't something for a brainstorming session down the pub with your friends. More of a solitary, inward journey by a quite lake type of scenario. Empty and settle your mind. The stillness will help you hear your inner voice agreeing or questioning your own thoughts. The aim is to carefully distill the whole business down to a single sentence or phrase.
Let the ideas and thoughts become words. Say them out loud. Make notes. Feel your passion (or lack) with each grouping that emerges. Take the time you need, you'll know instinctively when you get there. It feels right. It feels energising. It's something you are proud to say out loud.
Your brand is what you’re all about, its your motivation, your vision, your soul. Take your time and get the core messaging right first time.
3. Logo ideas and brand concepts
Having discovered you core message(s) it's time to start visualising it.
This one is suitable for a pub brainstorming session with friends. Have fun with it. Go off on tangents, let thoughts run wild. Bounce your ideas off of anyone whose opinion you value.
Remember though the core message driving all this is now set in stone and cannot change. Visions and combinations of related elements begin to emerge from the brainstorming chaos. The beginnings of a logo.
Time to get some help now.
Finding a designer
This is hard to advise you on. Location, size, experience, and suitability all play an important part in the decision. Start with a local search or better still a trusted recommendation and always try to meet face to face. Be straight. Ask questions. Decide if they are a good fit for your business. If not say thank you, stop it there and try again.
It's vital to find a creative partner that understands your vision and can help you bring it to life. They may have the skills and resources you need, but you are the Brand Manager. Make sure you feel happy working with them before committing to this new partnership.
Requesting a proposal - transparency is a win, win
Most designers, brand consultants or marketing agencies charge by the hour. Show them up front that you've put in some serious hours yourself. You've prepared as much as you can, so they don't have to. This will let them know you are serious and already have a firm idea what you need from them.
Be honest about the amount you have to spend. And most importantly ask them how best they can help you within the budget available. Request a list of the items they suggest working on. In order of importance with an estimate of the time and a charge shown against each item. If they won't agree to that it's time to move on and find a designer that will.
Lastly, if your cashflow is tight, tell them upfront. Ask if they would work with you to stagger the project and payments over an extended period. Brands that develop gradually over time are generally stronger for it in the long term.
Brand components - what you need, in the order you need it
In the spirit of keeping things simple, we've reduced it to five essential components.
1. Core messaging (the soul mining thing above)
It all starts here. Once you've nailed the core message you're on your way to creating a brand. You'll know intuitively when your core messaging is good. It will just feel right. something that resonates with you and leads you to further branding ideas.
2. The logo (your core values visualised)
With thought, direction, editing and a designer now on board, your ideas from the pub can progress to the next stage. They will transition from concept to visual and then onto a prototype logo. Sketches on a napkin become layered Illustrator files on a Mac. Forget colour at this stage and concentrate on the shape and form only. Think black on white and white on black.
The design process narrows the contestants and the logo design is finalised. Approved pdfs become production ready files. They can then be coloured, optimised and formatted for use on and offline as required.
3. Brand colours
This one is more self-evident, but also more subtle than most people think. 'Barbie' would struggle as brand whose primary colour was black, I think we'd all agree. But the juxtaposition of a second colour such as gold can change black from ominous to classic in an instant. Think 'Guinness'. Add a third colour or a graduation to the mix and people's reactions can often be surprising. Be careful and always listen carefully to your designers thoughts here.
Three pieces of advice regarding brand colour(s)
- Complete the two items above in order and suitable candidates for colour will become self-evident.
- Stay open to ideas. Breaking colour conventions with good reason can produce dramatic and original effects. Let your designer do what they do best and then tell you why they made decisions before you comment or pass judgement.
- Keep it all as simple and strong as your brand messaging allows.
4. Brand fonts
Definitely speak to an expert when it comes to fonts. They appear very straightforward when specified within your branding rules. In reality their use becomes much more complex. Using fonts across a range of media without prior planning is asking for trouble. It leaves the brand exposed and vulnerable to becoming a visual mess.
Websites alone for example can use fonts that are...
- Embedded within the code (or should be but aren't).
- Hosted and called from the same web server.
- Called from one or many third party repositories that may or may not serve the requested font.
- Substituted by the user's browser if unavailable after request.
- Substituted by the CSS cascade of the website if unavailable upon request.
- Various combinations of the above.
File formats such as .pdf and .svg can also call and manipulate fonts after opening. Font foundries can also supply different versions of fonts with the same family name.
Have I said enough? Please take some advice or at the very least do some research when it comes to the fonts used within your brand.
5. Imagery and brand tone (how they make you feel)
Many businesses are ill-considered at best. And plain dumb at worst when it comes to imagery and their brand.
A classic example is the company blog. The brand is impactful, well-designed and correctly integrated with the code. The page loads smoothly, looks good and presents a list of interesting post titles. Front and centre for each listed post however, is an image that ruins it all. Something grabbed quickly and shoved in to get the job done. Having little relevance at best or contradictory to the posts title at worst. Often cliched and seen a thousand times before online.
In these situations images are usually downloaded from royalty free repositories. With little or no thought given to the brand's, tone, the blog slowly becomes disjointed and confusing. Technical issues often result from oversized and incorrectly formatted files. Unacceptable load times, poor mobile display and loss of quality are generally the result.
With no rules or guidelines in place it's easy for a brand's credibility to be weakened over time. The visitor usually leaves at that point without reading a word of the post itself. The site overall becomes weaker. The brand less convincing. The blog has gone from being a lead generating asset to an embarassing liability.
But enough with negatives. Let's look at ways to maintain visual consistency and avoid these pitfalls.
Suggestions for improving brand imagery
1. Create brand rules related to imagery and branding tone.
How does an image you use relate to your core messaging? Does it reinforce it? Is it relevant? Is it contradictory, confusing or even damaging? Decide what you want the target audience to feel when they look at the imagery in use and stick with your decision .
