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This week in one of my Facebook groups, a fellow branding professional told a story of how a guru business consultant she knows advises people that branding a small business is unnecessary: “It’s just a waste of your time and money.”
I hear that a lot so I told her: “Don’t sweat it. Anyone who says a business ‘doesn’t need branding’ doesn’t fully comprehend what it actually is.”
That said, I kinda-sorta think I understand what that consultant was getting at and I’m going to flesh that out. But make no mistake about it: Every small service-based business needs branding, even if you’re a solo professional.
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And I’m not talking about your logo, fancy photography, or award-winning website design. If you’ve managed to win clients and make sales already, you’re already doing branding. The question is whether you’re doing it with intention.
There’s a distinction in terminology that a lot of people get confused about so let’s clear that up. Your visual design–what a lot of people are referring to when they talk about branding–is your brand identity.
But it’s not in and of itself “branding.”
I always like to put it this way…
Branding is just a way to sell things. So if you need to sell things, and I assume that you do, of course you need branding.
Branding is the way you:
- Let people know who it’s for
- And what they can expect when they hire you
- Make your case for why you’re the best choice out of all the others they’re considering
- Establish credibility
- Build awareness
- Become recognized and remembered
- Become known, liked, and trusted
Another way to think about it is…
Branding is the way you’ll create the positive feelings about your company that will lead people to purchase things from you
So you tell me, do you need that? Of course you do!
Why some people advise against branding for small businesses
Because they’re not clear about what it actually is
Conversations about branding can get pretty esoteric at times, so people often confuse brand identity with branding itself.
Also, they sometimes assume it’s only for big major companies. But branding works the same for any business, even a side hustle.
I blame cliché phrases like, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room” for part of the confusion and endless debate around this subject.
That sounds nice, but they’re just a bunch of words that don’t convey the importance of why you need it and they certainly don’t offer any clues for how you’re supposed to go about it.
Honestly? I wish most definitions of “brand” and “branding” would die in a fire. Because too many people miss out on the benefits of it because of this mumbo-jumbo.
It can shift focus to the wrong priorities especially for startups
A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs spend too much money and time in the beginning stages of their business fussing and stressing over their logo design and color palette and not enough time on just getting out there, getting visible, and getting started.
In fact, I know people who have spent a small fortune on a logo, a website, and business cards and they never actually got their business off the ground.
Don’t do that.
It may make you feel good to have all of those things–like your hopes and dreams are now a legitimate, tangible thing–but a business card is not a business.
The most important thing you need to get started is to have a viable service offering that enough people need that you can charge enough money for to meet your financial goals.
It’s an unnecessary expense for new small businesses
I agree with this to some extent.
Here, people are usually talking about investing in a brand identity system (hiring a designer), or hiring a brand strategist to help with the messaging and positioning.
When you’re just starting out, you may not be clear about many of the things that go into creating a brand that’ll get clients flocking to you, and branding professional can’t promise you that clarity.
They’ll ask you all the right questions, and they can advise and coach you, and they can even do research to help you figure it all out. But ultimately, they can’t give you all the answers.
Want to know what those questions are? Download my free worksheet. If you’re able to answer these questions easily, a professional will be able to help you create the assets you need to help you build your brand.
When you don’t need professional branding services…
A lot of people start out in business by thinking, “I have these skills, and people are looking for people with these skills to hire, so now I just need to find them.”
That’s enough to start! You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a logo and a website to do that. Just go out there and get some clients. Branding is a long game, so you’ll need a short game too.
(If you want some ideas for how to get clients fast, you can find them in my free resource library.)
You’ll see a lot of brand designers freaking out about this particular advice but I’m not one of them: You can bootstrap it.
Get started with budget solutions and do some of it yourself, and when you have a clearer vision for the brand you want to build, when you have a bit of experience and time to really think about your direction forward, you can get fancy later.
In fact, I offer a One Day Brand package at a very affordable rate for clients who are in the very early stages or just testing the waters. It’s not a great idea to throw a bunch of money at professional branding services until you’re sure about where you’re headed and certain your business idea is viable.
