Preoccupied with daily operational activity, small businesses build their reputation with their current clientele and sometimes aren't sure how to scale it. 'Branding' doesn't create immediate returns, so it can fall down the priority list and end up a tad neglected. The paradox is that small business managers are often preoccupied by the image of their company, particularly on social media. They can feel they've got this far based on their reputation, yet feel like branding is an accessory or a practice that is only available to larger companies.
Branding is all about scaling reputation.
SMEs often deploy a combination of networking and direct sales, iced with some digital marketing, to drive their reputation at a local level. This is where they start. Lower resources mean that they may have a logo or brand guidelines created via a freelance graphic designer, but it often sits independent of an actual branding strategy created by a marketing or branding specialist.
Split From The Pack And Win
A branding strategy for small business creates a sustainable competitive advantage, builds loyalty with clients, enables the business to charge a higher price, supports differentiation and attracts investment.
Small businesses that focus on branding have been found to have a higher rate of survival in hostile economic environments, such as recessions. Some studies go so far as to illustrate that businesses that continue to neglect brand, face either an exhausting existence or extinction based on one-off transactions. Installation or repair services for example that negate strategies that will keep them 'front of mind' in the eyes of the public, can find themselves trapped in an endless game chasing new jobs.
Without branding, not only is Cost Per Acquisition more expensive long-term but it can also offer a less predictable income forecast for the business. Members of the public may have used the service or product before, but as time passes, without a consistent brand presence supporting memorability, previous clientele forget who it was they 'called last time', so the business finds they need to maintain a higher spend on high intent and increasingly competitive channels such as Google Ads.
The company with the strongest brand will distinguish itself from the company with no brand. Split from the pack and win.
How To Brand Your Small Business
Moving beyond the operational framework of a commercial relationship means investing in future profits. Your brand is not just a logo or applying brand colours consistently across touchpoints, it includes how you want customers to feel about your business, anticipation, impression, position, experience, how staff portray you, differentiation, perception, characteristics and how you manage customer relationships.
1. Accept It Takes Consistency Over Time
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your brand. Accept that branding will be your backbone to support transactional advertising like email offers and in-store sales. We are more attracted to sales of known brands. If desirability has already been established, we're faster to take the bait.
2. Know Your Customer
Do your homework on your customers. Many of us hate hearing this, but you only have one core customer. You simply can't please everyone, and trying to is well, exhausting, and can make you too generic. Like a chameleon, or somebody 'two-faced' if you shapeshift to 'please everyone' nobody really knows what or who you are, so you become less trusted, not more. There will be one identifiable core customer that helps inform your branding, your messaging, and, your overall brand persona.
Some businesses worry that choosing a primary persona will murder their brand's appeal to others. Don't stress - solidifying your branch archetype will make you a more confident and recognisable identity. Your customer persona could be 'Dad', a 'bargain hunter' or even a kid. You are going to make your brand as relatable to them as possible so that you 'gel'. They need to feel that you 'get them' through your content, and really, you need to or you risk every ounce of your efforts going down the drain.
3. Identify How You Want Customers To Feel About Your Product Or Service
McDonald's doesn't beat Burger King by chance. McDonald's want you to feel happy when you buy from them. That's why they have happy meals, happy colours and a happy clown. Branding experts swoon over campaigns like, "I'm lovin' it". Their branding is about the customer, not the product. Competitors talk about their 'whopper burger' while Maccas says 'you deserve a break'. From an imagery perspective, Maccas could be marketing to children with a promise to parents that things will be happy, at least over lunch.
Brand Name Examples
- GHD stands for 'Good Hair Day'
- Lean Cusine
What do you do for your customers? Do you make them feel safe, protected or smart? Articulate and integrate it. Build your emotional hook.
- A lawyer without the fine print
- Women's only gym
- All-inclusive quotes
- IT without the headaches
4. Adopt An Attitude
A strong brand is often polarizing. It has an attitude, and that's what makes it memorable. Did you know who Lady Gaga was before she started wearing meat? She transformed herself from up-and-coming-singer to larger-than-life-icon using audacious self-expression, moving her from small to larger-than-life in a short-time period.
Figure out what you're about, and own it. You may have heard the saying, 'if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.' You can't be everything to everyone, and you simply can't sell to the whole planet. Even Google became Alphabet. It's particularly important to acknowledge that you can't be 'everything' for those with constrained business budgets. Resources will limit your ability to achieve that, and you need to be known for something, so focus on what you can be.
- You might offer interior design services, and your designs are great, but you can't deliver at the same pace as a larger firm. So what? Focus on selling your design attributes, rather than timeline promises.
