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The Small Business Guide to Branding

Branding plays an important role in business growth. A cohesive, compelling brand can help grow your brand recognition and brand awareness. It can also feel overwhelming for many entrepreneurs, but it doesn’t have to. This guide will help you quickly get up to speed so you, too, can become an expert in brand building.

What Is a Brand?

A brand is a set of features or characteristics that differentiates your business from other businesses. This includes concrete aspects like your brand name, logo, tagline, design, and voice, as well as more ephemeral categories like “what people think of when they think of your brand” and “how they feel when they interact with your brand.”

What Is Branding?

Branding is the process of researching and developing the set of features and characteristics that set you apart from other brands and then applying them. Branding is a paradoxical process, in that the best branding maintains consistency while continually iterating to ensure that the messaging and brand offerings you’re providing connect to your customer base as effectively as possible.

Given the paradoxical and often nebulous-feeling definition of branding, many businesses have certainly fallen into the pitfall of approaching it with an “I know it when I see it” approach. Equally problematic is the temptation to name everything as “your brand.” The opposite approach tends to serve small businesses more effectively. Get concrete as often as you can. Adopt only what you can actually implement. Test. Adjust. Repeat.

Not sure how to do any of that? We’ll cover it all below so that you have the information you need to put the strategy in brand strategy.

What Is Brand Strategy?

Brand strategy is the long-term plan for developing a brand to hit clearly outlined, specific goals. These goals can include objectives like reaching a new audience or taking the market-leading position from a competitor. When creating a brand strategy, you’ll be best served by first determining what you are trying to accomplish. The strategy is what helps you figure out how to get there.

Business Branding vs. Personal Branding

Business branding relates to the features and characteristics that are associated with a business, whereas personal branding refers to the process of identifying the associations people have with an individual so that you can more effectively message and leverage yourself as an individual.

This guide will outline everything you need to know about business branding. For more information on personal branding, check out our guide.

Why Is Branding Important?

Successful branding will help you build your business in 6 key ways:

  1. It makes your brand more memorable.
  2. It attracts new customers.
  3. It increases how many loyal customers you have.
  4. It increases the value of your business.
  5. It helps your business build brand trust.
  6. It helps with recruiting and employee retention.

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Ways to Develop Your Brand

There are 3 ways you can manage your branding efforts. Each has its own pros and cons. We’ll examine each so you can make an informed decision for your business.

Develop It Yourself

Many small businesses can be best served by developing their brands themselves. As the closest people to the brand, you know what your customers are reacting to. You may know, for example, that they come to you because your services are speedy. Or, you may have noticed that people tend to lounge in your lobby or brick-and-mortar store—an indication that they find it comfortable and maybe even luxurious.

Many entrepreneurs hire branding agencies or branding teams because they feel they don’t know how to brand, but there’s a trade-off. Branding teams won’t know your business as well as you do…and they’re expensive.

When deciding whether or not to brand your business yourself, return to your goals. What are you trying to achieve? If you’re trying to reach a new market, what are your conservative estimates for how much revenue you’ll gain? Compare it to the branding costs of working with an agency and consider the ROI.

If you do decide to brand your business yourself, there are a few steps you can take to ensure a successful outcome:

  • Maintain consistency as much as possible. All your high-performing assets should maintain consistent messaging and brand voice. There are ways to test new brand messaging (more on that later). But your website homepage, print materials, logo, and graphic design are not it. The only thing harder to remember than an unbranded business is one that’s experiencing a constant brand identity crisis.
  • Let your “word” person lead the brand messaging. Whether you have an on-staff copywriter or a sales leader with the gift for gab, you want to keep the person who can actually create the messaging central to the branding process. This is important for 2 reasons. First, this person has the most direct experience messaging your product. They already have some experience testing what works and performs. Let that guide you. Second, they’ll likely be able to punch up what you already have, and who doesn’t want a punchy brand tagline?
  • Listen to stakeholder feedback/opinions even if they differ from your own: The people who are deeply connected to various aspects of your business can give you a lot of information about your target audience and what they’ve responded to with your messaging. You might have a bright idea for a brand message that sounds great, but if your audience won’t respond to it, it’s not going to get you very far. If you can let stakeholder information guide you, then you can build on what has already worked/been established in your marketing and you’ll go much further in your branding efforts.