But still, you do need some tools to start. I want to make sure my clients start with the right tools–the ones that will allow them to scale, iterate and grow as they go. For business owners who are “ready,” I offer something much more in-depth. (When you’re ready? You’ll know.)
The aspects of branding that are most helpful to small businesses
I’m going to start each aspect with a verb to help you take action on each, and I’m going to try to boil it down as much as possible for the same reason.
#1: Understand your customer
Which segment of the market are you targeting? It would be impossible (and it isn’t very wise) to target everybody or just anybody, so who is your ideal customer? Who most needs the thing you sell? When you categorize potential target groups, which group’s problems do you understand the best?
The idea is that when your target customer sees your message, they’ll think, “Hey, that’s for me!”
This is your brand positioning and it allows you to stake your claim in a crowded marketplace.
#2: Articulate what sets you apart from the competition
Take a look around at what others in your industry are doing and then ask yourself, “What are the reasons why a customer would choose me instead?” What are the characteristics or benefits of your service, or you as a person, that would be very hard for others to replicate?
The idea is that you want to become known for something and it needs to be crystal clear to your potential customers what that thing is. Competition falls away because there’s no substitute for you.
“You’re the only one that _________.”
(By the way, you don’t have to be “The only one that _______” in the whole entire world, just your tiny corner of it.)
This is your brand differentiation. It helps customers understand why they should choose you.
#3 Create a consistent experience
How do you want your customers to describe you after your work together is through? What qualities do you want them to tell their friends about you?
- That you delivered fast, hassle-free service?
- That you were thorough and detail-oriented?
- That you made the process fun?
- That you were compassionate and empowering?
What was it like to follow your process–how did they feel?
What steps do you take, and what policies do you follow, to ensure they feel that way?
Everything you do (a.k.a. “branding”) should be grounded by those core values you want people to remember you by–from the very first interaction (or “touchpoint”) to the last.
When your customers start describing their experience–in testimonials and reviews and referrals–in very similar ways, it means you’re purposefully creating the kind of client experience that you can become known for.
This is your brand experience. It helps you attract the right people to you and create raving fans and repeat customers.
#4 Give it personality
People buy from brands and they hire humans. So as you market your business (marketing, by the way, is brand building), you want to express consistent personality characteristics and make your company values known through copy and visuals (the pillars of brand communication).
This is your brand tone. It helps people decide whether you would be a good fit for them on an emotional level.
#5 Tell people what they can expect
In a clear and concise way, you want to be able to describe the benefits of working with you and the transformation they can expect when they do.
This is your brand promise. It helps people to understand what they can expect when they do business with you.
Notice I haven’t talked about logos or slogans yet?
Once you have clarity around these things, a designer can help you communicate them visually. Copywriters can help you create and refine the words you use to describe them.
This is your brand identity. It serves the purpose of communicating what your brand is all about. What your brand is all about? See #1-5. That’s your foundation, the identity system is a reflection of all of those things.
It’s why, when people work with me, I don’t just sit down to the drawing board and start creating pretty things. I’m kind of known for assigning “hard homework,” but if you don’t do the work, you’ll end up being willy-nilly about it and eventually need to come back to it.
Does your small business need branding? Of course. Do you need to spend a lot of money when you’re just starting out? Of course not.
I can tell you from personal experience that once I got really clear about all of these things, it transformed my business. I was able to go from “feast or famine mode” to consistently attracting amazing clients who hire me to do work that I’m meant to be doing, that rewards and fulfills me.
Yes, even branding professionals and expert marketers struggle with brand clarity and can be the absolute worst when it comes to taking their own medicine.
This work isn’t easy, but once everything clicks into place and you know exactly where you’re headed, you can begin building the business you dream of by using branding as the process that gets you there.
When I wrote my book, The Client Attraction Mindset, I really set out to create paradigm shifts around this process. I could have easily called it “The Branding Mindset,” but a lot of people still don’t think they “need branding.”
But we all know we want to attract clients, right? Well, branding is the way to do that.
(Hopefully by now you know I’m not talking about your logo.)
When you have a strategic approach to branding, you begin to show up with confidence in a way that gets your dream clients doing a double-take: “Hey, you’re exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
And who doesn’t “need” that? 😉
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.