For a small business getting started on a shoestring marketing budget, branding may seem like a distant goal, but it doesn’t have to be. Gala customer events and full page ad campaigns may have to wait, but putting some basics to work can make a difference to early success. Major brands like Starbucks were built with a big branding idea and a relatively small advertising budget. But they also did a lot of little things right.
Here are seven do’s and don’ts for branding a small business:
Develop a basic brand strategy and stick with it-Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an express lane to failure in the branding world. The key is to be unlike your competition, not similar to them. You should be able to explain that difference in 30 seconds or less. Your brand’s point of difference should be unique-it’s a weak strategy to say, “We’re just like our big competitor, only cheaper.” It’s better to focus on an element that’s hard for larger competition to match: being faster, more flexible, specialized, or more personal are common ways to get traction for a new brand.
Brand names can be especially tricky, but try to choose a name that won’t be limiting as you grow. Names like “Cindy’s Creative Cupcakes” will sound small-time and narrow in no time at all. But be careful not to choose a name that is already legally protected and whatever you do, don’t use meaningless initials.
A good logo is a great investment and may never have to change. A bad one will have you explaining what that odd shape is really supposed to be, when you should be selling the benefits of your product or service. Some logos even last a lifetime. The Nike swoosh was created when Phil Knight was still operating out of his house. And he only paid the designer $35. (She has been rewarded nicely since then for its ongoing success.) A good logo costs more than that, but it’s worth paying a professional designer to help you get it right.
First impressions are brand impressions-make the most of them. The biggest branding mistake you can make is to cut costs on critical elements such as logo design, business cards, web sites and printed materials. A cheap business card, such as those that come off an office color printer on low quality, perforated card stock are not worth the few dollars saved by avoiding a print shop. Skipping extra colors to save $20 is penny wise and brand foolish. A simple test is to be sure you match the quality of the cards your competition is handing out.
There are dozens of software packages with templates for business cards, brochures and web sites that can help raise the basic appearance of your business and your brand. Of course, other small businesses are using these as well and you could run into something similar in your area or even your competitive circles, so be sure to check your marketplace in advance.
Proof your work, repeat, proof it again. One of the surest signs of start-up brands are typos and grammatical errors in their communications. Have a proofreader check all your work before it’s printed. Ask your friends to read through your web site and let you know about anything that catches their eye. In my business, one of the most common errors is to skip an ‘l’ in the first word of “public relations.” Embarrassing doesn’t begin to describe it.
Do build your brand with your referral base. Good customers make great ambassadors. Be sure to thank them, reward them for loyalty and ask if you can help anyone they know. Investing time and small amounts of money on lunches or gifts cards could be the best money you spend. But make sure other referral sources know about you and your brand. Give them a call with some good news about your company, or ask if you can help them solve a problem of their own now or in the future. A simple touch is to send everyone you can think of a thank you card around Thanksgiving. Everyone appreciates gratitude and you’ll be ahead of the end-of-year tidal wave of holiday greetings and gifts.
Don’t believe the hype about the magic of social media– Social media can be good for small business, but it doesn’t magically produce customers and it isn’t really free. It uses a small business’s most valuable resource: time. That’s because a good social media program requires diligent effort. It’s like putting out a newsletter, except you have to do it EVERY day to stay current. A recent Ad Age survey showed that while 50% of the U.S. population uses Facebook, only 10% uses Twitter. For a large company, 10% is an important audience, but in small businesses where time is critical, you could be Tweeting away precious minutes to a tiny audience that isn’t listening. And be careful with Facebook. Using it to announce your new business to all your friends is exciting. Using it to constantly promote what you’re selling can damage your brand in the eyes of an important resource. A Facebook page for your company is a good alternative, but still not a replacement for an informative web site.
Your brand battle isn’t necessarily David and Goliath: It could be more like David and Robert and Jessica. The reality is, much of your real competition may not be the big guys at all, but rather the other small companies that are a lot like yours. Take a close look at what they’re doing and look for an edge. If you can out-brand them, you’ll be a step ahead, which may be all it takes to win the race to grow your brand and your business.