2. Consider creating a tub of approved, generic images.
These are for general use if no specific image is available or the blog publisher is pushed for time. Outsourcing this task to a design agency ensures consistency in tone of voice. Quality and image formatting will improve. SEO (search engine optimisation) will also benefit. A designer can batch process and then upload hundreds of images ready for you or your team to use as you need. On brand and ready to go.
3. Customise the imagery (where possible) to increase brand alignment.
One example of this would be using monotone, doutone or semi opaque versions only. Adding a branding element as an overlay is another option. Doing this allows a disjointed group of images to become recognisable as a part of the brand.
Note: Always check the licensing situation with images to ensure you comply with their permitted usage.
How to launch and then track your new brand
Pick a suitable Monday morning and bright and early publish your new brand – everything everywhere all at once.
As part of the launch strategy, get ready to write and publish your business story. The about page is an obvious contender on your website, but your home page is better when you first launch. It will gain more exposure.
Upload an edited, compact version to all and any services you use that ask for your business profile.
Also Prepare snippets to publish across all networks that you and more importantly, your target audience uses.
Become a great storyteller
Write your brand story – create a narrative and tone that engages with your target audience and tell them your story. If you struggle to find the words speak with your designer. If they can't help there are hundreds of writers waiting on freelancer sites such as Fiverr.com to help you pen some meaningful words.
Keep it short and always relate it to the needs of your target audience. Share how you have become good at solving their type of problem. Explain how you've developed a skill set that aligns with your core messaging. Show them that you walk the walk.
Launching your brand
Assemble the brand components and elements including your brand story on a backed up cloud repository you can access easily from any location. Something like iCloud drive or DropBox would do the job.
Publish anywhere and everywhere you can. Use your brand story, core messaging and brand assets in every business situation and at every opportunity.
Add the logo to social profiles, business cards, stationery and any other touch point you can think of. Follow your brand guidelines and rules religiously to ensure you use the correct file type for each situation. Remember, uniformity empowers brands.
Your web designer or hosting service are probably best to update your website however. The logo might have been formatted specifically and be part of a code partial that needs careful handling.
And remember, don't just quietly reiterate your brand message when promoting the business following the launch. Be proud to shout it from the rooftops (metaphorically speaking). Energise it with your belief in it's value. Live it, breathe it, become it.
Launching your small business brand isn't the last part of the process, it's the end of first part. Brand development goes on with or without you until the business ends. If you are not steering your brand someone else will be. Keep the ball in your court by monitoring performance on a weekly basis.
The best FREE Tools for brand performance monitoring
1. Google Search, Trends and Alerts
Ever noticed that when you start typing in the Google search bar a list drops down? That list is Google predicting the query you are making and then suggesting possible results.
Select a result that contains your brand messaging. If your site appears in the search engine results page that follows, you know that the visibility of your brand is improving.
Google Search Console – Your web developer or site hosting provider should add Google Analytics and Search Console by default. Search Console reports the number of times your brand appeared within a group of search results. How many people clicked on your listing and how many of them went on to visit your site. This data can easily be streamed to your website CMS (the bit you login to) so it's there whenever you want to review it.
Google Trends – Another great free tool for investigating search trends that might include your brand. It's easy to use and can filter its results to find a time period or geographical region that is more relevant to your brand keywords.
Google Alerts – Ask Google to listen on your behalf and email you if a topic you are monitoring appears on the web. Include your brand message keywords. You can even select a time that suits you for email delivery. Brilliant!
2. SEMrush - Rank, performance, competitors - all in one App
SEMrush – The free account is a bit more technical and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) oriented than the Google tools. Nonetheless, it's still packed with useful advice and analysis. If you have the time to invest, it can help you learn and grow your brand massively.
PAID Tools for Brand Performance Monitoring
An ever-growing raft of tools fighting for a monthly subscription to help you is always just a click away. As usual, they are a mixed bag when it comes to helping small business brands to grow.
My advice would be to stick with the large, established free tools I've listed above at first. Six months to one year after launch you will have a better understanding of what you want to track and why. Using a paid tool at that point will provide far greater value and save you valuable time.
Brand development and growth – play the long game
People love to chat and share their experiences. Every interaction someone has with your business becomes a part of that brand experience. Whether it's speaking with you or your team on the phone, or opening a page on your website.
They will form an opinon and judgement will be passed.
If you'd like to discuss anything covered by this article please feel free to contact me.
Stay focussed on your clients and target audience
Look at all interactions from your clients or prospects perspective rather than yours. Ask for feedback wherever possible. Listen and then tweak your procedures to fall more in line with their expectations, not yours.
Fine tune your messaging as required. But always steered by your intuition and experience.
Be wary of Social Media claims, hype, comments and clickbait. It's easy to waste hours acheiving very little on most networks. Broadcast positive messages to your audience containing real value, or say nothing. Social media networks are utimately presiding over a narcissistic scrabble for attention whilst feeding you ads. Nothing more. Get your message out and then log out.
Watch the channel with detachment and don't waste your days energising the competition. Reply to constructive comments. Monitor and engage with your targets. Ignore the rest.
Be honest and accept criticism constructively when it comes your way. Leave your ego at home and remember that any comment was directed at the brand and not you personally. Ignorance and unjustified negativity is best ignored if it comes along. Don't allow it to steal your energy.
The core values of your business form the heart of your brand. Make sure they are strong and stand for something you truly believe in. Something you love and are prepared to defend.
Keep your energy focussed on your brand only. Stay true to your vision and don't worry too much about all the rest. In the long term you will be proud you did.
Related links – Internal
If you'd like to comment or discuss anything covered by this article please feel free to contact me.