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Branding Your Small Business
This article is part of our Complete Guide to Small Business Marketing, which covers topics like market research, SEO, SEM, social media and content marketing.
A great brand has a lot of power. It can influence not just what you buy, but also how you feel. A brand isn’t just a logo—it’s a series of puzzle pieces that come together to build a lasting relationship with a customer. Still not convinced? Interbrand named Apple the best global brand in 2017 with a brand value of $184 billion.
You don’t have to be the next Apple to harness the power of a strong brand. Even small businesses can create enviable brands, especially when they make an effort to build that brand around their customers.
Building a brand that can compete in the big leagues means tackling four key pieces: brand positioning (defining your brand’s place in the market based on insights), visual identity (creating a look and feel for your brand), brand story (defining how to talk about your brand), and brand standards (representing your brand consistently).
This guide will walk you through all the key elements of building a brand for your small business with simple, easy-to-follow exercises and tips.
Already know some of this? Jump ahead to the section you want to learn.
Part 1: Positioning your brand
Part 2: Creating your brand’s visual identity
Part 3: Telling your brand’s story
Part 4: Driving your brand standards
Part 1: Positioning your brand
Philip Kotler, an American marketing author, consultant, and professor, defines brand positioning as “the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market”. He also said that companies should start by setting their brand’s purpose before creating its identity.
True, the visual identity is the most fun part of branding for a lot of people, but trying to design an identity to represent the essence of your business without first clearly defining what your brand means to customers is like building a house without the foundation.
Positioning is an exercise in marketing strategy, and it’s a process you can and should use every time you design a new campaign or launch a new product. It’s about doing the background work to truly understand where your brand is in your customers’ minds compared to competitors, and the best way to sell your offering based on insights.
So how do we go about developing a company’s brand positioning? It starts with market research.
Step One: Research your customers
Imagine you’re an old-school vacuum salesperson about to knock on the door of a complete stranger with a goal to sell your latest wares. You’re armed with great sound bites on suction strength, environmentally friendly bags, and air purification filters. You think, “How could I not make a sale with such an awesome product? It practically sells itself.”
A bunch of homeowners turn you down because they use a cleaning service that brings its own equipment. Another homeowner tells you he’s a loyal Dyson user and can’t imagine a product that’s better than the one he always buys. One homeowner won’t even hear your pitch because she doesn’t trust door-to-door salespeople—she’s been burned before. And another homeowner has no carpet. He’d love to save some time with a vacuum, but wouldn’t that scratch the wood?
Even with all this information on your vacuum’s features, you’re at a loss for how to convince any of these homeowners to buy your vacuum. That’s because you made four key mistakes that ended up costing you a day of hard work:
- You didn’t research the people in this neighbourhood deeply enough to really understand them. Sure, they fell into your target demographic, but did they really need your product? Several of the houses you visited had no need for a vacuum.
- You didn’t research your competitors. There might have been some great things about your vacuum that would make one homeowner consider switching, but you didn’t know enough about Dyson’s products to have the right messages prepared.
- You didn’t research how your customers like to receive information. One of the homeowners might have needed a vacuum, but didn’t trust your method of marketing it. Knowing where and how customers want to receive information is just as important as figuring out what to say.
- You didn’t solve a problem for your customers. Maybe there’s a simple accessory you could develop for your vacuum to make it scratch-proof on wood floors. Suddenly there’s a whole new market—wood floor owners who have always avoided vacuums for fear of scratching.
All of these questions would have been answered with proper market research. You would know where to find customers who truly need your products and their preferred channels for learning about them. You’d know what makes you better than your competition, and you’d be prepared to explain that to a customer. And your marketing pitch would be geared toward helping your customers understand how your product can solve their problems.
Now, imagine if you had gone ahead and built an entire brand identity, spending your hard-earned money and dedicating precious time to the exercise, before you gained all of those insights. Are you confident your new brand, beautiful as it might be, is going to sell your product? Probably not.
Market research takes some up-front investment, but it’s one that will save you countless hours of wasted time later, while helping you maximize the ROI on your marketing spend. We won’t go into too much detail here as to how to conduct market research—we have a whole guide here with steps you can follow and great resources to help you.
Map your competitive position
Now that you’ve got all this data, the next step is figuring out your competitive position in the market. In other words, what niche will you occupy in the spectrum of options available to your customers. This is one of the most important steps in building your brand because it’s all about becoming laser focused on which customers you should target and how.
