If you are a small firm or a sole trader, you could be forgiven for thinking that branding is not for you. "Big names spend money on branding, small companies just get on with the job" is a typical response when small businesses are asked about their brand activities. But this perception is wrong, as Rachel Miller writes
Even if you do "believe in branding", it may come low on your to-do list after vital day-to-day tasks that keep your customers happy and keep revenue coming in. That's understandable.
So how can I convince you that branding matters - whether you are a window cleaner, a solicitor or run a restaurant?
Perhaps the first thing to do is to tackle the wording. If you were to replace the word "branding" with "reputation" I might get your attention. You care about your reputation, right?
Well branding is all about the impression you make. If you want to succeed, that impression should do two jobs - it should convey what is special about your business and it should show you in a positive light.
Of course, many small businesses make a good impression most of the time without ever giving a thought to their brand. But think how much more successful you would be if you gave a good impression all of the time.
What I am advocating is that you think about the impression you want to make - your brand - and actively take steps to manage it.
There are two parts to this process. Firstly, you have to decide what you stand for - what your USPs are, who you are aiming at and how you want to position yourself. Then you need to make sure that all aspects of your business are in line with this.
It's about applying your values to everything you do, clearly and consistently.
There are many small firms that have seen real financial benefits as a result of improving their brand. Fiona Humberstone, managing director of Flourish Studios, has worked with many one-man-bands and small businesses. "For instance, we've just worked with a plumber on his logo," reveals Fiona. "He used it on some new business cards which he distributed in his area and immediately got three new jobs. We've also helped a management consultant with her branding. We redesigned her proposal document as well as providing a new logo and website. As a result, every proposal that she has made this year has been accepted - a 100% success rate."
Mark McCulloch, founder of Brand Promise says, "You have a brand whether you like it or not. It's best to embrace that and find the best way to connect your brand with your target audience."
Mark worked with a company called Exhilaration some years ago that sold experience days out and was run by a husband and wife team that loved sky-diving. The business came to a crossroads when it had to develop its online presence.
"It was a tiny company with a tiny marketing spend," says Mark. "The name was good - Exhilaration summed up what they did - but their communications were very dry and didn't convey the excitement of what they were selling at all."
Mark transformed the company's literature and their website and injected the excitement that was missing. "Personality was everything, so we gave all the communications a new tone of voice," he says. Not only did customers respond but suppliers and investors also sat up and took notice. The result? "Their turnover rose from £1 million to £3.5 million and they became second in the market," Mark reveals. Exhilaration went on to be bought by Lastminute.com.
But if you don't think branding is for you, you are not alone.
"Many small business owners I meet think that brands are something that only large companies need or can afford," says Bryony Thomas of Clear Thought Consulting. "But your company name, the way you answer the phone, what your customers say when they're asked about you - these things all build to create an impression of your company and what it's like to do business with you - and that is your brand. So, you can either just let whatever impression you give happen haphazardly, or you can take control and manage it to your advantage."
One small firm that has benefited by developing its brand is Gradwell, the Bath-based small business ISP. "I tended to pick marketing up on the rainy days, and then drop it again. I'd never really given it much focus," reveals managing director, Peter Gradwell. "We had grown organically among tech enthusiasts, but knew that for major growth we'd need to appeal much more widely."
Clear Thought undertook market research and discovered that Gradwell's existing image was off-putting to less tech-savvy small business owners. A new brand identity addressed this.
"It was a really tough decision to spend money on something that wouldn't directly generate leads. It was about building the foundations," says Peter. "But, I'm absolutely sure that it was the right thing to do. It has had huge benefits across everything we do. To give a tangible example, we were approached by Hewlett-Packard to appear as a pretty high profile case study, and I'm sure they wouldn't have shared a stage with us if we hadn't looked as polished as we now do."
It goes to show that your brand may be just as important to your relationships with partners and suppliers as it is to your customers. Take Best Years, a supplier of knitted toys to independent and high street retailers. " Brand is extremely important to us," says commercial director, Gaynor Humphrey. "We have worked hard to put a distance between ourselves and our price-driven competitors. A strong brand boosts traffic to our website. And if our brand values chime with the values of retailers they are more inclined to buy from us. Our foot is halfway through the door before they have even met us!"
Dee Blick, author of Powerful Marketing on a Shoestring Budget for Small Businesses, has worked with many small businesses on their branding. "Branding doesn't take shed-loads of money. It takes passion and time and thought," she says. But you neglect your brand at your peril, she warns. "Businesses don't own their own brand, they are custodians of it. Perceptions can alter quickly. Brands are constantly evolving and they need a lot of tending."
The message is clear. If you've got a business, then you've got a brand. What you do with it is up to you.
More ideas and inspiration about branding for small businesses: