“Once I’m up and running, I’ll invest in building a brand.”
Sound familiar? This is a common mindset among small business owners who focus on marketing and selling but forget that their company is both a business and a brand.
While you may feel like you’re saving time at the moment, ignoring your brand identity only causes more headaches in the long run.
Foregoing branding means your messages may be getting through loud and clear, but produce undesired results and create long-term problems. While not immediately apparent, the impact from this approach will rear its ugly head all too quickly and painfully in various ways: you’ll get more questions than sales, audiences won’t be clear on what you’re all about, and potential customers will buy from your competition.
In order for small businesses to compete, you must create and cultivate emotional connections with your audiences through your messaging, marketing, and engagement. Your brand is the most valuable asset in your business, and when it is done right, the benefits and ROI are measurable and immediate.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to create a brand identity for your small business. You’ll learn branding tips, how to hire a small business branding consultant, how to use brand listening tools, and more.
How to Create a Brand Identity
Your brand identity is more than just your logo. It’s more than style guides, marketing materials, or color palettes. Your brand identity is the culmination of how your brand looks, feels, and speaks to customers. It influences the entire customer experience and ultimately affects how others view your credibility and business.
With all this at stake, your small business brand identity will not magically reveal itself overnight. It requires time, research, and deep thinking, but the results are worth it.
So where do you start?
1. Research, research, research
You can’t create a brand identity that resonates with your customers if you don’t understand your customers to begin with. So, first take the time to truly learn about your primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. Develop personas that define their likes and dislikes, hobbies, and values.
Once you have a deep understanding of your customers, move on to competitive research. How are other companies in your industry positioning themselves in terms of visual elements, personalities, and themes?
And finally, don’t forget to interview the people closest to your current brand: your employees. They have an important point of view on how the company should be portrayed, and what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
2. Create assets
Once the research phase is done, the fun can begin. It’s time to translate all your learnings into visuals. Here’s a quick list of common brand assets:
- Color palettes
- Photography and graphics for marketing campaigns
- Style guide that explains appropriate logo usage and tone of voice, among other things
As you’re building your brand assets, think about the 3 Cs of branding and how they can help:
- Clarity: It’s your job, not your customer’s, to figure out your message. If they have to work to interpret something you’ve created, your brand isn’t clear enough yet.
- Consistency: Your billboard needs to have the same voice as your website, which needs to have the same voice as your Twitter account. Why? Consistency in your brand inspires confidence and discipline.
- Commitment: We want our ads to go viral, and the minute they don’t, we get discouraged and shift directions. Don’t forget that great branding takes great time.
The 3 Cs of marketing (create, capture, and convert) can also help once you move deeper into asset creation specifically for marketing campaigns.
3. Define your brand story
Cement your brand identity with a brand story. This isn’t necessarily your origin story, although it will have components of why you started your business.
The goal of your brand story should answer these questions:
- What does your brand believe in?
- What pain points does your product or service alleviate?
- How does your business solve those problems?
- Why did you decide that your business should alleviate those pains?
- Where do you see your business going?
As you’re crafting your brand story, remember that it’s not just the elevator pitch you give to people when they ask what your business is. It’s about how your brand relates to people and why it exists.
4. Iterate and refine
Your brand identity may change over time, and that’s okay. Once you have created your initial brand identity, analyze and refine it based on customer feedback. Test new strategies and tactics to see what works best. For example, you could A/B test different taglines on your homepage to see which story resonates best with your audience.
3 of the Most Common Branding Myths
In the early stages of building your brand identity, you’re likely to encounter some common branding myths. Unfortunately, too many business owners buy into these myths, ultimately hurting their company in the long run.
Here are three major branding myths debunked:
Branding myth #1: “Branding is important only when I’m growing”
Don't underestimate your company’s strongest asset. Branding can account for as much as 30 to almost 50 percent of a company’s value. This is because properly executed branding turns your product or service into something distinct and unreplicated: the unique value that you offer your target audience.
In other words, branding is not only relevant but also critical at every stage of your business. In order to gain anyone’s attention, your brand must be relatable. Just because you’ve built a brand does not mean your target audience will flock to you. It must communicate your value and solution. If you simply face the world with a passionate idea, without investing in your brand, consumers will create their own perception of your business.
Branding myth #2: “I can’t afford that expense!”
Branding is not an expense. It’s an investment in an asset. Potentially, it’s your biggest asset, even if no one agrees exactly on how it’s valued. Brand equity includes components like consumer awareness, associated qualities, and loyalty. Although these intangible aspects are difficult to value, it doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t invest in this key asset. The best way to tackle the intangible nature of this asset is to grab your story and build it.
This raises the next logical question: how much should you budget for this investment? Our rule of thumb is to set aside 15 percent of your desired gross annual revenue and invest that in building your brand. This amount can then be applied toward a branding strategist, graphic and web designers, copywriter, marketing expert, social media expert, and related resources.
Branding myth #3: “Branding is too complicated for my business”
Surprisingly, some people believe that branding complicates things, when, in reality, it’s more complicated not to invest in branding.
Invest in your brand strategy, no matter how “simple” you believe your business to be. Organize. Identify your story. Make it clear, cohesive, and repeatable. It’s less complicated to make future decisions based on a set of branding guidelines than to rehash your story every time you start up an advertising campaign or email funnel.
The Top Brand Listening Tools
Whether you hire a brand consultant or do all the work in-house, it’s one thing to spend the time, energy, and resources required to build a brand, but it’s another thing entirely to understand what customers really think about it and your business.
For all you know, you could have fifteen zero-star reviews on Yelp, three scathing blog posts being shared around Facebook, and seven nasty tweets about a bad customer experience, which would undo all your hard branding work.