What makes your product or service different or better than similar competitors? Is there something about your product that would especially appeal to one segment of potential customers? How are they branding themselves in the market? What do your customers think of them?
Going back to our vacuum example, let’s say you went ahead and developed some kind of accessory that would ensure your vacuum doesn’t scratch wood floors. If your competitors all focused on telling customers a similar message about superior carpet cleaning, suddenly you have a leg up—a differentiator.
It’s helpful to create a positioning map to try to see where your product or service fits in compared to your competitors. This gives you a visual representation of exactly where you stand in the market that you can go back to again and again.
Develop customer personas
Your market research will also give you all kinds of interesting data on your customers, but how can you actually make use of that information? Building one or more customer personas can be especially helpful.
Customer personas are essentially fictional characters you design that represent the various traits and behaviours of your real customers. Make a different persona for each type of buyer, and consider creating sets for different products or service lines if you’ve got more than one type of offering. The more detailed your personas are, the easier it becomes to get laser-focused in your marketing activities. And that means better campaign results, less wasted money, and much happier customers.
Personas bring your customers to life, making it easier to build a truly customer-centric brand, which we all know goes a long way toward strong customer relationships. Imagine yourself speaking directly to a real person and how they might respond as you’re working through these brand exercises, and again any time you build a new marketing campaign.
Create your brand positioning statement
Now that you’ve done your market research, built your positioning map, and created customer personas, your next step is to bring it all together and write your brand positioning statement. This statement communicates what you offer, how it benefits customers, and how it’s different from similar products or services. You’ll come back to this statement time and again as a starting place for any ads or marketing collateral you create.
Here’s an exercise to help you build a brand positioning statement that fits your business.
Let’s use our fictional vacuum company as the example—we’ll call the company “Cleanify”.
The first step is to answer a few questions using the information we learned during our market research phase. Don’t worry to much about making them sound great—just work on capturing information in this step.
1. Describe your target customer
Cleanify serves people aged 25-55 who own their own home or rent a home. Our target customer is middle-class, has a family and/or pet, and lives in a suburban area or a small town.
2. Describe the product or service your company offers.
Cleanify offers quality vacuums for people who need to clean their homes.
3. How does your product or service solve a problem for your customers?
Cleanify helps busy people keep their homes clean with less effort.
4. What are the biggest benefits of your product or service to your customer?
Cleanify vacuums clean debris and pet fur from surfaces in your home quickly and effectively, and are good for the environment and your health. It’s also lightweight and affordable.
5. What’s unique or different about your product or service compared with competitors?
Cleanify vacuums work safely on all kinds of surfaces, including hardwood, thanks to our patented soft-roll technology. That means even homeowners who don’t have carpets in their homes can enjoy the thorough and fast cleaning job only offered by a vacuum.
Next, we’ll use these answers as building blocks to create our positioning statement. The difference now is that we want to be more specific, more detailed, and more customer-focused.
[Your company name] helps [your customer] to [benefit of your business] by [what you offer + what makes you unique].
Let’s try it for Cleanify:
Cleanify helps busy people keep their homes clean of debris and pet fur with less effort by offering quality vacuums suitable for use on any surface—even hardwood—without the risk of scratching, thanks to our patented soft-roll technology.
That’s a good first draft, but make sure you spend some time refining your positioning statement before you consider it final. Show it to some customers, friends, and family and take note of how they react to it. Compare it against your competitors’ brand positioning to make sure you’ve highlighted your strengths and unique benefits.
Finally, make your brand positioning statement even stronger is some proof points. If you’re going to make a claim about your company, it’s important to think about how you would back up those claims with facts. Draft a series of proof points to accomplish this—sometimes called “reasons to believe”—that you could use in marketing materials to support your positioning statement.
Some examples of proof points for Cleanify’s positioning statement:
- Claim: Cleanify vacuums clean with less effort
- Proof point: Cleanify vacuums have the highest suction strength on the market, on par with luxury vacuums, and it’s one of the lightest vacuums available. That means faster and easier cleaning.
- Claim: Cleanify prevents scratching on surfaces
- Proof point: Cleanify uses a patented soft-roll technology that cushions the wheels with a thin protective latex layer so that it protects the floor from scratching without affecting cleaning ability. It can be easily and quickly removed for cleaning carpets to make rolling easier.
- Claim: Cleanify vacuums are affordable
- Proof point: Cleanify vacuums are priced similar to your average vacuum, but with quality that’s on par with luxury vacuums, making them an affordable option.
