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 define your target audience, try to get as specific as possible.
When you list off demographic information, only include characteristics that make a meaningful difference in what the customer needs and how you might communicate with them.
If a 28-year old single man with no kids wants to lose weight, how different is he really from a single 36 year-old that has the same goal?
If you want to help new moms get back into exercise with postnatal fitness, how important is it that the mom is 34 instead of 27?
Here are a few points that can help you identify your target audience as you brand your business.
- Focus on audiences you already know. If you are part of an audience or have worked with an audience before, you’ll be able to more directly communicate in language that appeals to them.
- Choose audiences based on things they have in common. If age doesn’t change what people think about your product or service, don’t use it when defining your target audience.
Create the smallest audience you can that has a specific need. It sounds counterintuitive, but shrinking your audience often lets you target them better. New moms and 35-year old men might both want to lose weight—but they’ll have very different needs in doing so.
Once you have a sense of who might be in their target audience, it’s time to dig into their burning pains.
How to identify your target audience’s burning pains
If you’ve identified your target audience, you already have some sense of their problems.
This is when you go deeper.
At this stage, you know the basics of your audience’s problems. You know that they have a need, and you have a general sense of what that need is.
What we want to do here is really dig into their problems—and how they feel about their problems. We want to ask questions that get to the heart of how this problem affects their everyday life.
Pay attention to the answers—they’ll be useful to guide branding, copywriting, product development, and every stage of your marketing.
Uncovering someone’s burning pain is the difference between “I want to lose weight” and:
- “I caught a glance of myself in the mirror the other day and felt disgusted”
- “I put on my favorite pair of jeans the other day and couldn’t close the zipper”
- “No matter how many times I try, I just can’t work out for more than a few weeks”
A pain point like “I want to lose weight” is valuable. It’s where you start, and it clearly shows the service you could provide if you were a personal trainer.
But look at the raw emotion in the more descriptive phrases.
To get to these buried insights quickly—the ones that will serve as the core of your small business branding and marketing—you can use customer interviews and online research.
Finding pain points with customer interviews
There’s no substitute for a direct, one-on-one conversation with a customer.
In a face-to-face conversation, you can learn exactly what your customers struggle with, at a level of detail and emotion that’s hard to get in any kind of survey.
When you interview members of your target audience, here are a few questions you can use to uncover pain points:
- What’s the hardest part about ____?
- How does ____ make you feel?
- What have you already tried to solve this problem?
- If that didn’t work, why not?
- Tell me more about that
“Tell me more about that” is a phrase you’ll want to use a lot. It will help you uncover the deep insights that you can use when you brand your business.
You can learn more about how to ask good customer research questions in this blog post.
Finding pain points with online research
Many conversations have moved online. If you’re having trouble finding people to talk to face-to-face or are dealing with an especially sensitive topic, online research might be the way to go.
On social media and other online platforms, members of your audience are talking about their problems. In some places, they’re doing it anonymously—which means they might share things they wouldn’t say in person.
Whether you look on Quora, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or other forums, reading through responses from your audience can help you get deeper insight into their pain points.
You can learn more about how to do affordable small business market research in this blog post.
How you solve your target audience’s burning pains
There’s one last question to answer before you work on your positioning, differentiation, tone, and personality—how you solve your customers’ problems?
You probably already have a sense of how you do this—after all, that’s why you have a business in the first place.
The only thing to consider before moving on is how your customer research might have changed what you offer.
Is your solution something your audience has already tried? Maybe you’ll need to spend more time on differentiation later in the branding process.
Did your customers share a problem you weren’t aware of? Maybe it’s time to introduce a new product.
At this stage you have all the information you need. Let’s move on to the next steps of branding your business.
The next steps of branding your business: Positioning, personality, logos
If you’ve developed a strong understanding of your target audience, you’re probably already ahead of your competition.
At this point, you should have confidence in the fact that people need to hear what you have to say. There’s demand for your business—you just need to figure out how to translate that demand into revenue.
