How Your Business Can Build the Ultimate Brand

Experts tell us brand is one of the biggest business drivers, but too many businesses put branding in the slow lane, with devastating results. Douglas explores the 10 top brand mistakes — and how you can avoid them.

We all know the power of a brand. It determines how your business is seen in the community and who your customers are. It’s one of those things that exists in the scary space between rock-solid and impossibly fragile, and it will need your attention from the moment you launch your business to the day you close up shop for good.

Get your brand right and you and your customers live happily ever after. Customers need only walk through your door or enter your website to feel like they get everything about you. Get it wrong and it’s like none of the dots connect.

Whether you plan and manage everything about your brand or just let it take hold by accident, there’s no escaping the power that it has to determine your business’s success. We talked to five local branding experts about the most common branding errors that businesses commit, and their comments underline just how foundational a business’s brand is. “Branding is about communicating what you’re about, what you care about, why people should care about you,” says Aaron Bergunder, lead designer at The Number.

The Big Mistakes
Branding isn’t new, but the digital era has changed the game dramatically. “The lifespan of a brand is a lot shorter now, because people are viewing your brand through digital devices,” says Neil Tran, owner of branding and design company Leap. “If you look at the big brands, they are constantly modifying themselves.”

Still, some universal truths will always prevail.

“A relevant brand is a relevant brand,” says Val Nathan, creative director and co-owner at Trapeze Communications. “The marketing sense and the insight and psychology of how to position clients are still the problems that we solve every day. We’re still looking at saying the right things to the right people in the right manner, and one form or another of visual expression.”

So what are the top 10 mistakes businesses make when setting out to brand their companies?

1. They think branding is about logos and letterhead.
Yes, your business could end up with a new logo at the end of the day. But branding is so much bigger than that.

“Whether they know it or not, every company has a brand,” says Clint Hutzulak, principal and creative director at Rayola Creative. “If they’re in business, then there are already associations with that business in the consumer’s mind. The question is how well the company is doing at articulating them.”

So don’t get lost in discussions about logos and colour palettes — focus on what you want those visuals to convey. Dig down to the deep stuff about how your business engages with its customers.

“Brand isn’t identity — it’s a collection of feelings and emotions that people have about your company,” says Jenny Marshall, brand strategies partner at Eclipse Creative. “Every person who touches your brand needs to understand it.”

Think of your brand as an eco-system, advises Val Nathan. “The brand is every experience your customer has while interacting with you,” she says.

Go ahead and “slap your logo on everything,” but that’s still not branding, says Leap artistic director Simon Robinson. “Imagine your company as a person — it’s got a voice, it dresses a certain way, it deals with people a certain way. It’s about interaction, consistency, personality. Branding is about developing the tone of your business.”

2. They presume they already know everything there is to know about how the business is perceived by customers and the community.
Maybe you can’t afford your own “secret shopper” research to test how your business is engaging with its customers, but at least engage in brutal honesty. Ask yourself the hard questions and be prepared for the answers. That’s especially important in the digital age, which has given consumers many new tools for sharing their experiences with your company (as United Airlines painfully learned after upset customer Dave Carroll penned and uploaded the song “United Breaks Guitars,” which to date has attracted almost 16 million YouTube views).

“It used to be that brands were something you owned, that you had control of,” says Neil Tran. “But digital consumers and clients engage with your brand. When you’re really getting it right, people will go out of their way to engage with you.”

3. They don’t view branding as a business investment.
Get your brand right and you’ll measure the difference in your sales. But when you’re out of step with the image your customers have of you, they notice. “For me, that’s error No. 1, when I see someone trying to be someone they aren’t,” says Aaron Bergunder.

Investing in branding can be costly for a startup, acknowledges Jenny Marshall, and can feel like yet another item on the to-do list at a time when a new business just wants to be out there.

“But it’s that rush to get the company out there that can lead to missteps,” she adds. “Take baby steps to build your company brand. Develop something that’s sustainable and strategic.”

Approach branding like you would investing in property, suggests Val Nathan. “Just like real estate, you can’t turn it around tomorrow and make a lot of money on it. But over time it accrues in value,” she says. “It’s an investment in your future, and it pays off if you do it right and make sure that everyone exposed to your brand understands what makes you special.”

Your brand helps consumers pick you over your competitors, adds Trapeze co-owner and director Richard Fisher. “You’re ultimately trying to give people a reason for why they should choose your company, your service, your store.”

4. They don’t commit to the full-meal deal.
A branding strategy that’s never realized. A rushed effort that strands a business in the no man’s land between its former and current brands. A failure to target the right customer. There are many ways to come up short in the branding process.

“If you launch your business without a well-thought-out brand, you can be a year into your business before you realize you’re not reaching your target customers,” says Jenny Marshall.