Part 2: Creating your brand’s visual identity
Nice work—you’ve put in the foundation and we’re ready to move on to the part many people enjoy the most about branding. In this section we’ll dig into the specifics about how to create a visual identity for your brand.
What does “visual identity” mean?
A brand’s visual identity includes all the pieces most people normally think of when they hear the word “brand”—logo, colors, fonts, and images. All these visual elements come together to form a unique expression that belongs to your brand alone. It’s the visual identity that makes your brand memorable and recognizable over time.
Visual identities include:
- Color palette with 1-3 primary colors and 2-3 secondary colors
- Primary logo and wordmark
- Different logo lockups (how your logo can look on different backgrounds)
- Typography (acceptable fonts and how they’ll be used)
- Image guidelines (image styles and how they’ll be used)
Why visual identities matter
The goal of a visual identity is to help make your company “sticky” for your customers. We live in a highly competitive world where companies in every industry are fighting to capture a share of the market from customers. Having a strong visual identity helps build your brand’s image and reputation.
Your brand’s visual identity is essentially a series of symbols, which on their own have no inherent meaning. The goal is to embed meaning into those symbols, so that when people see your logo and brand identity, they learn to think about your company in a particular way.
In order to fully understand why your visual identity matters and how it works to build your brand, it helps to look to semiotics
1) Icons: Where the sign resembles the thing it represents (i.e., a sign with a person in a wheelchair to represent an accessible washroom).
2) Indexes: Where the sign is related to the thing it represents (i.e., an image of smoke used to represent fire)
3) Symbols: Where the sign is only related to the thing it represents by convention (i.e., the Nike swoosh logo).
Symbols play a big role in branding and advertising. Marketers try to push audiences to view a product or company in a certain way by combining ideas together with symbols, to create a certain patina—an impression that gets associated with that brand or product.
As British lecturer and scholar Jonathan Bignell put it, “to possess the product is to ‘buy into’ the myth, and to possess some if its social value for ourselves.”
Creating your visual identity
The first step toward creating your visual identity involves a decision about whether you’re going to use a professional designer or design agency, a crowdsourced design, or a templated design. How you approach it will depend on your available budget, but we suggest getting the best quality you can afford since the quality of your brand can greatly influence future business performance.
Designers and agencies are usually the best choice if you want to build something truly professional and original. That being said, it is the more expensive way to go. Ask a designer or agency for a quote and pricing can be anything from $1,000 to $10,000, just for a logo. The best step is to look at your budget and the maturity of your company, and decide what you can afford.
Using a designer or agency
If you decide to go this way, the most important thing you can do is to be prepared. You’ll need to come to the table with insights on your customers and competitors, and be able to clearly articulate your brand positioning to the designer or agency. If you follow our advice at the beginning of this guide and carry out proper market research and positioning exercises, you’ll be in great shape.
You should also take some time to research other brands you like, and collect samples of these in a mood board. While it’s good to come with ideas, try to stay open-minded. Let your designer’s experience guide the exercise, and be open to how they interpret your brand. They’ll take all of the information and insights you provide, and come up with a really unique way to express your vision.
There are a few different ways you can find a designer to work with. You can post on job boards like Craigslist, or you can search for a designer to work with on sites like UpWork and Behance. If you’re looking for a design agency, try a Google search in your local area, and take a look at their portfolio to see if it’s a match. Agencies often specialize in certain industries or sectors, so try to find one that has worked with similar companies.
Using a logo crowdsourcing tool
If you don’t have a large budget, you can still get a lot of the same originality you would get from a designer if you crowdsource your visual identity. This is where you pitch your project to a bunch of freelance designers, get a variety of options back, and buy the one you like best.
Squadhelp is a great option for crowdsourcing your name, logo, tagline and more. It lets you host branding competitions with creative people from across the world and get high-quality results, fast. Packages range from $199 to $999 USD depending on what you need. Thousands of creatives compete with each other, suggesting ideas, and the one you pick gets paid.
Using a template tool
If you’re working with a very lean budget don’t worry—you can just create something simple for your brand now and build on it later. A template tool can come in handy in this situation.
Looka, an artificial intelligence- (A.I.) powered logo maker, is a good option to get the best bang for your buck. You select logo styles, colors and icons you like from the options provided, and the tool uses that information to create mockups based on your choices. Then you click on mockups that you like and it will keep generating more based on your preferences to help you narrow down your choice.
