November 1, 2014

What is Branding? And Should Small Businesses Care?

Brand is

If you spend any time in marketing circles or reading about marketing, you will bump into the word “branding”. Branding is one of those concepts that is a bit vague, at least for the non-marketer small-business owner. So today we’re going to look at “what is branding” from the small business perspective.

We’re also going to tackle the question of whether branding should matter to small businesses — or whether it’s something only large corporations should or can afford to care about.

What is Branding?

There are thousands of definitions of “branding” or just plain old “brand.” One of the best definitions of brand I’ve seen is from the Tronvig Group. To them, a brand is “what sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization — whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.”

That seems a good informal way to describe a company’s brand. Under that definition, many things can contribute to a brand.

Does a picture pop into your mind about a company, such as its logo or colors?  Think about the logo, such as Coca Cola — recognizable the world over, executed in its distinctive curvy script in white against red. And when you see it, do you imagine the effervescence of a Coke, the dark color or how it tastes?  All of those things may run fleetingly through your mind when you want something to drink.

Sometimes it’s not the logo but another visual that comes to mind — even packaging. For instance, I couldn’t tell you what the Tiffany logo looks like, but the instant I see the iconic Tiffany blue box, I know which company we’re talking about. Certain attributes immediately come to mind, such as high quality jewelry and luxury home goods — things no one actually needs, but so many desire.

Or perhaps it is the company’s approach to customizing its product. Mention the name Starbucks and immediately coffee comes to mind. Now, I don’t even like Starbucks coffee (too strong and burnt tasting to me) but when traveling I will always look for a Starbucks.  I know I can expect a certain level of quality. The coffee will be fresh — not a stale witches brew.

But it’s more than coffee I think of — it’s that I can get it the way I want it.  No matter where I am, Starbucks will have hot, steamed low-fat milk to cut the strength. I can ask for a Cafe Misto (the Starbucks name for cafe au lait) made half with steamed milk, and half with brewed coffee. And I will get it — even though it’s not on the menu.  Why? Because Starbucks aims to give you coffee gussied up the way you want it.

So when you ask the question “what is branding” — it is something that triggers associations in our minds.  Branding is about creating an identity. It’s what sets one company apart from another. In short, it tells us what we can expect from that company.  It’s about the perception people have of the company.

Branding (a verb) is doing those activities and communications, large and small, that create and reinforce a brand, i.e., what a company is known for.

Your branding (a noun) is all the elements that make up a brand, whether logo, packaging, colors, reputation for customer service, reputation for customizing customer orders without complaint, speed, self-serve options, low price, high quality — whatever.

What is branding

The Value of Branding

According to the Tronvig Group that I mentioned above,  branding is what creates customer loyalty.  They say it is what keeps consumers loyal and buying repeatedly.

I would agree with that … but….

I’d go further.  Branding is what helps a prospective buyer call to mind a particular company when it comes time to buy.  In other words, branding also helps with awareness.

In a world of infinite choices, branding that helps people remember YOUR company is more important than ever. Today consumers have a seemingly endless choice of retailers, products and services available at their fingertips online, or at the local strip shopping centers or shopping malls.

If consumers are shopping for something, what do they do?  Go to Google, where billions of Web pages and yellow page listings are available.

Not only are there many choices, but some of the decision factors that traditionally separated and defined companies are today transparent and without much difference.  Take, for example, pricing.  Pricing is easier to discover and compare than ever before.  In certain industries there may be very little price difference.

When all prices are the same, what makes the buyer choose one over another?  Nuances and qualitative factors may make the difference.

For small businesses, what sets apart the business may be factors such as high quality, craftsmanship, personalized customer service, superior knowledge to help customers make the proper product selections, and similar qualitative factors.

The challenge for some small businesses is how to get customers to think of them when it’s time to buy.  You don’t want your company to be nonexistent in the customer’s mind.

And if they see your brand name in a list of competing vendors (such as in a search engine), you want your brand to be associated with positive factors that make it stand out.

Branding is not a replacement for sales or specific marketing campaigns.  But branding assists and reinforces your sales and marketing efforts in important ways.

to do list for branding

But … We Can’t Afford to Do Branding

Actually, you can’t afford not to.  Sure, branding can get incredibly expensive if your idea of branding is a nationwide television and print campaign.  But it doesn’t need to be.

Here are 4 low-cost actions you can start on today to help your small business create, build and reinforce brand:

1) Start with clarifying what your brand stands for.  What’s that “one thing” you want customers to think of, when thinking of your company?

  • Most knowledgeable — that is, your representatives can help the customer choose options in a complicated product environment?
  • Speed — such as your 10-minute lunch menu, or same-day delivery, or fastest time to create a customized solution?
  • High quality — especially when all the competition is low quality?
  • Something else?