- You make air conditioners. Make yourself the cooler brand, literally and figuratively.
- You're a law firm known for working with the most bad-ass criminals, and that's it.
5. Tell Your Story In A Snapshot
For generations, we've told stories. A story captivates our brains and creates a structure that makes it easier for us to understand key messages. A story helps us remember a product or service, painting an illustration into our mind to associate with the brand name. Branding experts craft these into taglines, often drawing from a business founder's plight-to-solution narrative. It's not as easy as it sounds, which is why most SMEs use a branding agency or small business branding consultant to help them dig deep and articulate the essence of the business.
6. Apply Your Branding Consistently And Everywhere You (Professionally) Can
Small businesses perhaps know better than anyone, that providing a consistent service or product experience keeps people coming back. Consistency breeds trust and people buy from who they trust. In the same way, if you chop and change your branding look and feel regularly, or stuff more into it, you'll find yourself starting again, over and over again. Rapid change damages any recognition you've established so far. Ouch.
Consistency builds perception and reputation over time. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Apply your branding with such consistency across customer touchpoints that you feel sick of it. You may be seeing it a lot, but your customer is not. You see it day-in, day-out, whilst your prospective customer may catch fleeting glances of it. You'll build familiarity over time, and people buy from familiar brands.
- Be relentless
- Choose or leverage the qualities of your location
- Consider interior and/or exterior design
7. Use Advertising Creatively
Small businesses usually have a smaller budget than larger companies, which means they quite simply won't be seen as many times as the larger entity. To help ensure your campaign is remembered despite a lower number of impressions, be brave. Consider colours, strong messaging, and the use of eye contact to attract likewise to your ads. Bland blends in, while creativity stands out. In a cluttered marketplace, a small business needs to stand out.
- Embrace 'reach' as a campaign metric. To grow your brand perception, you are wanting to reach as many people as possible through related metrics such as impressions and views. However, allocate a budget to this you can actually maintain as consistency is key to brand awareness strategies.
- Transactional advertising such as a sale and special offer will perform best over time if it's underpinned by brand awareness. Otherwise, you risk only experiencing sales while you run a special offer.
- Beware of fear - it can undermine your creative efforts and tell you this won't work for you, but it will.
- Traditional channels can sometimes reach more people than digital marketing channels.
- Using multiple channels to amplify your campaign reach will increase memorability.
8. Leverage PR
The most successful entrepreneurs know how to be talked about - either through controversy or innovation. Public Relations magnifies your reach in a big way, often for the longer term on online news publications. The catch with this sort of coverage is having positive content published that outweighs any negative. PR supports marketing efforts across multiple fronts, including Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). PR can be undertaken on low or high budgets, making it accessible to small and medium businesses alike.
9. Manage Customer Relationships
Many of us are guilty of it: beginning customer relationships in a transactional manner and leaving any form of an ongoing relationship to default settings (what settings?). SMEs fighting to grow, and customer relationship management processes can be cast to the wayside in the process.
At some point, most realise that a focus on acquiring new customers is more expensive than upselling and nurturing existing ones. These customers, if happy, become brand advocates, magnifying your brand attributes across referral channels like social media.
10. Leverage Relevant Mass Conversation
Social media is the darling of our era but it's actually not some sort of holy grail of marketing - it's a channel. As a brand, you do want to participate in conversations that have mass reach potential across mediums, whether that be social media channels like Twitter or Facebook, a TV interview or a news thread. These mediums help you reach as many people as possible, leveraging relevant conversation.
- Look for relevant social influencers using a tool like Buzzsumo.
- Don't spread yourself too thin eg. If you don't have the resources for LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, choose the channel that your audience or their influencers participate in the most.
- Use in conjunction with PR
11. Invest In Your Internal Culture
People matter. It's employee branding that is one of the most studied areas in corporate branding studies. These discussions concentrate on how the corporate brand is developed through employee participation. While the amount of employees is often scarce in SMEs, how they feel about the business influences how they act within it, and on its behalf. Their behaviour is more magnified compared to a corporation, and in theory, therefore, has a greater impact on brand perception.
Investing in your internal culture supports brand-building efforts.
Branding naysayers will tell you branding is fluffy, but if you do it right, it will cut through the fluff to the nitty gritty of what makes your product or service useful. You don't have to have deep pockets to build a strong brand. Invite branding into your business like an advisor, and watch its scaled tactics over time build your reputation, cut your Cost Of Acquisition and set you apart.
Need a hand? You may be interested in brand development services for SMEs.