Branding is among the most misunderstood concepts in the small business world. Many confuse the act of branding with spreading brand awareness, even though the two are extremely different. And you can’t have the latter without the former. All aspiring entrepreneurs should familiarize themselves with branding because it’s nearly impossible to get a business off the ground without addressing this task beforehand. Regardless of size or industry, every business needs an identifiable brand.
Another misconception, however, is that a brand just refers to a business’s logo, color scheme, or textual voice. The real definition goes much deeper. Your brand is essentially your business’s personality. It represents your values, your goals, your spirit, everything you want the outside world to know about your business. When employees, customers and business partners think of your business, your brand is the characteristics that come to mind.
As you can imagine, branding requires a great deal of thought. For this reason, it’s ideal to get it out of the way well before opening up shop. But one of the wonders of effective branding is that it can be tremendously helpful for businesses of all ages. It’s never too late to give your brand a makeover, especially if you’re looking to change an integral element of your business model.
In this guide, we’ll explain the fundamentals of branding along with how to create a brand identity for your business. We’ll also feature some very useful exercises for establishing each component of your brand.
What is the Purpose of Small Business Branding?
Your brand is the guiding force behind numerous aspects of your image and marketing materials. This includes your website, your blog posts, and your social media activity. But your brand itself consists of the thoughts and feelings that arise when people interact with your business. These things ultimately influence a customer’s decision to choose your business over a different brand. They are what people remember from previous interactions and therefore expect in every future interaction.
Without an identifiable brand, people have no reason to remember your business and thus refer you to a friend. You’ll get lost in the crowd, or the many other businesses an individual encounters each day. This denotes a lack of brand value.
In addition to visual and written aspects, your brand reflects the types of causes your business supports, your company culture, and customer service tactics.
To get a taste of the importance of branding, think about the companies you encounter on a regular basis. This could include your favorite coffee maker, restaurant, online retailer, or news outlet. How do you feel about these companies? What images and emotions arise when you envision your favorite products from each?
Now, repeat the same exercise, but with a different company. Think of your cell phone provider, your home’s energy supplier, or your bank. Your initial thoughts and feelings will likely be very different from the previous companies, and not just because they offer different products or services. Odds are, certain aspects of this company’s brand have prevented you from giving your business to a competitor. It could be a memory you have with them, or a customer service strategy you like. These are the kind of things businesses must consider when creating their brand identities.
Find Out What Customers Think About Your Brand
Every operational business has a brand. It doesn’t matter if the business did not deliberately establish this brand, or if the business has only been open for just over a year. If you serve customers and market yourself, you have a brand. To improve your brand, you must figure out how the majority of your customers think and feel about your business.
You can accomplish this with a number of tools, most notably online surveys. SurveyMonkey and other free survey providers allow you to pose questions to regular and seldom customers. Companies often use surveys to find out which adjectives are most commonly associated with their brand, or which of their competitors their customers like best. The primary goal is to simply get a clearer idea of your strengths and weaknesses.
You can obtain further data on specific words or phrases through Google Trends or Google Analytics. Both can show you how potential customers discover your business through search engines. They can also reveal the search terms that lead potential customers to your competitors.
If your company prioritizes social media, check which posts have received the most and least engagement. Posts from the former group were probably successful because the user values your input on the subject at hand. This suggests that you have established yourself as an authority in that area.
6 Exercises for Creating Your Brand Identity
Since you haven’t put a lot of time and effort into establishing your brand identity, you might find that your current identity lacks brand value. Your surveys and search data might show that many customers don’t know which words to associate with your business. Just because someone knows your products or services doesn’t mean they know what kind of values you stand for.
A central purpose of branding is ensuring that your customers can answer this question immediately.
But like any crucial business initiative, branding cannot be rushed. Don’t just go with the first idea for a new logo or new website that comes to mind. Instead, you must consider your brand identity from a variety of perspectives. The following exercises involve the most important factors to consider when re-shaping your brand:
1. Dig Deep: What is Your Story?
The cornerstone of a successful brand identity is the business’s story. This doesn’t just refer to the business’s origins, or why the business was launched in the first place. Your story also refers to your mission, or the value you wish to provide for your customers.
