Branding. It certainly is one of the buzzwords of the decade. But what on earth is it and what does mean to small businesses?

There was a time when I seemed to talk to clients a lot about ‘marketing’ and ‘PR’. But since the digital age really took hold, and especially since the advent of social media, and how businesses use it, I now spend an inordinate amount of time with clients talking about branding.

Simply put, branding is how you visually and emotionally communicate your message to your market (the people that buy your stuff/service). You could see it as your promise to your customer. Your brand falls out of who you are, who you want to be, and who people perceive you to be.

For the corporates, branding is just part of their working landscape, and they have huge amounts of resources they can devote to branding. But for some reason small business owners are much more ambivalent and less confident about how to approach branding, or even whether they should think about it at all!

So let’s look at why branding is relevant to small businesses and how you can build a brand when you don’t necessarily have big resources.

One of the mantras I hear all the time in my practice is, “I’m not good at selling myself”, or “I can write copy about another business/person, but when it comes to me I don’t know where to start.” Among the small business community, there is a perception that branding is all about selling yourself. So while that might be good for people who are good at selling, or naturally gifted networkers, that approach doesn’t really work for the rest of us.

So the first myth I would like to dispel is that branding is always about self-promotion. It's not. It is in fact about:

  • Congruency
  • Consistency
  • Establishing credibility
  • Sharing common values

So when you are putting your brand together, ask yourself if it possesses theses qualities. If it doesn’t, start again.

What makes a good brand?

 A good brand is:

  • Unique
  • Memorable
  • Easy to recognize
  • Authentic to the business (i.e. the business owner)
  • Conveys your message and values

For me the worst kinds of brands are the ones where you can tell it is all for show – meaningless mission statements, overly hip, corporate images or flashy logos, but no substance when you drill down in to the ethics and values of the business.

It is for this reason that I often tell clients that their logo is the last thing they should look at after all the other elements of their business have been communicated with clarity.

You can’t start with a great logo and fit everything around it. If you are going to communicate with integrity you have to lay the foundations first and that means understanding your business and your customers.

Let me give you an example from my local high street, as I am lucky enough to have a fantastic brand right on my doorstep! Popsicle is an independent shop selling beautiful fun things for the home and for children.

Popsicle shop Lewes

Popsicle shop Lewes

Popsicle Gift Tag/Business Card

Popsicle Gift Tag/Business Card

Popsicle have a retail outlet, run workshops, and also sell online.

Popsicle Web Site. Courtesy of Popsicle and Studio MakGill

Popsicle Web Site. Courtesy of Popsicle and Studio MakGill

As well as being eye-catching and unique, what makes Popsicle’s brand so effective is its authenticity; it matches the values of the business and its owner Sharon. This is a brand that says fun, happy, design; it is very colourful and stylish, as well as being affordable. This is a business that understands itself and its customers. The business delivers what the brand conveys.

Don’t let others fill in the gaps

A strong brand is about filling in the gaps. I’ll explain what I mean. If you don’t have a brand, or your brand is inconsistent with your business, it will be harder for people to understand the uniqueness of what you do. I am always talking to small business owners about how to be authentic in their work – not to try to ‘do it like everyone else’.

Here’s an example; you might be a web designer. There are plenty of web designers around, but what makes your business different is you; your experience, your values, your particular philosophy about what makes a web site great, in essence, how you see the world.

If you don’t have a brand that at least attempts to reflect that, then your potential customers will fill in the gaps. They will make assumptions about you, and those assumptions may well be incorrect, so make it easy for them.

What do I need to brand my small business?

Arguably you could spend an awful lot of time and money on developing a brand, but the truth is you probably don’t need to. However, if you want to be as professional as you can be without spending huge amounts of money, you really need the following:

1. A high quality, professional headshot - This communicates a lot about not only who you are, but about your kind of business. To me a professional headshot shows that you are professional. Taking a quick selfie (even a good one, if that is possible!) shows laziness.

2. A professional web site - For the majority of business owners, whether you provide a service or make a product, your web site will probably be the first port of call for your customers. If it looks good and works well, you are on your way to securing a sale. [Also see my previous blog on “What makes a web site beautiful.”]

3. A business card with the same design and copy as your web site - Even if you do not do a lot of face-to-face business or networking, being able to give a potential client a card just might give you the edge over your competitor. It shows you are prepared and professional, in the way that a number or web site scribbled on a post-it note just doesn’t.

[Top Tip: Always carry your business cards with you. I have handed mine out at the most unexpected of times and places – at the cinema/shops/school run/train station!]

4. A good FB or Twitter page, or both (and don’t forget LinkedIn!) - Nowadays, most people expect you to have some kind of presence on social media. Business owners are either happy or unhappy about this to varying degrees depending on how much they use/like social media themselves, but it is just a reality.

5. Social media is here to stay and you need to engage with it. Why? Because social media is brilliant at reinforcing your brand in a way that marketing and PR cannot match and all it costs is your time.

For most small businesses, just using one or two platforms is probably plenty, and once it is set up it shouldn’t take up much time in your working week.

[For more info, here is a short blog I wrote about social media]

Emotional connection

Who you are as an individual, your personality, your aims and particularly your values, should be reflected in your brand. You might not realize it but when you buy in to a brand, you are making some kind of emotional connection with it.

That might sound a bit far fetched, so another way of saying it is that in large part you buy from particular brands because of what they make you feel. [Advertising executives have spent years identifying the ‘X’ factor that attracts people to certain brands]. They might make you feel, happy, or comforted, or carefree, or attractive, they might make you feel safe (‘I can trust this brand’) or they might remind you of things from your childhood. This is emotional connection.

“A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind. If the representation consists only of the product’s attributes, features, and other information, there are no emotional links to influence consumer preference and action. The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.”

“Inside the Consumer Mind” by Peter Noel Murray Ph.D

[Link to full article here]

So as a business owner, your job is to figure out what this emotional connection might be and use this as your starting point.

 So how do I begin to build a brand?

A wise person once told me a great saying about business that I quote to clients all the time; “All businesses should be an inch wide and a mile deep”.

In order to build an authentic brand that is congruent with who you are, or who you want to be in business, you need to start with a deep understanding of yourself and why you are in business. This is where the personal and professional cross over so begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are my core values?
  • What motivates me?
  • What makes me happy and fulfilled?
  • What are my interests and passions?
  • What do I want my legacy to be?

As you answer these questions, think of it as telling a story about yourself to someone who has never met you. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool in conveying your branding message to others, so try to explain with clarity what is important to you and what it is that has brought you to this point.

I’ll give you an example from my own branding story. For me, business is all about people. You are the person you bring to work every day so business should be about bringing our best selves to our work. I also see business as a route to positive social change. If people run good businesses, and create a positive, fulfilling working environment, with happy workers then that has a positive effect on society. Everything I do in my business comes down to this.

So the point is that you won’t know this about me when you see my marketing materials or land on my web site, but you will get a sense of who I am and what I am bringing to my work – what my values are. And if my values, fit with your values then you are more likely to decide to get in contact.

Remember this is an exercise for you so don’t worry about what it looks like or sounds like, but it will hopefully start to form the basis of how you market yourself. It should also help you identify the values inherent to your brand, and what your brand will look like.


If my values match yours and you want help building confidence in your brand then book a 30 minute phone call here