Think it through.  If you or your team are confused about that “one thing” that sets your company apart, customers probably will be, too.

If you’re not sure what this is, find out.  Schedule a strategy session and hash it out with your team.  Do a customer survey to ask existing customers what they value most.  Start asking new customers what made them choose your company or product or service.

Try to limit it to one thing or at most two things you want your brand to be known for.  If you end up with a laundry list of 20 things, go back to the drawing board and narrow it down. Customers don’t choose a vendor for 20 reasons. It’s usually one or two reasons that push them over the decision edge.

2) Audit your marketing materials.  This is low hanging fruit. Check over your website, your Facebook page, your brochures, your ads — every piece of marketing you have.  Do you have words in them to clearly convey “that one thing” that you want to be known for?

Or are your marketing materials sending mixed messages, with brochures emphasizing lowest cost, while your website emphasizes unparalleled quality?  Maybe you deliver both, but in that case the combination of both should be conveyed, not one or the other.

Is your company name abbreviated in your marketing materials with cryptic initials that customers may not understand?  Just because you refer to your company internally by an abbreviated acronym doesn’t mean customers have any clue what you’re talking about.

Look at sales scripts, too.  Are sales reps conveying what your brand is, the way you want them to?  Or are they saying something different?  You may even learn something from them — they may have discovered through trial and error what customers value most and how customers perceive your company.

Make sure everything reinforces what you want customers to think about your business.

3) Demonstrate it with stories.  Stories make your brand “stick.”  It’s not enough just to say over and over that “we offer high quality.”  Show it!

Write up case studies about how you helped a customer with your high-quality solution to solve a problem that no one else could solve.

Or get a testimonial about how your product outlasted other products by five years.

Write your company story in the About section of your website, and repeat that story in press releases, interviews and other communications. Create a video about your company “story.”

4) Use colors, symbols and other elements to create visual associations. Check your marketing materials for consistency.  Are you using an outdated logo on some materials?  Do you even have a logo?  Are colors consistent?

Visual elements are important clues that trigger other associations and help customers remember your business.

Remember, branding isn’t just for large corporations.  When customers have seemingly endless choices, branding becomes a crucial competitive edge.  That’s the value of branding for small businesses.

Shutterstock: cloudbranding, to-do list

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Anita Campbell - CEO


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses, and also serves as CEO of TweakYourBiz.com.

72 Reactions

  1. I hate to burst most businessmen’s bubbles but Branding is EVERYTHING. Just think about the most successful businesses and you’ll understand that they’re selling more from their brand than from the actual product or service.

    • yes branding is the key to success, companies comes and go, but a brand remains in people minds even after years, so building a brand is more important than building a product i guess

  2. Anita:

    What a primer post on branding! I will bookmark (+1) it. Do you think that today’s small business owners understand the power of the personal brand?

    Talking about this topic, I will continue to tell people about RebelMouse’s service that is taking your lifestream of your online stuff and put it together in a nice visual way. I am powering my personal (Martin.Lindeskog) domain .name with RebelMouse’s tool.

  3. Nowadays for business branding is the most needed. Good branding can play a large part in gaining the belief of the public. Building the good brand from side to side a range of channels such as traditional and online media is also a good move.

  4. Hi, Anita. Thanks for your constant advisory for Small Companies.
    I’m following your content, and I’m glad to inform you that I have included your blog at the second place of my Top Blogger List for Italian Entrepeneur and Start Upper.
    Unfortunatly, I’m not sure you can understand Italian, but I’m sure you will recognize your name, and my comment, in the list:
    http://www.itware.com/blog-itware/societa-civile-social-media-start-up/item/873-blog-per-start-upper-guida-ragionata-a-quelli-da-seguire

  5. Two things jumped out to me. First, the consistency that Starbucks offers you no matter where you are. This consistency is important to a customer and small businesses have a distinct advantage here. It’s easier to have a consistent experience when you’re only talking about one location and a handful of employees.

    Second, your comments on being the brand that comes to mind for a specific need. If I want pizza I call Dominoes. If I want a roast beef sandwich I go to Arby’s. There are other places I could go, but these are the locations that have won my brand loyalty and are top of mind when I have those cravings.

  6. Branding is most certainly overlooked. It’s important to realize that your company (small or large) needs to be more than just a product/service. You don’t even like Starbucks and you keep going – why? Because you recognize them, you know they’re consistent and you know they provide exactly what you want even if it’s not on the menu. If Starbucks was only known for their coffee (which you don’t like), you most likely wouldn’t keep going.

    • Absolutely right, Mike. I wouldn’t keep going, but I do because when I’m traveling I know exactly what to expect from Starbucks.