Luckily, there’s an easy, free way to listen to the true voice of your current and potential customers: social media. Millions of conversations are happening on social media every day and you have the opportunity to help define, build, and - if necessary - defend your brand, all with a simple post.
Here are some key social media listening tools and strategies to help you identify and listen in on those conversations, monitor the internet and social media for brand mentions, and engage when the opportunity arises.
1. Identify relevant keywords and phrases to look for conversations happening in your space or directly tied to your business
What keywords and phrases would customers or prospects use when searching for your business or the services you offer?
Google Trends is a great way to identify which keywords people use more frequently than others as well as find related search terms and overall geographic interest.
Knowing this, we can focus in on the conversations about the keywords that are more popular. Try plugging in keywords related to your industry, brand name, and products or services you offer to see which ones are being searched for more often. This can help tailor your content strategy, sales promotions, and email blasts to focus more on the keywords people are actually searching for.
Use Buzzsumo to look for influencers to promote your content, or see what competitors are currently ranking for.
2. Listen to key conversations that matter most to your business
How do you know what people are saying? How do you know who is speaking? These tools will tell you.
Google Alerts is a great social media listening tool for busy entrepreneurs who may not have the time to monitor their brand on social media. Google Alerts will notify you via email when any of the search terms you’ve set up are mentioned. You can set the frequency of these updates so you can keep your fingers on the pulse as closely as you’d like.
A hidden gem for social media listening tools, socialmention allows you to search for keywords and see overall frequency, sentiment, influencers, sources, and reach. This snapshot provides a lot of great insights into the health of your business online and allows you to export this data for your own records or for you to analyze in Excel. You can see how customers feel about your brand with the sentiment rank and listen especially for those negative mentions so you can help alleviate the situation.
3. Monitor channels and keep an eye on where the conversation is happening
Mention is similar to Google Alerts in that it lets you create an alert, but it pulls all of this data into a large feed which applies a sentiment score to each mention and identifies important mentions that need action. Mention also pulls data from millions of sources to monitor your entire internet presence at a glance*
Hootsuite provides simple feeds to showcase all your social networks in one screen; you can easily listen in on your Facebook page, monitor Twitter mentions, hashtags and keywords searches, and follow influencer tweets in one view. The true power of Hootsuite is in its listening capabilities and search functions. When you set up a search inside Hootsuite for a hashtag or keyword, you can instantly see every tweet with that keyword and who is sharing it.
Social media is your customer’s true voice. It is usually unfiltered, unbridled and unrestrained (for better or worse), so don’t miss out on the daily opportunities to help your customers and your brand.
6 Branding Tips for Small Businesses to Stand Out
Think about the people who stand out in a crowd and seem to have the largest group of friends. They have a magnetic personality that is memorable, makes others feel good, and is emotionally engaging. This popularity only grows as more people come in contact with them.
The same goes for a brand. You want people to remember your product or services, solve a problem, or make them feel good.
Here are our top branding ideas for small businesses to stand out:
Be memorable, not modern
Most people are creatures of habit and are most comfortable using things they recognize and are familiar with. Not convinced? Think back to Gap's rebranding attempt—and epic fail—circa 2010. The company took its tried and true, 20-year-old logo and changed it to something they hoped would appeal to potential customers. Unfortunately, existing customers weren't pleased. They wanted their memorable logo back!
Thankfully, Gap decided to ditch the new logo in an effort to keep customers happy after gauging reactions on social media sites. But there's an important lesson to be learned here: Be memorable, not modern. If people recognize the current company's branding and are comfortable with the product, why mess with a good thing?
Update and monitor your social presence
To make your brand identity stronger, you need to take it to the people—and they are on social media platforms. If you are only on Twitter, this might be the time to consider adding a profile on other sites. Zip over to Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat where most of your audience is hanging out.
When you create social profiles on these sites, make the brand look, feel, and messages consistent. If you don’t, you will confuse the audience and dilute the brand identity you are building.
Get customers and influencers to work on your brand’s behalf
A strong brand is a talked-about brand. Recruiting fans to help with brand strengthening efforts can yield faster and larger results. Tactics like encouraging your customers to create online reviews go a long way.
Your influencers can tweet, shout, snap, and talk about your brand. Having this following adds credibility and piques interest among your target audience, an audience who listens to their peers, first and foremost.
Deliver content your audience can use
Consumers and businesses are online primarily to search for information they need to make decisions about products or services that can solve specific problems.
This process takes place well before any brand is selected, which provides you with the opportunity to offer them that information and get brand recognition. Once the content can be applied in their life and it provides the value they had hoped for, then they will begin to associate expertise with your brand.
Create an experience but don’t forget about everyday interactions
Remember that your brand is the sum total of every interaction they have had with your company. This means paying attention to all the details and things that may seem little but make a difference to your customers—response time, ability to find and get answers quickly, and a convenient checkout, easy e-commerce system, as well as a simple payment system.
Take a stand and define your values
A strong brand stands for something. It’s refreshing when customers see a brand that focuses on certain values that represent what they are for, or even against.
This could be standing up for social justice, the environment, or a business practice. Whatever you select, make it clear that what you stand for is part of your brand.
In today’s digital marketplace, your competition is no longer just the store across the street. Online you’ve got tens, hundreds, or even thousands of businesses just like yours vying for the spotlight.
For small businesses to stand out, it’s more important than ever to have a strong brand identity. Small businesses don't have the capital for huge marketing campaigns to compete with larger businesses, so it’s even more critical you know who you are, what you offer, and who you’re offering your product or service to in order to succeed.
Small business branding is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Investing time to ensure clarity and development of a professional business brand is essential. A brand is the critical business driver to all communications, and it’s what impacts every aspect of your business.
Your brand lives in the hearts of your customers. Deliver extraordinary experiences. Wow them, care about them, and they will love you back.