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:…
Branding a small business is a necessity, for solo professionals
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 a small business
Because they don’t understand what branding 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.
It can keep you “stuck” when you’re just starting out
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.
My advice is to get started and make it fancy later. You’ll come to understand your brand as you get more experience, get to know your value and differentiators and even your definition of your ideal customer when you’re actually doing business.
If you think you can’t launch your business without an award-winning logo, stop what you’re doing and go find some clients and get to work.
I recommend going through The Brand Story Blueprint to understand the fundamental aspects of your brand message and then just get out there with it.
Branding a small business is an unnecessary expense when you’re just starting out
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.
But 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.
When you should not invest money into branding a small business
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.)
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.
You’ll see a lot of brand designers freaking out about this particular advice but I’m not one of them: You can bootstrap your brand on a shoestring budget.
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.)
Here’s what you’re gonna need:
8 Essential Elements of a Branding a Small Business
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: Know Your Why
Simon Sinek famously said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It’s helpful to start with a philosophical foundation so you and your customers know what you stand for. Creating a purpose statement will help you make decisions about everything relating to your brand going forward: who you’ll work with, what you’ll offer, what you’ll say and do and what you won’t.
This is your brand purpose and serves as a compass for everything you do, and gives your customers a deeper reason to choose you.
Further reading: One Simple But Powerful Exercise To Strengthen Your Brand
#2: Know Your Ideal 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.
#3: Be Unique
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.
#4 Create an Amazing Client 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.
#5 Give your brand 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).
Think about the words you’ll use to communicate what it’s like to work with you. Will you be a sturdy, reliable consultant? Or a quirky and fun coach? You’ll want to think about how you’ll speak and write–the words you use and the way you use them–that’ll help people get to know you.
This is your brand tone. It helps people decide whether you would be a good fit for them on an emotional level.
#6 Set Expectations
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. You can also call this a marketing claim. A simple formula is: “I help people ______.’
This is your brand promise. It helps people to understand what they can expect when they do business with you.
#7 Communicate Visually
Once you have clarity around these things, a designer can help you communicate them visually. Your logo, website and other marketing collateral assets should be consistent, in alignment with your brand’s personality, and appropriate for your industry.
This is your visual brand identity. It serves the purpose of communicating what your brand is all about.
Further Reading: 10 Ways To Brand Your Solo Business On A Budget
#8 Create Branding Guidelines
Once you’ve established our brand tone and brand identity you can create guidelines that help you show up in a consistent way. Brand consistency is crucial because it shortens the time it takes for people to become aware of and remember you. Again, it doesn’t need to be fancy, your goal is consistency. Keep it simple to start!
Download my Branding Guidelines Template below, it’s set up in Google Slides and will show you the basics of what you need without needing any fancy software. You can download it as a .pdf if you like so you can refer to it when you’re creating your marketing materials and messages.
It’s also helpful to provide any copywriters, designers, marketing consultants and assistants you work with too.
This is your brand guide. It helps you create consistency.
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.
When you have a strategic approach to branding a small business, 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? 😉
Recommended next step: Get The Brand Story Blueprint to help you get clear about the foundation of your brand story so you can create messages your dream customers actually want to pay attention to.
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.