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Branding Your Business

How to Build a Strong Brand Without Spending Lots of Money


One of the issues in small business marketing that is often most puzzling to small business owners is the topic of “building your brand.” There are a lot of misconceptions out there about small businesses and branding; many people seem to think that only big companies have a “brand,” or think that “your brand is just your logo and tagline,” or think that creating a brand “just happens” naturally.

The truth is, building your company’s brand is a strategic process that happens over time. Your company’s brand is not just your logo; it’s the full summation of your customer’s experience with and connection to your company – your brand is about trust, it’s about keeping promises, it’s about being recognized and memorable in a crowded market for doing what you do best in a way that is unique and valuable to your customers.

The most valuable brands are worth billions of dollars due to the extra trust that customers have for those little logos, and the extra price premium that customers are willing to pay for a certain brand name. But for small businesses, building a brand doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated; it just requires some careful strategic thinking and some open communication with your customers to figure out why they buy from you, why they trust you, and what your company really stands for and does best.

Small business owners don’t have big company budgets for brand awareness advertising and fancy logo design. So how can small business owners build a brand without spending lots of money?

We talked with some small business owners and marketing experts to get some key insights on how small business owners should focus on the biggest priorities in building a brand for their companies:

Know Your Mission

Sissy Lappin is the co-founder of ListingDoor, a real estate website that helps homeowners list their homes For Sale By Owner without having to hire a real estate broker (or lose a big percentage of their home equity to real estate commissions). Sissy says that her company’s brand is rooted in a sense of mission – knowing why they’re in business, and who they’re trying to help. “We want to be known as the company that tells the truth and is on the side of the homeowner, which is something the real estate industry is not known for,” says Sissy. “The highest priority in creating your brand should be to focus on your reason “why.” At ListingDoor we advocate for the homeowner to keep their hard-earned equity and not lose it to a real estate commission. Everyone else is advocating to take a piece of their equity pie.

As part of the process of creating a brand for ListingDoor, Sissy and her team worked on a tagline that could succinctly explain the mission and advantage of doing business with their company. “The tagline was the hardest part,” says Sissy. “We worked hard to reduce it to a few simple words. We worked on it for days and had papers taped all over the office.

I hope we got it right! We chose: ListingDoor – Selling Your Home Made Simple – Confidence Included. We added “confidence included” to our tagline because we realized some people do not realize that a manicurist goes to school four times longer than a real estate agent. Nothing against manicurists, but they are not taking 6 percent of your home’s value.”

ListingDoor is a unique example of how a small business brand can carve out a niche by emphasizing its unique sense of mission – they are trying to bring positive changes to the way their industry operates, while giving people new options to solve the problem of selling a home. This sense of mission is immediately apparent just from seeing their brand tagline.

Focus on Customer Experience

Your brand is not what you say about yourself, it’s what your customers believe to be true about your company based on their experience. Rodger Roeser, founder and president of The Eisen Agency in Cincinnati, Ohio, says that small businesses need to focus on the big picture of your company’s customer experience before you start to worry about designing a logo or creating a catchy tagline.

“The first area of branding by any business should be operational branding, not spending money on fancy stuff, but rather making absolutely certain that the customer experience is branded in such a fashion that is consistent with what leadership is attempting to convey,” Rodger says. “Leadership needs to sit down and clearly discuss what their vision is for the business, determine which brand archetype it wishes to be and how to live that brand through the experience and through the eyes of the customer. And it needs to be consistent throughout the whole of the operation. Are you determined to be the inexpensive lunch place or the best burger in town place? Is your law firm designed to be viewed as ambulance chasers, or as experts helping people and business? Whatever “it” is, that needs to be predetermined and clearly spelled out that this is our brand. Then, from that brand, select three brand pillars that your business is going to live by or own through their proactive actions.”

Building a brand requires some upfront work, strategic thinking and decision-making – your brand cannot try to be all things to all people; you need to focus on a few key differentiating factors that make your company stand out from the competition. And your brand has to be authentic – you might want to believe that your company stands for certain attributes, but if the market doesn’t believe it, your brand messages won’t resonate. Brand strategy requires self-awareness and a willingness to accept certain inconvenient or even harsh truths about the limitations of your company – even if you think your business has certain strengths or does certain things really well, if your customers don’t agree, you might need to emphasize different strengths in identifying and promoting your brand.

“Once you have a crystal clear understanding of who you are to the customer, then you can consider sharing that brand conversation,” Rodger says. “After all, how can you make a logo or design a tagline before you have a clear picture as to who you are? That logo should be a reflection and reinforcement as to who you are, and that brand will then dictate color choices, tagline and a host of the proactive items. Focus on operational branding before you even begin to focus on the proactive piece.”

Be Consistent in Your Visual Presentation

One of the important elements of building a brand is consistency: You want every customer to recognize your logo, have a similar (positive) customer experience and remember your brand in a crowded market. Brian Gatti, partner with Inspire Business Concepts, says that simplicity and consistency can go a long way to help establish a brand. “Be consistent and avoid being too clever,” Brian says. “Typographic logos with a graphical embellishment or two is an excellent way to develop something appealing, visually distinct and avoids the risk of looking amateurish. If you decide that your company font is Apple’s Garamond and your colors are red and black, stick to that.”

But Be Prepared to Evolve

But at the same time, even while you should try to keep it simple and consistent when establishing a brand, you also need to be ready to evolve your brand over time as your company changes.

Brian Gatti also says that brand strategy is not a one-time thing – it needs to be revisited. “Working on your brand should be done over and over again,” Brian says. “Companies evolve over time. What was important to you and what differentiated you from the competition is different now. Look at any of the major brands. Apple went from being a personal computer company to a cell phone company. GE went from making appliances to global heavy industry and energy. Even with small businesses this is true. If you’re an accountant and you’ve expanded to helping people understand tax planning, you’re really not just an accountant anymore. You’re a tax planner. You’ve evolved. What was important to you is different. What set you apartment from the competition is different. Ultimately we’d recommend no less than every six months, revisit and refine your brand. It will keep your message consistent and reflect when you do change.

Kabbage Takeaway: Building a strong brand for your small business is not really a matter of spending lots of money or designing a fancy logo or buying ads – it’s about thinking strategically about what your company really stands for and why people should care. And then it’s about reinforcing those key messages about your brand, in a consistent and clear way, to create memorable experiences in the minds of your customers.