      Whereas, I don’t know what to expect from No Name Coffee Shop — which could have better coffee, but I am rushed and don’t want to take a chance. Starbucks is consistent. I know what to expect. Indeed I know I won’t get an argument or a blank look when I ask for a low-fat cafe au lait, 50/50 milk and coffee. They just ring it up and give it to me. I’ve never had a Starbucks NOT do that — they are consistent.

      THAT’s the power of brand. Now if only all our small businesses could be so consistent.

      – Anita

  7. Thanks Anita for this comprehensive and spot on post on something that sadly most small businesses, entrepreneurs and professional consultants overlook or don’t a very good job with. Dated websites, copy and images are a brand killer.

    In today’s business world (where attention is a commodity), our online and in person presence visually and viscerally shows and tells people who we are, what we do and tells our story. This couldn’t be more important to stand out, get noticed and be remembered.

    The impact of color, images, visuals and clear, crisp copy are are really game changers. It’s an investment in our success and one that can pay off long term.

  8. Man I wish there was a spell and grammar check!

  9. Branding is extremely important. Especially for small businesses. Its even better when you can find a specific niche or area to specialize in within a bigger niche because it will help you special brand to stand out even more. Thanks for sharing your insights with our bizsugar community.

    Ti

  10. I think when it comes to branding for websites/online businesses, you need to get a unique design and logo that people are going to remember. These days, it seems that websites all look the same. You cannot simply use a generic WordPress theme and hope to “build your brand.” You need something that stands out and looks nice. It’s gotta be all about the packaging. How you market yourself always should be #1.

  11. Small businesses–even microbusinesses–can and should take advantage of branding to jump-start growth. I like to think of it this way: we start a business to bring us income in the short term, but we build a brand for value for the long term. It’s interest paid on an investment.

    The obstacles of time and expense are no doubt what make most small business owners feel branding is out of their reach, but there are great alternatives to agency branding. For example, I’m helping microbusinesses get ahead of the unbranded–or worse, look-alike–crowds with my own new venture. It doesn’t have to be scary or expensive to brand a business and it can even be fun!

  12. Anita: the “one thing” you referred to in point 1 – is that the same thing as establishing a unique selling point? That’s what came to mind for me.

    When it comes to branding, I can understand why some small businesses may shy away from it. However, it really should be a priority, not an option – part of its long-term strategy.

    • Yes, Ebele, it’s pretty much the same thing as the USP (unique selling point or proposition).

      Until small business owners and marketers understand that clearly, they can’t build a brand purposefully the way they want to. Because after all, you have to be known for something that customers identify with you when they think of you.

      Imagine Tiffany’s — what if its executives were confused? What if some thought they needed to be known for the cheapest price, instead of luxury? And ditched the iconic blue packaging for a cheap brown paper bag, to save money? Who would think of Tiffany’s then? And if you did think of them, you’d be awfully confused about what they stand for.

      So I think it starts there, by knowing what sets your business apart. And then you build on that. :)

      – Anita

      • Maybe there could be some kind of year-long brand-awareness-raising campaign targeting small businesses. It could be called ‘Year of the Brand’ or something. :-)

        I certainly can’t imagine Tiffany’s without its signature blue packaging or minus the luxury. It must have involved a particular focus from the get-go, along with a solid trajectory (with a certain degree of flexibility, I guess).

  13. It’s a very challenging task to grow a small business when you have no idea where to start. But focusing on branding can make it a big difference. The tips in this article are really helpful and anyone can follow and practice them to expand their business with no experience at all.

  14. Nice Article Shared! Branding is a term which signifies the importance of any product. It is through the brand name that product is sold. Hence, to build your business brand name does matter.

  15. I think for small businesses personal branding is also critical. If the business’ leaders are engaging with customers/clients/prospects then they are building strong personal relationships which can carryover to business success. This will grow as social platforms continues to gain.

    • Hi Jonathon,

      Definitely agree with you! And some huge brands have been built off the foundation of a well-known founder, who used his/her fame and personality to promote the company.

      Just think Richard Branson of Virgin.

      And in some cases, the personal brand is very closely aligned to the business brand. Take, for instance, Martha Stewart. And in Martha Stweart’s case, when she went to jail, her personal brand become a liability for a while, although she’s managed to rehabilitate it quite a bit since then.

      And of course, we all know about Paula Deen and the brouhaha she and her businesses are going through (although I suspect with the passage of time her personal brand will be rehabilitated along with the company brand, too).

      – Anita

  16. Branding works both ways. Some coffee chains have such a negative brand – mediocre coffee and stale donuts – that in the absence of a positive brand like Starbucks, I’ll usually take a risk on an independent, and have discovered some surprisingly good ones. (And often they turn out to have their own brand, albeit local.)

    • Hi Keith, totally agree!

      My reference to Starbucks had to do only with traveling.