Looka will then show you what the designs will look like on different items—business cards, t-shirts, and more. You can customize it how you want with a choice of 475 fonts, 550k+ premium symbols, 5.5k color presets and six layouts. The changes you make in the editor update in real time, so you can see how it will look in real life.
Once you’ve chosen your logo, Looka will send you high res PNG and vector files to use in print, online, and anywhere else—even customized for social media—with brand guidelines for the colors and fonts used. Prices range from $20 to $195 USD.
Testing your visual identity
Once you’ve got your brand where you want it, one finally step is needed to validate your assumptions before you move forward. You’ll want to test your new identity with real customers to see how they react to it.
There are a few ways to do this effectively, and we suggest trying as many as you can. The first way is to share your new brand with your employees if you have some, or with family and friends if you don’t. These people know you and the vision you’re bringing to life with your company, so they can help validate if this brand feels authentic and true to your business. One caveat—if your employees, friends, and family don’t represent your target customer, don’t let this be the only way you test your brand.
Another way to test your brand is to get your brand in front of a focus group of people who match your target customer to see how they react. You can go through a research company to facilitate the focus group if you have the budget, or find the customers yourself and bring in an objective third party to facilitate.
And finally, try out a website like UserTesting where you can put your content in front of paid testers and then watch videos of them answering questions and interacting with your content.
Part 3: Telling your brand story
The third element to building a great brand is figuring out how to tell your story. Storytelling is a big deal in marketing right now because marketers have realized the very real power that stories have when it comes to brand recognition, customer loyalty, and company reputation.
Think about how sticky a good story can be. Most of us remember the fairy tales that taught us basic morals in childhood. Greek myths, biblical stories, and Shakespearean plays are still referenced in movies and TV today. We get caught up for hours watching regular people’s personal narratives play out on YouTube.
What is it about stories that make them stay with us for years to come? It’s because stories give us a piece of human truth that we can relate to, and create a framework for understanding the world. As humans, we want to feel the comfort that comes from knowing we’re not alone in our experience, or from having the answers to life’s questions.
Show, don’t tell
Now that our goal is clear, let’s look at some examples of great brand storytelling across a few different kinds of marketing campaigns and assets.
Video is a perfect medium for storytelling, yet a lot of companies still insist on making stodgy, corporate videos to sell their products and services. To be fair, it can be pretty difficult to create a compelling, emotional story while still communicating how the product works, what features make it unique from competitors, and why customers should buy it. Difficult, but not impossible.
Google does an amazing job of this with the video Dear Sophie, which they created to promote their Gmail product. The video tells a story of a new father writing emails to his daughter throughout her childhood, capturing photos, videos and his own emotions around some big milestones and tough times in her life.
The audience comes away not only understanding all the features that Gmail offers (you can send videos, photos, maps, etc.), but also the bigger part Google plays in enriching people’s daily lives. It also subtly references the brand’s longevity by creating a timeline that extends into the future.
The iconic beer brand, Guinness, has a long history of great storytelling—dating back to 1794 with its now-famous Mad Hatter-themed print ad. Guinness truly understands its audience, drawing on popular culture, local tradition, and a healthy dose of humor.
Take this St. Patrick’s Day commercial from 2012. What appears to be an old video of a shepherding competition quickly takes a hilarious turn when we realize the sheepdog isn’t rounding up sheep—he’s trying to get a scattered group of friends into the local pub for a St. Patrick’s Day drink. The dog encounters a series of obstacles in his mission, almost losing various friends along the way to a group of women, a spouse’s text, and the allure of watching “the big game” from the comfort of home.
The reason this works so well is the bit of human truth baked into the storyline. We can all relate how hard it is to get everyone together as we get older and priorities change. It’s a bit like herding sheep, in fact. But, that only makes those rare successful occasions even more special. Even through the humor, Guinness always positions itself at the heart of the moments that matter: family, friends, community and team.
Another great way to tell your brand’s story is through experiential marketing. (This can be a live event or a filmed marketing “stunt” that you can later build a broader video campaign around.) Experiential marketing is a great form of storytelling because it lets customers experience the brand in real life, which can have a big, lasting impact.
Beauty company Dove did such a stunt in 2015 with its Choose Beautiful campaign. The idea was to go to popular buildings in cities around the world and change the signage over the doors, so women had to choose whether to walk through a door labeled “average” or one labeled “beautiful”. They captured the difficulty women had walking through the “beautiful” door, and their emotions as they realized what that meant after it was over.