Hire an Agency

Branding agencies specialize in creating, launching, and rebranding brands. If you hire a branding agency, they will be responsible for creating and planning your brand strategy. This includes elements like your visual identity and brand personality.

The benefit of hiring a brand agency is that you can rely on branding experts to get you started. This can be especially appealing for an entrepreneur entering a saturated market where your branding will be essential—or if you plan to do most of your business through social media (in which case, you’ll want people to be able to quickly connect with your brand and remember it). The drawback of hiring a branding agency is that it’s expensive, and can be cost-prohibitive for many entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

Hire an In-House Team

The third option is to hire an in-house brand team. This is something that is only recommended for the larger companies—think McDonald’s—who need to create consistent messaging for their global presence. For most small businesses, this is an expensive option that doesn’t yield a strong ROI, given that a brand team will likely just tell you what you already know about your business.

How to Build Your Brand

Decided to build your brand yourself? Curious about what that would look like if you did? Here’s what you need to know to build your small business brand.

Determine Your Goals

What are your primary reasons for branding? Do you want to access new audiences? Do you want your marketing to be more effective? Do you want to ensure a smooth, consistent customer experience? Name your goals. Be specific.

Identify the Strategy You’ll Use to Get There

Next, you’ll want to outline the “how.” What are you doing to achieve your brand goals? This is your brand strategy. This will vary depending on the goals you set, but a common brand strategy is outlined below.

1. Determine “Who You Are” as a Business

What do you want to be known for? What impact do you want to make in your industry? What do you most value as a company? The clearer you are on your identity, the more dynamic and consistent your brand will be.

2. Establish Your Point-of-Difference

Your point-of-difference (POD) is what sets you apart from all your competitors. What makes your customers choose you rather than another business? It can be something as big as “We have patented technology” or something as small as “our BBQ sauce tastes really good.”

3. Ask Questions That Will Help You Develop Your Brand

As you begin your branding journey, the following questions can be helpful in developing an initial sense of what your brand looks, feels, and sounds like. Pose them to yourself and key stakeholders.

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What information from your market research might be helpful in this process? (Hint: If you created a buyer persona, you’ll want to dig that up)
  • Who are you as a company and what do you stand for…. Really? (Yes, this happened in step one. It’s so important you should ask yourself again. Don’t ask “What would people respond to?” Ask, “What can brand values can I promise and actually deliver?”)
  • What do you want your brand to evoke?

4. Develop the Brand Identity

Create the visual identity for your brand, your brand voice, logo, etc. It’s all part of your brand identity. If you’re doing it yourself, this doesn’t all need to happen at once. With a testing approach to brand strategy, you might first roll out different marketing messages to test and see how they do. The elements of your brand that are harder to change, like your web design or logo, are best saved for the end of the process (assuming you already have a working version) so that they can be designed based on the information you’ve gathered in testing.

Test Your Brand

Follow every step of the brand strategy. Test your results. A tested brand strategy will always be more valuable than an untested brand strategy (no matter how delightfully witty the tagline might be). Social media and content marketing can be incredibly effective—and economical—tools to test branding. By their very nature, both social media and content marketing invite customer engagement.

If you’re considering a visual identity, you can test images that match that visual style on your Instagram. How do they perform? What kind of engagement have you gotten from your audience? If you get no likes, that will tell you that it’s likely not the right message for your audience. If the post blows up, that’s an indication that it’s connected.

The same can be said for messaging as well. If you’re trying to figure out which of your company values or product offerings you should lead with, the engagement metrics on a blog post covering that topic can tell you a lot.

Compared to other branding methods, testing through social media and content marketing is much cheaper and gives you immediate feedback.

Iterate

Find something that didn’t work? Iterate and test again. Branding is a process of change. Once you get your clear brand locked down, you’ll be able to manage the continuity of your brand. Eventually, though, the market will change, and you’ll have to adjust your branding.

Branding, once again, is a paradoxical process of maintaining consistency through a process of iterative development. Think of it like the ocean—constantly moving, never the same in one place, yet always recognizable as the ocean.

Get Started

You don’t have to get your branding right on the first try, but you do have to get started. Start your business and start your brand journey. If it doesn’t work, you can always adjust later.

Not sure how to get your business started? Check out the free Start Your Side Hustle Mini-Course for the ins and outs of growing your side hustle from an idea into a revenue machine.

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