You know a brand when you see it – MacDonald’s, Dell, Hovis, Ferrari. And Virgin Mobile, Vodafone, Nokia, Hugh Symons and the rest.
But small businesses need a brand just as much as the big boys. That’s because a brand isn’t just an identifiable logo, or a name, or a positioning statement, or a marketing message. It could use any or all of those, but essentially a brand is a promise made by a company to its present and potential customers, supported by that company and everything it does in interacting with those customers.
With the best brands, people can identify the product and/or the supplier even if they have never bought it personally. How many of us own a Jaguar or a Rolls-Royce? Yet we all have a strong opinion about them.
So a brand is the image you want to convey to your customers: it causes people to have a specific reaction to your products or services, and branding is the set of marketing techniques that influence how people feel about you and your products.
To put it another way, your brand is a collection of ideas and values that you want other people to associate with you. Branding simply means that you’re trying to ensure people are getting your key messages, and especially that they understand your USPs.
This is why branding is important even for the smallest business.
Branding for the small business
Branding a small business is essentially the same thing as branding a big enterprise. The only differences is that small businesses usually have a smaller market and a smaller budget.
In fact some people might argue that it is not possible to brand a small business, though the likes of Starbucks and Body Shop demonstrate how it’s possible to develop such a strong brand that the business can start small and grow to be huge.
In our field it’s unlikely that there’s much scope for this now, though some B2B suppliers and a few satnav specialists might take a different view. But there’s still a role for branding in the small business. Essentially it provides a focus on the current and future customer, so you can define policies and procedures that aim to produce the desired effect in terms of the customer’s attitude to you.
These days there are so many choices for the purchaser – similar products from a multiplicity of suppliers and a variety of purchasing routes (web, mail order, off-the-page, in-store). People might be attracted by price or fast delivery, but if they’re going to repeat-purchase they are more likely to do business with the companies they trust and suppliers that have given them a good experience. And ‘good’ doesn’t always mean ‘cheap’ or ‘fast’; it might also mean a pleasant, friendly receptionist, or a willing sales exec, or top-notch packaging, or a brilliant returns policy.
A strong brand – meaning one that is well thought out and carried through in everything you do – gives you the opportunity to differentiate yourself in the marketplace: it gives you the means to persuade your customers to choose you ahead of your competitors.
Keeping it consistent
So what can a small business do about laying the ground for a brilliant brand? When even the big boys can still get it so wrong so often, how can a start-up create a positive brand image?
When you sell a product or service you are also selling your brand – your logo, your stationary, your staff, service to your customer, the ideas around which your business is based. Branding is about consistency through all aspects of the business. The trick is to ensure that they’re all working together.
So here are three Golden Rules of brand-building:
- Define the experience you want your customers to have. Identify what your customers want or need, then define how they want to feel when they’ve met those wants and needs. Yes, it sounds like airy-fairy New Age jargon: but the answers will usually be quite simple – in varying measure your customers
- Create an affiliation between your customers and your brand. More jargon, but again quite simple in practice – you need the customers to feel that your product or service gives them what they want, in terms of the experience of shopping with you and their reactions as well as the actual benefits they get. If the customer feels good about the brand, they’ll be loyal to it (and they will recommend it to others).
- Deliver the brand experience constantly. Make sure that everything your business does works to reinforce the values and associations of the brand. This will build up confidence and trust between your brand and your customers: they can be sure of what they’re going to get from your business.
- Ultimately, there’s no big secret: customers simply want good products and good service. True, you’ll need to define what “good” means in this context – quality? Value for money? Range of options? One-stop shopping? But it is here that small businesses have a real advantage over their bigger counterparts.
With a smaller target audience it should be easier to understand and satisfy the needs of your customer.
Finding Your USP
You have probably identified your USP – your Unique Selling Proposition, the thing that tells your marketing audience what you can for them which your competitors can’t.
It sounds obvious: you must have some kind of advantage over your competition, otherwise you just wouldn’t bother. But it’s surprising how rarely smaller businesses spell it out; and in particular everyone on the team should understand the USP and use it when speaking to the punters. And your USP should of course be part of your brand – you want the prospective customer to associate you with a unique product offering or a very particular and very characteristic way of doing things.
Ask yourself: “Why should anyone spend money with us?” The eager (and obvious) answer is something like “Because we’re the best”. But that’s not really good enough. How are you the best? Why? Where?
Find the answers to questions like those, and you will have a handful of simply stated but very powerful messages to incorporate into your marketing. Why are we the best? Because we know what we are talking about. You can trust us. We work hard to make sure our customers are happy … These could all be key branding messages. And getting over your key messages will be the most important goal of your marketing activity.
Ten Laws of Branding
- Ideally, branding is not about getting your targets to choose you over your competition. Branding is about getting your prospects to see you as the only solution to their problem.
- Brands are not about you. Brands are about them. You need to understand what the customer wants and how they want to feel; your starting point simply cannot be what you have to offer them.
- If the branding is wrong, so is everything else. Your brand is the overall summary of what you will do for the customer and how you will do it.
- Build from your strengths. You have to be able to deliver on the promises implied by your brand.
- If you can’t articulate it, neither can anyone else. You need to know what your brand is promising, and you need to have it defined in terms that can be communicated to others.
- The stronger your brand, the less susceptible you are to competition. In particular, you won’t have to worry so much about competitive pricing if your customers prefer to place value in the loyalty and trust that a good brand implies.
- Advertising is not branding. Advertising just raises the awareness of the brand you create.
- Advertising grabs their minds: branding gets their hearts. Brands are about feelings and reactions, advertising messages are more explicit and will usually appeal more to logic.
- Just because you’ve heard about it doesn’t mean it’s well-branded. Branding and awareness are not the same thing.
- The smaller your budget is, the stronger your brand must be. It’s a tough world, and it’s a crowded marketplace. You need to stand out, and you need your customers to be aware that you can give them everything they need.
… And if there’s any doubt in your mind about what a brand is and how it should be used, apply this test to any aspect of your business:
- Be unique. Customers must be able to identify your brand with you.
- Be consistent. Remember that internal branding, from fax headers to email signatures, are equally as important as external branding. For your brand to work your staff must buy into it – not only the look but the core values behind it.
- Have courage in your convictions. Once you have decided upon a brand for your company, stick with it. Make the brand strong, whilst constantly reviewing the messages behind it. Frequent changes in logo, for example, will confuse your customers and hinder the ‘establishment’ of a strong brand. Sudden changes in tack can also be a costly exercise, creating additional print costs etc.
- Try to think of everything! Sometimes the little things can get forgotten, but in order to build a brand you must be consistent with your messages and start to build a picture for your customers that represents your business. Even the way in which your staff answer the phone can add weight to building your brand.
- Make it clear. Successful branding is about promoting your strengths. Managing a brand can make you first choice for customers, because a strong brand will give potential customers a good idea of what to expect. If you want your brand to be strong then always focus on what your customers want and how you will deliver it.
- Be patient. To create and deliver a strong brand takes time. Don’t be tempted to change your brand too quickly – give it time to make an impact and establish itself within your local area.
- Think local. Large companies with successful brands invest millions if not billions of pounds in achieving their success. Clearly smaller businesses don’t have that kind of investment to make in a brand. Therefore invest in activity that will make your brand the best it can be within your target market. Localised activity will ensure customers who are likely to buy from you know who you are. Start small and then increase your catchment area.
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