When doing a rebrand, make sure the new brand is reflected in every aspect of the operation. “If a business has a new identity out in the marketplace that’s conflicting with an old identity in-store, it seems like a total disconnect for the consumer,” says Richard Fisher.

Aim for a “living brand standard” that can be quickly adapted to accommodate new markets, consumers, digital platforms or unanticipated opportunities, says Tran. “You need your brand to be able to change between now and even six months from now.”

5. They assume they can hand everything over to the branding expert while they carry on with the day-to-day stuff.
The truth is that a business has to immerse itself in its branding process. “It really is a process of reflection,” says Bergunder. “Part of that is asking yourself, ‘Am I ready for this?’ If you’re about to change a bunch of things that have been in place for five, 10, 20 years, it’s rocky and scary.”

Being present for meeting after meeting with the branding agency can feel “heavy-handed,” he acknowledges. “But this process takes time. It’s an error to think it’s going to be quick. It’s not quick.”

A business owner is the undisputed expert when it comes to the core vision and values that ground a branding project, notes Tran. So don’t expect a process that can be done off the side of your desk.

6. They don’t sweat the details.
When you’re talking about intangible things like the emotions and associations your brand evokes for consumers, there’s no detail too small to matter.

During the rebrand of Munro’s Books, Hutzulak found himself contemplating what light to use for the store’s outside canopy.  “For a business like Munro’s, the colour temperature of the lighting is critical,” he says. “You don’t want it to look like security lighting. You want it more like a reading lamp.”

No one wants to be the eco-aware restaurant with a Styrofoam feel, notes Bergunder. “Font, colour, texture, pattern — they all count. If you have a physical space, it’s about the materials you use. The error is to not see that every little thing matters.”

Remember to pay attention to your domain name, advises Tran. “You want a name that’s short, snappy, memorable and easy to type into a phone.”

And while there’s no end to fancy new tools for disseminating a brand, don’t give up on the old standbys. “There’s still something to be said for the feel of a nice business card in your hand,” he adds.

7. They sweat too many details.
But of course, no business can control everything, acknowledges Bergunder. “As soon as you try, you can risk losing what you have. For instance, a restaurant aiming for the Victoria craft feel doesn’t want everything to be shiny and flawless, because then you look like a mall fast-food chain. And also, it will just drive you insane to be completely caught up in it.”

He recommends businesses focus in on components with the most potential to impact consumers. “A few pieces that say a lot go a lot further than a thousand pieces with your logo slapped on them.”

8. They presume they know enough to manage the process in-house.
Some do-it-yourself branding initiatives turn out brilliantly, of course. But before you DIY, check in with an honest assessment as to whether you truly have the in-house expertise you need.

“Branding doesn’t come from an agency — it emanates from the company itself,” says Hutzulak. “But it’s the rare company that has the skill in-house to execute it. It’s good to have an outside perspective to provide the synthesizing and the collating.”

Professionals understand how to organize words, graphics and the customer experience in a way that communicates, says Tran: “It’s about capturing the look and feel of a business.”

Design is about strategy, not just decoration, says Nathan. “Qualified people provide insight into your business through design. Design is the ultimate expression of everything you’re trying to do from a marketing point of view with your business. Your brand is the outcome of that experience, thought process and strategy.”

When choosing an agency, take the time to find one that fits, recommends Aaron. “It’s kind of like getting a tattoo — you don’t just get one from the first person you meet.”

Jumping on trendy fonts or web animations can be tempting, but setting a trendy course also means a business either has to stay on top of those trends or risk becoming yesterday’s news. “It’s about finding good ideas across the board, not just the flavour of the week,” says Nathan.

9. They don’t appreciate the potential of the branding process for re-engaging staff.
A well-managed branding exercise is all about team-building, says Jenny Marshall. “For an established business, it can feel like a counselling session,” she says. “You’re having a really frank conversation about your business. It can be an empowering time.”

Richard Fisher says most of Trapeze’s clients come through the process “with a bounce in their step, with new direction, new possibilities.” Tran loved spotting staff of one of Leap’s clients proudly wearing their newly branded T-shirts one recent Friday night at the bar. “That’s what you want to see: your employees wearing their company T-shirts on a Friday night because they believe in the brand.”

10. They launch a rebrand without knowing why.
There are a lot of good reasons for a rebrand, from refreshing a tired business to going after new customers or capitalizing on a business opportunity. But if everything’s going well for your business right now, don’t jump into a rebranding process just for the sake of it. “Rebranding is a big business decision, so you should always have a reason for doing it,” says Simon Robinson.

A business that already feels “connected to the zeitgeist and your target customers” should probably just stay the course, advises Bergunder. Analyze whether you really need a new brand or maybe just some help with marketing, suggests Jenny Marshall.

“You definitely don’t want to change things just for the sake of changing them,” she cautions. “Understand why you are doing things. You don’t need to be hip and trendy just for the sake of it.”