Branding began with hot metal and cattle—a means for farmers to claim ownership of their cattle.
Today the definition of branding has evolved. Although farmers still brand cattle, and the idea of identifying marks and logos remains, the definition of branding has expanded enormously. And branding is enormously important to your marketing.
Constructed properly, a brand can be the difference maker for your business. Branding your business lets you separate yourself from competitors. It helps you create marketing campaigns that grow your company.
It helps you create an emotional connection with your audience.
In part because branding is so important and all-encompassing, a lot of small business owners struggle when they set out to brand a business. There are so many questions that it’s difficult to know where to start.
- What is a brand?
- Do I need use social media for branding?
- What is brand “awareness,” and how is it different from brand “identity?”
- What’s the difference between a brand and a logo?
- Why is branding important?
The answer? Start here.
This post covers everything you need to know to get started on your small business branding. We’ll walk through:
- The problem with most advice on how to brand a company
- What branding is, and a few branding definitions
- The fundamentals of small business branding
- Finding and understanding your target audience
- The basics of positioning, tone, and logos
- How to spread your small business brand through marketing channels
The problem with most advice on how to brand a company
Part of what makes branding a business difficult is that “branding” is a vague term that means different things to different people.
Unless you’re talking to a rancher, most people you talk to will probably know that you don’t mean cattle branding.
But that’s where a lot of the understanding ends. There are different opinions as to exactly what qualifies as a “brand.” Is it a logo? A set of colors? A slogan? A company name? An emotional connection to a product?
This lack of clarity can make branding a business seem like a waste of time to small business owners.
If you’re running a small business, there are very concrete parts of your business to focus on. Things like payroll, restocking products, shipping logistics, or putting together a new flyer are easy to picture and imagine.
They are things you can do.
Branding doesn’t always seem like a thing you can do.
Especially when someone starts talking about massive corporate branding campaigns—like the often-mentioned “Think Different” campaign from Apple—it isn’t exactly clear how branding applies to your small business.
Not to say I have anything against Apple—I’m writing this on MacBook Air. But the Think Different campaign spanned billboards, posters, and high-profile TV spots. It massively succeeded in associating Apple with creativity—but it probably isn’t clear how you apply those corporate branding lessons to your small business.
Fortunately, business branding tips from huge companies can apply to small business branding. The rest of this post will show you how.
You’ll come away with a definition of branding, an understanding of your positioning and differentiators, ideas for your brand logo, and an explanation of how small business branding is different from corporate branding.
What is branding?
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”
This definition of branding is a good place to start—and it’s easy to see how the history of branding leads to a definition like this.
Logos, taglines, designs, and company names are all part of branding. But the brand is less about specific logos and more about what those logos represent—it’s the values, emotions, and status people associate with a company, product, or person.
Most branding thought leaders would agree that a definition of branding needs to go beyond simple design elements.
Seth Godin, called by some the Godfather of Modern Marketing, defines a brand based on the values it represents.
“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”
A definition from David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising,” has some similarities.
“The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”
Heidi Cohen of Actionable Marketing Guide compiled a list of 30 branding definitions from branding experts. Take a look through the definitions and you’ll quickly notice some similarities.
- Branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company – Jay Baer
- Branding, to me, is the identity of a product or service – Gini Dietrich
- Brand is the image people have of your company or product. It’s who people think you are – Ann Handley
- A brand is a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect – Al Ries
Marketing leaders tend to agree: a brand is about what your business means to people.
Or, phrased more actionably: branding a business is about crafting the perception of your company.
As with most good definitions, this one leads to a pair of new questions:
- How do you decide what should be part of your brand?
- How do you build your company brand based on that decision?
Difficult questions, to be sure. But with a bit of clarity on what branding is, they are questions a small business can act on.
First, a note on “controlling the narrative”
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of branding your business, it’s important to understand how branding has changed in the modern era.
In the early days of branding, most marketing communications were one-way.
Companies could speak to their audiences through advertisements or newspapers, but it was difficult for people to get back in touch—to have conversations—with companies.
We live in a very different world today.
Today, companies can put messages almost anywhere. Billboards, advertisements, and newspapers still exist, but the online world has led to the constant presence of marketing messages—and direct one-to-one communication with potential customers.
The same connection that leads to the spread of marketing messages means that consumers are more connected than ever—to each other.
Emails, instant messaging, and text messages let friends communicate instantly across large physical distance. Social media and forums add complete strangers to the mix. Conversations can happen between people anywhere.
Why is this important?
If branding your business involves influencing the perception of that business, it’s no longer possible to fully control the brand story.
Customers and potential customers are on social media talking about your products. They can tell each other about good (and bad) experiences.
As Jay Baer’s definition of branding says, “branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company.”
As you approach the process of branding your company, it’s important to keep this truth in mind—you don’t fully control your brand.
You can affect it. You can build it. You can spread it, or grow it.
But your brand exists, at least in part, in the minds of your audience.
With that in mind, let’s move on to the steps of branding your business.
How to do small business branding: The fundamentals of branding your business
As you start the small business branding process, it’s easy to get sucked into choosing between different fonts and designs. Google has famously tested 41 different shades of blue for its links.
That’s not where you start branding.
The next thought might be “let’s see how we’re different from my competitors. Let’s take a look at our differentiators so we can figure out our positioning.”
That’s closer, but it’s not where you start branding either.
The most fundamental level of branding a business starts with this: who do you serve, and what do you give them.
Everything stems from this origin.
You can’t define your differentiators until you know what your audience cares about—what if you emphasize things that don’t matter?
You can’t design your logo until you know what people want—what if people find it forgettable?
To begin branding your business—before logos or positioning or fonts or slogans—you need to go through three steps:
- Identifying your target audience
- Identifying your target audience’s burning pains
- Identifying how you solve your target audience’s burning pains
How to identify your target audience
Who could potentially care about what you do?
This is the question that starts the search for your target audience.
If you have a small business, you’ve already put together at least a few product or service offerings. You have some customers too—you want small business branding to grow a business that already exists.
Even if you’re reading up on branding before starting a business, you probably have a sense of your own abilities and expertise—of things people might want to pay you for.
The question now is who will pay for it.
At this stage, people often start throwing out demographic information.
- “I want to target men, age 30–35, making more than $50,000 a year”
- “I want to reach executives in their mid-forties”
- “I want to talk to people in their 20s who live in urban areas”
This kind of demographic information can be a good place to start—but it isn’t always.
Sometimes listing off a string of different characteristics can make a particular audience seem very specific even when those people don’t have all that much in common.
Take that first bullet as an example. Those three characteristics (sex, age, income) whittle down the total number of people in the population by quite a lot. But people in that demographic could still be hugely different from each other.
If you run a personal training business, those differences could matter a lot—this demographic doesn’t necessarily capture them. For example:
- A single 33-year old might have different fitness goals from one who is married
- A 30-year old dad could have different needs from someone without kids
- A 35-year old trying to gain muscle might be looking for a different training program than someone trying to lose weight
You could even go beyond demographics—to look at psychographics.
Maybe there’s a subset of men aged 30–35 who want to gain muscle but don’t like working out with barbells. They might be great candidates for your bodyweight fitness program.
Or maybe there are 30-year old guys who work from home—and have trouble working out because it feels like a chore to leave the house. Wouldn’t having that knowledge affect how you talk and market to them?
As you work to de