This is when we start thinking about what people traditionally call branding: your positioning, tone, and logo.
Positioning and differentiators
Let’s face it: you aren’t the only person in your industry.
If you’re a personal trainer, there are other ways to get in shape. There are other diets, exercise routines, and personal trainers to choose from.
Why should people choose you?
The answer to that question is your positioning and differentiation.
In truth, you’ve probably done a lot of this work already. A huge method of differentiating yourself from the competition is choosing a specific target audience—a niche.
If you’re a new mother trying to lose weight, would you go to a personal trainer—or would you choose a personal trainer who specializes in working with new mothers?
Strong customer research can help you differentiate yourself, but there are other ways to refine your positioning.
The two most important are:
- The purpose of your business—your “why”
- Your core values
Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, argues that “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”
Having a clear mission—something you stand for—can help you stick out in your audience’s mind.
Think of the apparel company Patagonia. Patagonia sells a variety of products, from t-shirts and sweaters to wetsuits and sleeping bags.
Patagonia began with a simple goal: make tools for climbers. Notice the focus on a niche.
The company still makes clothes for climbing, but it now also sells equipment for a wide range of outdoor activities. They are known as an outdoorsy company.
They also use their core values to build an overall brand.
Patagonia’s website has an entire page devoted to environmental and social responsibility. It regularly donates to environmental causes, and the first line of its company info page is “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
As you work on your positioning, ask yourself what values you’d like to have associated with your brand. Ask yourself:
- What do you stand for?
- What are you trying to accomplish with your business?
- What makes you different from other people in your industry?
- What are your core values?
When you have a sense of your core values, it’s easier to incorporate them into your actual business. Patagonia doesn’t just position itself as an environmentally friendly company—it actively uses green manufacturing processes and donates to environmental causes.
Similarly, BMW would never have become known as a luxury car company if it didn’t actually produce luxury cars.
The art of differentiation is in clarifying what already makes you different—and then accentuating those differences in your business and marketing.
Tone and personality
Positioning and differentiation help you get a stronger sense of your core message. Tone and personality are how you communicate that message.
Are your communications serious and formal, or lighthearted and friendly? Do you want to sound scientific, or funny?
The tone you choose depends heavily on your industry and the service you offer. If you’re a business consultant, a quirky, casual, friendly tone might rub clients the wrong way. That kind of tone might be better suited to an ecommerce store that sells novelty socks.
Tone and personality are fantastic opportunities for small business branding, because it’s often easier for a small business to adopt a lighthearted tone.
A giant, multinational company is going to have a hard time seeming personally invested in each of its customers. It will also need to unify its message across different countries and cultures.
A small business doesn’t have that problem—and people are much more willing to accept a casual, or even humorously irreverent, tone from a small business.
Take this order confirmation email from Derek Sivers of CD Baby as an example.
“Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.
A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.
Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Friday, June 6th.
I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as “Customer of the Year”. We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!”
It’s hard to imagine a large corporation writing this kind of email—but Sivers credits this email with thousands of repeat customers.
As you go through the process of branding your business, ask yourself:
- What words would people use to describe you?
- What words do you want your customers to use when they describe you?
- What brands do you follow and like the tone of? What words describe them?
- What brands do you not like the tone of?
Logo, colors, and slogans
We finally made it. Logos, colors, and slogans are what a lot of people think of when they think of small business branding, but the work that you’ve put in up front will help you create brand guidelines that actually resonate with your audience.
As you work on designing your logo and tagline, think back on the rest of your branding work:
- How do your logo, company name, and tagline reflect your customers’ needs?
- How do they call to mind your positioning and differentiators?
- How do your brand materials communicate your personality?
A common small business branding mistake is trying to create logos, company names, or taglines that are “clever.”
Yes, the Nike swoosh is iconic and recognizable. But that doesn’t mean you can use something abstract and expect it to just “work.”
Taglines that sound nice or have amusing puns in them are all well and good, but it’s more effective to create brand materials that actively communicate your value proposition.
