Build Your Small Business Brand

There’s a lot of talk about branding and its importance to the success of a company or an organization. But what is branding really?
Is it just a logo? Is it a name? Is it both, or is it a whole lot more than these things? And if so, what?
In this month’s column, I want to take a look at branding, dispel a few myths, and suggest a different approach that small businesses can use to ensure their new brand will position them effectively.
First, let’s look at a few definitions of branding, so that we are all on the same page about what branding really means.
Back in 1992, Peter Doyle’s tome, The Marketing Book, provided the following definition, “A successful brand is a name, symbol, design, or some combination, which identifies the ‘product’ of a particular organization as having a sustainable differential advantage.” This is a good definition and points to the fact that a brand should highlight the unique selling proposition of the company. But does it tell the whole story?


The next definition, posited some fourteen years later, points to the need for more than symbols and designs: something deeper that speaks to the philosophy of the company — its beliefs, if you like. J. Grant in The Brand Innovation Manifesto says that, “A brand is a cluster of strategic cultural ideas.” I like this a lot because it focusses on more than a logo and a tag line: it goes to the heart and soul of a company; it is on this that I founded my new approach to branding for small businesses.
When we get right down to it, a brand is the distinct elements and attributes of a product and a company communicated through an image (or images) and words. It is a promise, an expectation of performance, and a mark of integrity and reputation. For instance, if we ask for a Kleenex, everybody understands we are referring to a tissue; if we say we have a Jacuzzi, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have that brand. It is the totality of perceptions that a consumer holds about the experience they associate with a product or a company. When we visit a Starbucks or McDonalds (love them or hate them), we know exactly what to expect.
It’s all very well knowing what a brand is, but how do you discover the right brand for your company? You could, of course, hire a company to brand you, and they may well do an excellent job. A graphic designer will create an evocative logo and a marketing consultant will develop a targeted message, but will this be enough? Will it resonate with your customers and prospective customers? Maybe or maybe not.
Recently, I carried out a branding exercise for the West Shore Chamber of Commerce. It would have been relatively easy to come up with a raft of attractive logos and a list of positioning statements and just allow the board to choose the one they found most aesthetically pleasing. But, instead, we decided to make the new brand mean something to the chamber’s members and to the public at large — to make it a community logo rather than purely a corporate logo. In this way, people would be better able to relate to the chamber as an integral part of the community, rather than just an organization solely serving the business community. In fact, the brand would help alter the public’s perception of the organization.
To achieve this, I interviewed more than 50 key stakeholders, in this case, politicians, community leaders, and business people, to find out what they felt about the West Shore and its Chamber of Commerce. I was looking for what made our community tick, what made it special; I was looking for clues as to how the new brand should speak to the people it would reach out to.
With this information in hand, the next stage was to create a community branding group of twenty or so people who would help develop the brand. Michelangelo was once asked how he created such wonderful carved angels out of a solid block of marble, and he answered, “I just chip away at anything that isn’t angel.” Over three three-hour brainstorming/visioning sessions, our stakeholder group exposed the heart and soul of the West Shore and developed something that speaks to the community, something people can relate to, something that makes them feel good about doing business with the Chamber, and, at the same time, makes them feel proud to live in the West Shore.
A brand is more than a logo, but if we look at the West Shore Chamber logo, we start to see the story it contains. There are two swooshes, one green and one blue, representing the region’s ocean and lakes and natural beauty; the arbutus tree has five stylized clusters of varying sized leaves representing the five municipalities of the West Shore, all growing together toward a bright future represented by the sun in the background. A simple logo that is the foundation of the brand, along with the positioning statement, “The art of island living.” The brand continues to show itself in the forward thinking, progressive philosophy of the organization it promotes. Small businesses can use this more inclusive, community-oriented approach to create a brand that will not only get buy-in from their existing customer base, but also potential customers looking for a company with a culture that speaks to them.
Whether you decide to use an outside consultant or not, the success of this approach is predicated on going out to talk to your customers and discovering how they view your company. What’s important to them when dealing with you? What is it that makes them buy from you rather than your competition? What makes you unique in their eyes? Ask them to sum up what they think about your company in a single sentence. Start by developing a short questionnaire based on these questions, or make up some of your own.
Once you have done your walkabout and have a newfound sense of how others see your business, put together a small group of, perhaps, a dozen people who will become your brand brainstorming/visioning group. Include customers, business acquaintances, your banker, accountant, lawyer — anyone with an open mind and your company’s interests at heart. Have a graphic designer attend the sessions to create images from the group’s ideas and a marketing consultant to develop the underlying philosophy. You will quickly discover what the heart and soul of your company is through the eyes of the people that are most important to your company.
The resulting brand will be made up of your company’s identity, essence, personality, image, character, and culture — it will be your brand, created for you by those people who are invested in your success, not something created in a sterile vacuum.