Dove has built a brand story over the last few years based on recognizing and supporting a different—and more inclusive—idea of beauty. This campaign brought to life the real
CEO narrative: Beardbrand
An often overlooked storytelling channel is the CEO narrative that gets shared in media interviews, event keynotes, and investor pitch meetings. Whether you’re sharing your brand’s history from scrappy startup to industry disrupter, or framing your vision for the future, your public story as the founder or CEO of your company is a powerful one.
Take Beardbrand, for example. While hardly a household name, Beardbrand is a popular company among young beard aficionados looking for quality facial hair-care products. After having some issues with out-of-stock items, the company’s founder, Eric Bandholz, published a blog post addressing the problem.
In a climate where customers think nothing of blasting a brand on Twitter when they don’t meet expectations, this approach is really smart. Bandholz’s post centres on a powerful phrase: “What got us here won’t get us there.” From there comes a story about a guy who built a company from the ground up and is making tough choices on the journey to success. It’s compelling, it’s honest, and we want him to succeed.
The same message could easily feel inauthentic coming from a huge corporate entity. What makes it work is how it fits in with the overall Beardbrand company narrative, where Bandholz is the protagonist. He wanted to build a community for people living what he calls the “bearded lifestyle”. He wanted to sell quality products to people who care about the same things he cares about. And now he wants to do the right thing to keep building this company, his heart and soul.
Website: Every Last Drop
One of the hardest places to tell a story is on your website. The copy has to be short, people don’t read it thoroughly, and if they’ve come to your website to make a purchase you don’t want to get in the way. You’ll have to take all of that into account as you figure out how to build your story into your website.
That being said, if you want inspiration to show you what’s possible, check out this website from Every Last Drop, a U.K.-based charity that aims to improve educational opportunities for children in Africa’s poorest communities.
The website was designed to help educate visitors on how much water we really use in our everyday lives. Rather than simply filling the page with boring facts and figures, they used them to bolster a storyline based on the daily lives of people who don’t have to worry about having enough water. This method is genius because you walk away understanding the impact of the issue, while at the same time seeing (instead of being told) specific actions you can take to help.
Have an overarching narrative
You want your audience to feel a certain way when they interact with your brand. If this is done well, and consistently, you’ll create brand recognition, preference and loyalty. That means any time your customer encounters your brand in the real world, they have to feel like that experience is part of one cohesive storyline. The content on your website, in your emails, in your ads, in your videos—even what you say as CEO of your company on stage at events or in media interviews—has to reinforce that storyline.
Part 4: Driving brand standards
It takes time for your brand equity to build, so being consistent is everything. The key to doing this well is to think consistency, and developing brand and writing style guidelines for the whole company to follow is a good place to start. Having defined standards helps ensure that your brand is consistently represented, even if you’re outsourcing your marketing to someone else.
Good cop, brand cop
The idea of consistency might seem simple right now—maybe it’s just you running with this brand that you’re now deeply connected to. But what about when you have a few employees, or when you contract marketing work out to freelancers or an agency? How will you ensure consistency then?
A great place to start is to build out a set of brand guidelines and a writing style guide to capture all those elements in one place. Make it as comprehensive as you can—the more detail, the better. Include examples and think about how you want your brand treated in different situations. Don’t know where to start? Canva has a great post with links to different companies’ brand guides, and MailChimp has an amazing writing style guide you can use as a template.
Every person you hire or contract out should be trained on the brand guidelines, and have a personal copy they can reference. Writers will need to learn to write in your company’s voice instead of their own, and you’ll have to make sure you provide your brand guidelines anytime your logo is being used by another company (i.e. in a brochure for an event you’re sponsoring, in a bus ad, or on a partner’s website).
Assign yourself or someone on your team to be your “brand cop,” who’s responsible for checking that every piece of marketing collateral adheres to your guidelines.
The most important thing to remember as you work to build your brand is to treat it like a living, breathing thing. The best brands evolve with the times, and with customers’ needs and expectations, and yours should, too.
Many companies need to rebrand throughout the years as they grow, the market changes, or their industry changes. The key to having a brand that’s ageless is knowing how to stay true to what makes your customers love you while you’re on that journey.
Kristin Knapp is the Content Marketing Manager at Wave. When she’s not busy running Wave’s blog and social media channels you can find her writing fiction or curating cat gifs over a strong cup of coffee.