Do you wish to make a certain everyday activity more enjoyable? This could include eating, shopping, or just relaxing on the couch. Do you wish to bring customers closer to their friends or family members?
In other words, you’re trying to figure out the role your product or service plays in your customer’s life. This requires you to go below your company’s surface. For example, a clothing company might seem to have one central purpose: making clothing. But maybe the clothing is very unique because it’s made for a specific type of person. Maybe the clothing is the maker’s way of inspiring customers to embrace their individuality. If this brand didn’t exist, their customers would likely have to wear the same clothing as everybody else. Thus, the brand’s existence shows their unique customers that they are not alone.
If you’re having trouble identifying the deeper values you provide, ask your customers why they are grateful for your business. You can ask this exact question in a survey and compare the answers to the content of your most successful social media posts.
2. Who is Your Target Customer?
The previous section mentioned gearing your products or services to a specific type of customer. Your brand identity will be heavily influenced by basic customer information, like age, gender, and median income, along with more personal information like their other purchase preferences. Virtually all of your marketing materials will be designed with this information in mind.
To learn more about your target customer, consider how they dress, the items they carry with them, and even how they speak. It might help to envision three people who exhibit these characteristics co-mingling at a party. The more information you have, the more you can use your brand to mirror your target customer’s lifestyle.
Many companies use customer information to create social media posts that don’t directly advertise their products or services. Instead, these posts emphasize integral elements of the target customer’s lifestyle, like activities or TV shows they enjoy.
3. What Unique Value Do You Provide?
Next, think of how your company stands out from the competition in terms of the value you provide. Every successful business provides value in at least one area that the majority of their competitors have either ignored or failed to prioritize. This gives your target customer an incentive to choose you over your competitors; based on that customer’s most important preferences.
If you’re not sure about the unique value you provide, repeat the previous exercise with your competitors in place of your target customer. In other words, consider how your competitors dress, speak, and the kind of products they are likely to own. Personify three of your competitors into individuals attending a party and describe how they conduct themselves. This will make it much easier to see how the type of customer they cater to differs your target customer. Maybe your competitors are less modern, less friendly, or more passive. Either way, you will eventually find that your competitors have somewhat polarizing personalities, and you should, too. It’s just not possible to please everyone.
Some people might be repelled by your message, but your target customers will love it. That’s the inevitable outcome of effective branding.
B2B companies tend to devote an especially large degree of focus to this area. They succeed by securing partnerships, and companies like to partner up with similar personalities. Their personality is their value. Thus, their branding must reflect the type of personality they are looking for in a partner.
4. What Has and Hasn’t Worked for You?
One of the most practical ways to shape your brand is figuring out what has and hasn’t worked for your business thus far. Consider your biggest accomplishments, and not just in terms of financial success. Every business faces adversity early on. The skills and resources you utilized to conquer these obstacles speak volumes about your strengths and values. It certainly makes sense to emphasize these things in your brand because without them, your business likely wouldn’t exist. Your brand identity is essentially a celebration of the hard work and sacrifice it took to build such a unique business.
Then, consider what your biggest failures have in common, and why your business found these initiatives so challenging. You’ll likely that certain mistakes could have been avoided while others just didn’t play to your business’s strengths.
New businesses often shape their brands by taking on a unique challenge that will almost certainly help them win over a massive audience. Think of how many food and drink companies revolve around the use of specific ingredients that their customers love. Acquiring these ingredients and forming a supply chain might be extremely difficult. At the end of the tunnel, however, is the reward of being the only company that can offer this type of product. All the work that went into forming the company allowed them to skip the work of developing a unique brand identity.
Branding is a lot easier when your values are directly related to what you do at work every day. You know what makes your company stand out and you don’t have to try too hard to show it to your customers.
