So your website is old and tired, your graphics are looking a little 1997, your headshot is a selfie taken in bad lighting with your old iPhone 3S and let’s be honest, your social media is way overdue for a facelift.
It’s OK. We won’t judge.
If the above describes you, you, my dear small business owner, need a branding expert like southern California needs a good rainy season.
Translation: Right now.
But first, let me tell you a little cautionary tale.
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there was a young photographer (hint: that was me!). She took lovely, emotive photographs of families and children and the occasional mushy gushy bride and groom. One night at a networking event, she met a young and dynamic designer who specialized in small business branding. They struck up a conversation and agreed that they were a match made in branding heaven.
Money was handed over. A contract was signed. Files upon files of examples and inspiration where provided, personal information exchanged. The young photographer was beside herself with excitement, imagining her fresh new branding: bold, modern and with a splash of artistic flair—exactly as she’d requested. Finally, the day arrived, the eagerly anticipated email was sitting in her inbox. The photographer clicked open and sat there, waiting to be blown away.
(Foreshadowing alert: Those words were carefully chosen; read on.)
The image that opened first—the basis for the entire branding proposal—was a roughly sketched handgun, perfectly centered above these three words in big typewriter font:
I shoot people.
The young photographer blinked and looked again, almost unable to comprehend how her vision had been twisted so incredibly far from her intention. Her face fell, along with her dreams of all the attention her new branding would bring and the money that was to have rolled in as the world fell in love.
It took a long, long time for her to feel ready to try again—and she wasted years in a branding mish-mash of DIY and a hodge podge of almost-but-not-quite, with thoughts of her first branding gone horribly wrong experience echoing through her memory.
So yes. I get that branding can feel a little intimidating.
What does branding even mean? Everyone talks about it in vague terms. Ask a group of small business owners and they’ll all likely nod and agree—solid branding is a necessity—without knowing what all goes into the whole branding equation.
But where to begin? How do you find the right person? What should you look for and what red flags should warn you to run screaming in the other direction?
Never fear, dear small business owner. We’ve assembled a team of small business brand experts to help guide you along the way. They can’t make it rain in California, but they can (hopefully) make your branding experience a much easier one.
What is branding anyway?
A website, logo and all the marketing collateral that goes along with these things are part of branding – but only one part.
“Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.”
How to hire a branding expert
“Ask the expert to explain what a brand is. Hint—if they say it's a logo, tagline and marketing materials - hike up your britches and run like hell.” –Ed Roach, The Branding Experts
Obviously, if someone claims branding expertise, you’ll want to make sure their website doesn’t look like this.
(Did you check? No flashy animated gifs? An absence of annoying counters? Completely and totally free of Comic Sans? Whew.)
But a great website does not a small business brand expert make—so what should you ask next?
We’ve compiled a list of the top questions submitted by our expert branding panel to make sure you compile all the information you need to make a solid decision before investing in your own rebranding.
12 questions to ask a branding expert (before you sign the contract)
“A great brand agency or consultant will use their own unique experience as well as a defined, repeatable process that both uncovers the client's unique brand and flexes to accommodate the unique needs of each client. Don't just look at the pretty pictures of past projects. Ask for case studies, ask about how they got from point A to point Z in branding another company, and ask what makes their process better than their competitors.” –Mike Jones
But wait, don’t they need to know about me too?
Branding is not a one size fits all experience, and this should not be a one way interview.
A good branding expert or firm will have many questions for you to answer so that they can get a feel for your work and your requirements.
Beware of a potential company that does not ask specific questions designed to really get down to the nitty gritty of who you are and what you need.
Here are some questions you can consider as you compile information to give to each of the branding companies you select to interview.
So, when should I run screaming, again?
“Have you ever been to some branding expert's websites and they look horrible and amateur? It's like talking to a poor financial planner - there's something awry here." –Ed Roach
Aside from animated gifs, logos aimed at families that prominently feature weapons and fonts-that-should-not-be-named (shudder), what are the warning signs that you should high tail it in the other direction?
Beyond not wanting to hire a branding expert with terrible branding—what else should a small business owner watch out for?
5 branding red flags
“If you’ve answered all the questions right but you still have a gut feeling that something doesn’t add-up, don't hire the agency or the designer.” –Dmitri Logounov
So, how do I know someone is qualified for the job?
Dear small business owner, I don’t want you to get to the point where your money is gone and all you have is a logo of a gun and a failed attempt at a clever tagline that suggests violence instead of beauty.
(Because seriously, that sucked.)
But it’s not as easy as requesting a resume. We no longer live in a world where industry experts have a predictable educational or professional history. Many of today’s top experts are completely self-taught and attended the school of hard knocks rather than the Ivy League.
However, there are some common checkpoints you can rely on to point you in the right direction. Click the image to view the printable PDF checklist.
When it comes right down to it—your brand is a complete reflection of your company. It is a vital piece of your small business success, and worth the time, attention and research it takes to be fully confidence you have made the best choice for your branding project.
“Above and beyond credentials and expertise that most branding companies will have, look for genuine enthusiasm in their clients' marketing. Clients who feel a true connection to their business branding tend to show it in everything they do and say as a brand - it's rarely something that can be faked. That's how you can get a good, between-the-lines feel for how well their branding company did.”
-Mitch Dowell: Founder and Creative Director, Branding Experiences
Travis Shortt | Founder, Aspyr Communications
Ed Roach | Brand Consultant, The Branding Experts
Jeff Green | President and CEO, Green Thoughts Consulting
Mitch Dowell | Founder and Creative Director, Branding Experiences
Dmitri Logounov | Managing Director, New Design Group
Mike Jones| Creative Director & Partner, Resound Creative
Sid Simone | President, Sid Simone Solutions