Look Before You Leap: Smart Brand Building for Small Businesses

The days of online shingle-hanging—simply throwing a logo and website online—are over.

Many small business owners want to barrel through the early-stage defining and strategizing—or worse, dodge it all together. They’re anxious to show off a new logo and website, assuming their cry of “Here we are, world! Show us the money!!” won’t fall on deaf ears.

But it does. Because the stakeholders don’t know they’re supposed to be listening. So instead, the business sits on the curb all dressed up, hoping someone will pick it up and take it out.

Pop quiz: How well do you know your brand?

Those anxious to circumvent the branding process and skip to the deliverables aren’t likely to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Who needs to know?
  • How will they find out?
  • Why should they care?

Note the absence of: “What do you sell?”

First and foremost, you’re selling yourself and your business. Once someone understands who you are and why they should buy from or hire you, the selling becomes much easier.

From the answers to these questions come the positioning message, the vision and mission statements, the value proposition, the key personas, the service definitions, and more.

brand brief like the one shown here, which we developed for one of our clients, can be developed to highlight the fundamentals simply and succinctly, giving all stakeholders a cohesive and easily digestible way to understand and share your story, using the most authentic language, every day.

Brand Brief Diagram

Are you thinking too small?

Often, brand-sprinters allow themselves to get distracted by small things. This narrows their thinking from broad scope—”Who are we and how do we showcase it every single day?”—to limited scope—”Let’s try a different font” or “Our email open rates decreased by 5%.”

Any business advisor will tell you: Think bigger. Yes, that campaign could’ve been more lucrative or that webinar could’ve had more attendees, but don’t dwell. MOVE. Strategize. Action creates energy, and that energy will keep you moving forward to find new ways to get your business’s message out there.

Getting wrapped up in the individual pieces or endlessly tweaking what might not even be broken creates an underlying frustration, a tension, a focus on deliverables and time. And that busy-yet-tired mindset tends to stifle creativity.

The primary focus should be not on what you’re putting out there, but whether or not people understand who you are.

Seth Godin nailed it in his post “Big Questions Before Little Ones“:

Don’t finalize the logo before you come up with a business plan that works….

There are endless small details to get right before you have something that you’re truly proud of. No doubt about it. But there are frightening and huge holes in any bridge to the future, and until you figure out how to get across, I’m not sure it matters if you have a typo on page 4.

Hiding takes many forms. Inappropriate attention to detail is a big one, because it feels like a responsible thing to do. [emphasis added] 

By all means, get it right. Get it right the first time. Successful makers of change embrace the hierarchy of importance, though, and refuse to engage with a fight about right when it’s vitally important to focus on important instead.

When is it time to enter the branding process?

Short answer: The moment you realize you’ve spent years driving down a gravel road when you should’ve been on the highway.

When a business owner finally realizes how key the questions above are, the healthiest thing to do is to rebrand—not just to reposition the business but to recondition the voice the business uses to communicate with every stakeholder: board members, employees, strategic partners, competitors, the public, industry experts, customers, suppliers—and themselves.

Rebranding doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch—although it can—it just means starting from point A on the brand strategy timeline and walking through the steps to create something masterful, organized, and fearless.

If you’re starting a new company, it’s a no-brainer. Walk through the steps and do it right. Too many small business owners flounder when they don’t plan to invest in an ongoing brand strategy.

Alina Wheeler’s fabulous book Designing Brand Identity highlights six key times when you should start the branding process:

  • New company, new product: You’re starting a new business. You’ve developed a new product that needs a name and logo. You need venture capital.
  • Name change: You realize that the name of your business no longer aligns with what you do. Your name is misleading. You’re entering a new market (overseas, for instance).
  • Revitalize a brand: You want to reposition your brand. You need to clarify your communication with your target audience. You’re suffering from invisibility. Your website needs to be redesigned.
  • Revitalize a brand identity: Your visual identity feels dated, even though your products and services are good. Your logo is confusing or difficult to read / reproduce at scale.
  • Create an integrated system: You need consistency across all marketing channels, company divisions, and locations.
  • When companies merge: You need to send a clear message to stakeholders that the merger is about creating a better overall business. You need a new name and help with integrating the merging companies’ existing brand identities.

You’re not a trailblazer if you’ve decided to skip steps. And certainly, whether you’re branding a new business or rebranding an existing one, the process is everything. By all means, be creative along the way, be authentic, be transparent most of all. But don’t assume that starting at point H on the timeline of brand building merely as a way to get to market faster makes smart business sense.

The primary steps to defining a cohesive brand are not showy or glossy, but they’re critical. They are the framework and the roadmap for every decision you’ll make going forward, as you pivot from “How can we make money today?” to “What’s the best way to showcase our brand today?”

If you’re not there, you can be. It starts by committing to the process.

Photo Credit: EightBitTony via Compfight

22-year veteran of strategy: brand, business, organizational, communications. Certified in project management and regulatory compliance. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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