5. The Analogy Game
The analogy exercise works best when multiple team members participate. Each person thinks of one business in another industry with similar qualities to yours, and then one business in another industry with similar qualities to one of your key competitors. These companies could mirror you and your competitor in several areas, like target customer, marketing voice, or customer service strategy.
Once everyone has their two companies, share your answers with each other. Of all the chosen companies, pick one from each category that you all agree on. The winners for each category should reveal which company is most similar to yours and which company is most similar to your key competitor.
These comparisons will clarify the specific qualities that help your business stand out. Think of it this way: Your company is different than your competitor because you are more like (insert industry outsider no.1), while your competitor is more like (insert industry outsider no.2). Why? Because your company conveys (insert qualities of industry outsider no.1) while your competitor conveys (insert qualities of industry outsider no.2).
These qualities should be reinforced in all marketing strategies and growth-related decisions moving forward. When your customers choose you over a competitor, it should be primarily because of these qualities.
6. What are Your Long-Term Goals?
This last exercise proves that the future can be just as inspiring for your brand identity as the past. Entrepreneurs often stress the importance of having a clear vision of your company’s future. You must imagine what you want your company to look like in the next five years or so, down to the very last detail. This could include the products you plan on selling, the companies you plan on partnering with, a sizable charitable donation, or anything associated with the goals you aspire to achieve.
As your list of details grows, you will likely detect overarching themes that reflect your company’s values. That’s what allowed you to create this list in the first place. Your company’s achievements are the result of staying true to the values that make up your brand identity. It’s not the goals you achieve but how you achieve them that sets you apart from the competition.
Develop Your Brand Positioning Statement
Speaking of long-term goals, many entrepreneurs have said that their initial vision didn’t seem feasible until they wrote it down. The same concept holds true for branding. You must write down the value your business provides, the type of people who share your values, and why this sets you apart from the competition.
These are the components of a brand positioning statement. In just a few sentences, you should be able to describe the central message you wish to convey through your brand identity.
Specifically, your brand positioning statement should name your product or service, your target customer, the benefits of choosing you over a competitor, and how you provide these benefits.
You could theoretically combine all of this information into a single sentence. Start by stating your company’s name and how you’d categorize your company. This should be followed by what you provide, who you provide it to, and how you do it. If someone read your statement, he or she should be able to easily discern the core elements of your brand.
But brand positioning statements are a resource for you, not your audience. Having this information written down will be very helpful when crafting the messaging for your website and other marketing materials. You’ll never lose sight of the values and goals that must be conveyed in every piece of content your audience sees.
For this reason, you should probably consult your brand positioning statement before letting any content go live. If it doesn’t align with your statement, it might need another look.
Sensing a Theme Here?
As you can see, the process of establishing your brand identity revolves around becoming increasingly familiar with your target customer. That’s the goal of virtually every branding exercise: nailing down as many personal characteristics of your target customer as possible. The more characteristics you nail down, the more effectively you can target this type of person.
Completing these exercises should enable you to answer almost every personal question about your target customer. Think about what you would say if someone asked the following questions: Where does your target customer live? What do they work? What do they do on the weekends?
Once you put yourself in your target customer’s shoes, it shouldn’t be difficult to connect their life with your product or service. This person’s life should naturally direct them towards your company, as opposed to a competitor. Branding becomes significantly easier when you can outline the specific details of this process (how your target customer learns about your company).
Small Business Branding: The Next Step
Branding is an endless journey. As your company grows, you must continuously fine-tune your brand to meet new standards for demand and take advantage of new opportunities. But like any crucial business endeavor, the hardest part is getting started. So, if you have successfully established your brand identity, the hardest part of this journey is over.
Now, you can move on to designing your brand assets. Most of this work will likely be outsourced to experts, but they won’t be able to do their jobs without a solid brand identity. Eventually, staying on-brand with marketing efforts will come naturally to you and your team. You’ll be able to focus entirely on the second hardest part of the journey: making sure your target customer can easily discover your brand.