Any marketing professional will tell you that one of the keys to building a successful small business is to establish a strong brand identity. It's the kind of undertaking that lays the groundwork for all future marketing and sales efforts. In fact, it's fair to say that small businesses that neglect to develop their brand early are setting themselves up for eventual failure.
Despite that reality, a shocking number of small business owners and operators don't take the time to develop their brands. For some, it's because they feel it's more important to be laser-focused on the nuts-and-bolts operation of the business. For others, it's a perceived lack of resources—human and otherwise.
It's easy to buy into both of those lines of reasoning, especially since they're often reflective of a business's reality. After all, not every small business has the financial wherewithal to hire a branding expert, or to spend precious operating income on logo design and the other trappings of brand identity. That doesn't mean, however, that any small business can afford to ignore the critical task of managing their brand altogether.
For that reason, it's often necessary for small businesses to work on building their brand in non-traditional ways, which makes good use of the resources they do have at their disposal. To help kick-start that process, here are five simple brand-building tactics for small businesses.
1. Build a social media community
While it may seem like obvious advice to say that every small business should have a presence on social media, it's also important to recognize that there are a variety of ways to accomplish that. The most common way that small businesses tend to do it is by selecting one or more social media platforms that they believe cover their target customer demographics and creating business profiles on them.
Then, more often than not, those accounts are neglected or used to blast marketing materials at regular intervals.
Instead, small businesses would do better to try to build a social media community that knits together their employees and the customers they serve. This can be as simple as enlisting employees to post business-related messages and information on their existing accounts, or preferably, by establishing business-specific social media profiles for willing employees.
Taking this approach can help to create a multi-pronged social media outreach strategy that personalizes and humanizes the business in a way that traditional branding methods can't. Of course, it's critical for the business to exercise control over what employees post on their business accounts, to prevent any inappropriate content being attributed to the business. Failure to do this can be a costly and damaging lesson in how not to create a respected brand.
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2. Focus on world class customer service
When it comes to branding, most people think of things like logos, marketing copy, and brand personality. What they usually don't think of, however, is customer service. In reality, how well a small business delivers customer service has more to do with how the brand will be perceived than almost any other single factor. For proof, one need only look as far as Comcast, whose poor customer service reputation remains a brand-killing black eye that no amount of marketing spend can cover up.
For small businesses, providing world-class customer service should be a priority in any case, since it's an excellent way to fuel bottom-line growth. That it helps establish the business's brand in the customer's mind is a secondary, yet invaluable bonus result. So, when it comes to customer service, the best branding move for small businesses is to double down on their efforts—it's more than worth it.
3. Build a customer mailing list
When it comes to branding, there's nothing that works quite as well as establishing direct contact with customers. In today's digital environment, the best way to do that is to make an effort to build a well-managed email list that allows for direct messaging to existing customers and those who've expressed interest in the business or its products.
Getting started doing this is remarkably easy for most small businesses. The first thing to do is to leverage existing customer data which should include email addresses, and ask each contact to opt-in to the new email list. Then, build on the list using the same tried-and-true methods that bloggers use to build their audience. In no time, the business should end up with a large, curated email list that allows them to spread their brand message to a receptive audience at little cost. It's probably the most impactful small business branding hack there is.
4. Seek local partnerships
There's an old axiom which holds that a person is known by the company they keep. The same is true for small businesses. That's why one of the more effective ways to establish a small business brand is to seek out local partnerships with other respected businesses in related fields. Doing so connects the small business to the already-known partner in the minds of customers, creating a positive reputational advantage.
Such partnerships can take the form of co-hosting seminars and other local events, where the two businesses share the costs and responsibilities (and the benefits) of putting everything together. Or, they can involve co-branded giveaways or value-added arrangements. Whatever the route, though, it's important to try and find partners with overlapping customer interests, and to work only with those that have a strong industry reputation. That's because such arrangements can be a double-edged sword—and anything the partner does will reflect on the small business, too.
5. Create an expertise-focused content strategy
No matter the industry, one of the key branding goals for every business is to become a recognized expert in the field. For small businesses, this is best accomplished by creating a content strategy that puts their industry know-how front and center. Doing so allows the business to position itself as the go-to source for reliable knowledge about their products, even if other businesses offer the same things.
In most cases, it's best to develop a content strategy with as much cross-platform appeal as possible. That means building a curated informative business blog filled with information that's valuable to customers, creating how-to video content on YouTube and other social video platforms, and bringing in third-party experts to lend their intellectual heft when needed. Then, feed all of that authoritative content back to the aforementioned social media community and customer email lists. That will connect customers and target demographics to the content and establish the brand's authority in its field.
Building a valuable brand
Using these five simple tactics can go quite a long way toward helping a small business establish its brand, and all without resorting to massive marketing spend or using resources that may not be available. Together, they work to position the company as an authoritative, customer service-focused organization that customers can trust on multiple levels. They also help to spread that message far and wide, creating a virtuous cycle of repeat business and customer referrals.
None of this, of course, means that a small business should forego the task of creating a top-to-bottom branding strategy to maximize results over the long term. That's something that has to remain in the plans to be undertaken when business conditions permit. With luck, these five simple tactics will create just such an environment; removing the obstacles (real or imagined) that had prevented the small business from tackling branding in a more comprehensive way.
So, the only question that remains for small businesses that are still neglecting their brands is: what are you waiting for?