Branding Your Business

It’s not enough to just have a name and logo for your business—you need to create a brand that incorporates your whole identity. Our experts share how to establish your business as a successful, brand-name company.

You can walk into any McDonald’s in the world and you know how the restaurant will look, how you will be treated by the employees and what to expect in terms of value. This is the McDonald’s promise—their brand.

Unlike large corporations who spend millions of dollars on branding, as a small business owner, you have to work harder to get your name in the public eye.

The way the game of business is played today is not like it was 20 or 30 years ago where you could drive down any main street in America and see lots of small, entrepreneurial-type businesses, according to Neil Ducoff, founder and CEO of Strategies, a consulting company dedicated to helping businesses grow. “Today you see franchises, chains, big-box stores, and all of them work very heavy on brand identity,” he said. “When entrepreneurs go into business, they need to take a look at what they are building and what they want their businesses to communicate, and they need to do it at a level where they can at least compete with these bigger stores. You’re always being judged against what’s out there, and what’s out there are some serious players.”

What Makes a Brand?

While a logo is very important to branding, it is not the only thing that matters, according to Rob Marsh, vice president of operations for Logoworks by HP. “Branding isn’t just the logo; it’s the look of your store, your marketing materials and business cards,” he said. “It’s everything your business stands for. It’s the way you treat your customers, the way you answer your phones, the quality of the products that you sell and of course the look of your logo—all of these help create a customer’s experience. Over time, a logo acts as a kind of ‘short-hand’ to represent all of the things that make up your brand.”

According to Ducoff, the importance of branding is defining who and what your company is in a matter of an instant to potential clients. “A couple of months ago, we went to go see a Cirque du Soleil show,” he said. “They set up right alongside the highway on the edge of the city. Although their logo is printed very small at the top, the yellow and blue tents they use are instantly recognizable as Cirque du Soleil. People know that they will pay a premium price, but they will get a high-quality show with some amazing and unique acts that are more geared toward an adult crowd.”

There are definite advantages to creating a strong brand image for your business, according to Mark Gilman, president of Decus Communications. “I think first and foremost, if a brand is associated with a message the business owner wants to get across, it’s a huge benefit in that when people see a brand, they think of a product, a way of life, a slogan, and what that particular business stands for,” he said. “For example, if I own a landscaping company and I’ve got my brand out there, when people see my brand they think, ‘Wow, those guys are quick. They’re effective in getting me a lot for what I pay and I know they have qualified workers that go above and beyond what they are required to do.’”

Another very important thing a good brand image creates is value for the company in and of itself, added Ducoff. “When I first started Strategies almost 15 years ago, I worked by myself for about the first year,” he said. “Although we were small, we had really powerful graphics and really great mailers. I worked very hard in creating that brand look to represent Strategies. For many years, a lot of people thought we were a heck of a lot bigger than we were.”

A good strong brand also makes you more attractive to an investor or someone that wants to lock horns with you, according to Ed Roach of The Branding Experts. “If you have all of your ducks in a row and have a good strong brand, you come off looking a lot better in the eyes of investors,” he said. “If you have a weak brand, that’s going to be very unattractive to an investor. You look like an amateur, not a big player.”

Where to Begin

A business should never spend more on a branding campaign than they can afford, according to Gilman. “A small business should not take out a loan to do a branding campaign. Out of the box, I would say, if my revenues are $200,000 a year, I wouldn’t spend more than $5,000 on a branding campaign.”

You don’t need to break the bank, but unless you’re qualified in graphic design, you should be prepared to treat it as an investment in your brand. “If a business owner feels that it’s too expensive and can’t afford the graphics or marketing, then he needs to question why he wants to go into business in the first place,” noted Ducoff. “The brand is something that’s above and beyond the owner, and you need to be prepared to invest in not just the physical space, but be prepared to invest in the people and training.”

Roach agrees that branding doesn’t have to be extremely expensive. “Every company already has a brand; it didn’t cost them anything to create it,” he said. “What they want to do is to build up their reputation, and they have to determine what they want to do with that and how much they are willing to
do themselves.”