      When I am local, I go to independent coffee shops that are great and have their own personalities. One of them is known for being the “happening place” in my small town. They have a free meeting room that can be booked, and comfortable stuffed chairs, low tables and free WiFi. Oh, yeah, they have awesome coffee and sandwiches, too. It’s just a great combination of food, beverage and people you’re likely to run into, where you are welcome to relax and stay awhile.

      Much preferred over Starbucks when I’m local!!!

      When traveling, I don’t have time to scout out the great independent places (and in airports, for instance, you probably can’t find an independent anyway). That’s when I value the consistency of Starbucks and knowing I can get exactly what I want without 10 minutes of instructions or a mini argument.

      – Anita

  17. Anita,

    You wrote “The challenge for some small businesses is how to get customers to think of them when it’s time to buy. You don’t want your company to be nonexistent in the customer’s mind.”

    That is so true.

    Madison Avenue execs must have thought the same thing years ago. They had challenges, for sure. But now?

    Marketing messages are hitting us 24/7. While we’re in the car. At work. In restaurants. Via email. While we’re on our PC’s, laptops, and now, phones.

    If today’s small business owners can’t come up with a brand that’s memorable…one that resonates with their prospective clients or customers, they’re sunk.

    Great post!

    The Franchise King®

  18. Great article! Branding is hugely important for businesses of all sizes because it sets them apart from the competition. But sadly this is where a lot of people cut corners. Branding is all about creating an identity for your company that people, customers and non-customers alike, will remember. And consistency is key. Using the wrong brand files and stretching logos to fit a certain context are common pitfalls when it comes to branding. It can make you look unprofessional and even sloppy. But tools like Smartimage are great for making sure your right brand files are always used. And that kind of consistency creates the foundation for a strong brand.

  19. Hi Anita,

    I always try and get the small companies I work with to not focus so much on design as a first step. They usually want a good looking website, but it’s best to take a step back and work on positioning as step one … this is how you want your business to be perceived (as you mentioned above).

    It’s becomes the center of all your marketing communications, design and copy. It becomes the rock of your brand and basically the filter which everything else runs through.

    The best way to start is sitting down and clearly defining your ideal customer, their needs, how you can serve them, and what you’ve highlighted here >> what makes you stand out from the competition?

  20. Sharing your brand with stories is so crucial. This is a point that most small business people miss. Thank you clearly articulating the importance of telling their unique story, so as to build their brand image.

  21. Anita: A very nice post. Thank you for the mention and I heartily agree with your expansion of my definition. All businesses (and all non-profits) no matter how small, should spend the time to really sort out who they are, who their most natural consumers are, and why those consumers should care. Solve these things, brand accordingly, and everything else will be that much easier.

  22. In the SEO field branding is very important because this what people will remember in the long time. But right now what I observe, some businesses no longer used a unique brand name to their business. Must business right now used a product or services as a brand name, which is not good for me.

  23. Excellent article. Branding is easier to accomplish than many business owners think, and is far less costly than not to pay attention to it.

  24. Anita’s article is well done. I was especially pleased she addressed small businesses directly. This is the market I brand for and I can attest from first hand knowledge that her kind of hands-on, cost effective approach appeals to small business owners and is very successful.
    Thank you, Anita!

  25. hi anita,
    waht a good article. i really need this type of info, actully the new world need brands, people love to follow brands. they are just stick to them. as you know many iphone love advanced book iphone 6, even they know it will be a shit :)

  26. Awesome article Anita.

    Can’t agree more. Small businesses all so often neglect branding and I see this mentality of “branding is for big companies” quite regularly.

    As you said, you don’t need to be the best option in 20 different ways… just one or two things that make you stand out would do the trick.

    Your starbucks example reminded me of the way my family decides where to eat from when traveling.

    I believe what makes brands more than anything else is consistency.

    Be it in the quality of your product, in your customer service, in how you welcome your customer, or in the manner in which you serve, if you can be consistent in one or two key aspects and religiously stick to it each and every time, your company will be remembered. Add to that the tricks of having a memorable name, logo and color scheme, and you have a winner!

    Thanks again.

    • Thank you, Vinod. I used to think “branding campaigns” were for big companies because your options for branding campaigns were expensive print ads. That’s no longer true what with social media being so accessible.

      Besides, there are always way to brand that don’t involve ad campaigns. Consistency, customer service, and similar everyday actions cost little over and above your normal operational costs, but leave a big impression.

      – Anita

  27. Branding is soul of your company, organization and individuality.
    I believe a brand is not just a logo. A brand is not a corporate identity system. It’s a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company.

    Yes Small business have to care about this because branding is when that idea or image is marketed so that it is recognizable by more and more people, and identified with a certain service or product when there are many other companies offering the same service or product.

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