For company names and taglines, ask yourself what your customers want and how you can give it to them. Use the answer, gleaned from customer research, to guide your writing.
Sometimes you can even take answers from you customer research and use them word for word in your marketing materials.
For your logos, think about how the colors and fonts you choose communicate your message.
This fantastic blog post from Talia Wolf on “color psychology.” If you dig around the internet, you’ll find a ton of bogus color emotion charts—in reality, the psychology of color in complicated, and Talia does an excellent job of diving in.
It’s easy to hire a designer or whip together a logo in a few minutes without giving things much thought. But spending time defining your audience and positioning can help you create more powerful brand materials that stick in the minds of your customers.
Spreading your small business brand
As mentioned earlier, you can claim any brand identity you like. But if your customers don’t see you that way, that brand identity will be meaningless.
After you go through the process of branding your business, that branding needs to flow through every aspect of your communications.
In the same way that Patagonia actively supports green causes and CD Baby used a simple confirmation email to build its humorous tone, all of your communications need to take your branding into account.
Your small business branding needs to reflect how you actually do business.
Asking how to communicate a brand is a big question, and a very general one. It’s in a similar vein to “how do I do marketing.” The question is so broad that it’s impossible to answer without knowing the specifics of your situation.
What you can do is keep this in mind: everything you do sends a message.
Every tweet, every email, every flyer, and every face-to-face conversation is an opportunity to let your small business branding shine.
That said, not everything sends the same message. Different channels are more useful for different types of communication. Here’s a very brief overview of how five different channels can help you brand your business.
Social media for branding
Your brand is communicated any time you interact with customers. With the rise in social media, social platforms have become a huge tool for both content distribution and customer support.
Whether you use social media for customer support or general conversations, your social interactions are extremely public—making them a chance to reinforce your brand’s tone and personality.
When it comes to branding, social media is valuable for its ability to illustrate your tone and personality.
Public relations for branding
PR can help you brand your business in two key ways.
First, PR gives you a chance to reach new people. Websites and publications have their own followers, and mentions in them are a chance to communicate your brand and your company’s value to a larger audience.
Whether PR means getting a feature on your company, an interview with you, or a mention in a local article, you reach people you wouldn’t otherwise be reaching.
PR also has the benefit of adding authority to your branding. Anyone can say something great about themselves—when you get other people to talk about you, it lends strength to the messages you’ve already been spreading.
Advertising for branding
If you have the budget for it, advertising can help you reach a much larger audience.
With advertising, you have near-complete control over what goes in your message. If you can grab attention and clearly associate your company with a particular set of values, advertising can be a valuable tool for branding your business.
Advertising is effective for branding when you can use to to forge an association between your company and a particular set of values. Although it’s sometimes expensive for small businesses, it can help put your brand in front of new audiences.
Blogging for branding
The great thing about blogging for branding is that you get to control the message.
A blog is on a platform you control. You can say anything you like to reinforce your messaging and brand.
Content marketing is rising as a small business marketing tactic, and for good reason. Blogging is effective for small business branding because it showcases your personality and delivers valuable information to a target audience.
It also doesn’t take a large budget or a lot of resources.
Not sure what to blog about? This article has 23 places you can find blog content ideas.
Customer interactions for branding
Every interaction you have with a customer is an opportunity to showcase your brand values.
When you have a customer service complaint, how do you address the problem? If you run a physical store, how do you greet people when they come in?
The previously mentioned example from Derek Sivers of CD Baby is a good one—even something as simple as an order confirmation email is an opportunity to connect with your customers.
Look at every potential customer interaction. Are you getting the most out of each customer touchpoint?
Conclusion: Branding your business
Branding has moved beyond putting marks on cattle.
But branding in marketing still serves a similar function: to show how you are different from everyone else.
Your brand includes common elements like logos and taglines, but it also goes much deeper than that. The essence of your brand is in the value you provide to your customers, and in how you differentiate that value from others in your industry.