There are some important questions that business owners need to consider when trying to brand their business, according to Ducoff. The biggest thing they need to consider is what their goal for doing this is and why customers should care about you. Plus, as a business owner, are you prepared to accept a negative result? Roach suggests picking up the phone and calling your 10 or 15 best customers and asking them honest questions. He said you need to think about how honest you are with yourself. “If you get a negative answer, are you prepared to address that?” he asked. “If all you’re concerned about is your logo, that’s not going to solve anything. You can have a new logo and you will have the same problems, just with a new face. It really involves a lot of soul searching.”

Gilman said another thing business owners need to consider is whether they can afford to lose money the first year. “There are a lot of upfront costs when you’re branding and marketing,” he said. “How many hands do you want in the pot? I always think it’s a bad idea to go out right away and look for tons of investors. If you really know what you want to do and bring investors in, they are going to steer your company.”

The Brand Basics

Ducoff believes a brand image has to communicate not only a level of quality and professionalism, but also an idea for the buyer or consumer of what they should expect. “For some reason, all of the TVs that I have ever bought have the Sony name on it,” he said. “I know that when I buy a Sony product, it means it’s going to be top-quality and state-of-the-art. Another example of a good brand is Southwest Airlines; they communicate fun. For instance, they painted one of their planes to look like the Sea World orca whale, Shamu, and they have pictures of airplanes drawn by children in their gate areas at the airport.”

Ducoff stresses that when building value in a brand, it is important to incorporate the business as a whole and not just the leadership. “When the leader of a business is the brand, it takes away value,” he said. “There is a great value when they are present, but it takes away value when they want to move on. If their business was built around them and not the brand, it just degrades value.”

Marsh added that a great logo helps a small business look professional. “It helps instill confidence in a business’ customers. And it can help customers easily recognize you, so when they need you again, they can find you. Your logo should be a simple, visual representation of all of the things that make up your brand.”

Beyond the Logo

Branding is so important because there are a lot of companies that have failed because they did a lousy job marketing their product and they didn’t differentiate themselves, said Gilman. “Branding is all about visibility,” he said. “People think branding campaigns are all about buying advertising and billboards. It’s also about having a good looking business card, giving presentations and sponsoring charitable events. It always boggles my mind when companies want to sponsor events and they don’t bother to ask what they get out of it. If you’re going to sponsor an event that represents who you are or the client base that you want to go after, you should be able to set up a table in the lobby. If it’s an awards ceremony, you need to be able to pass out an award. There are some charities out there that really need your support, and they are willing to give you some major exposure out of it.”

Just because you are a small business owner does not mean that you have to think small, adds Ducoff. “A lot of people go into business and they think too small,” he said. “They create their own limitations and it’s sad to see it. It’s so easy for them to think small and believe they can’t play the game at that level. There’s always a way to create the business of your dreams. Don’t get locked into small thinking. Just because you think big doesn’t mean you need to spend big.”

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Reader Comments

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 at 11:29 AM
Ed Roach says:
The positioning strategy of a small company can be key to gaining local market share against a large multi-national. Work on what will makes you unique in the eyes of your customers. If you can dominate your category with this position if it can be very compelling. Because of their size, multi-nationals are slow to react, they are not as flat as a small company, and by taking advantage of that fact, a small company can dominate if they allocate the proper resources to that end. This hinges of course on something truly unique not just the lowest price.

I would put a major effort in developing the positioning strategy first.
Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 12:57 PM
Jake C. says:
"Very nice graphics with this article by the way!"

^Thanks for the compliment Mark. Wait 'til you see the new Sep/Oct cover, it's going to be even more fantastic!

-Jake Chalkley,
Art Director, America's Best
Friday, July 18, 2008 at 7:28 PM
Mark M. says:
Companies spend thousands of $$$$$ rebranding over and over again ... can't say enough about spending the time upfront to think about all the implications and possible uses of a logo as well as the marketing collateral that may accompany it.
Very nice graphics with this article by the way!

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