Seth Godin once defined a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another.”
Yeesh. That’s a lot of pressure for a new small business.
Fortunately, there’s no better time to build a brand as when you don’t have any old cobwebs to clean out. As the old saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today.
The same is true for brands.
True: it can be hard to absorb brand-building lessons from the likes of marketing gurus and behemoths like Coca-Cola when you’re just starting out. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Day One is the best time to begin the “expectations, memories, and relationships” that will eventually constitute your small business’s brand. Here’s what to keep in mind as you take those first steps:
Choose the Style of Your Brand First
What is your small business’s “voice”?
Ello, for example, brands itself as “the creator’s network.” Their minimalistic, no-frills design serves to highlight those creators. Visit them on Twitter and you’ll find the same voice: their Twitter bio merely reads, “The Creators Network.” They’ve chosen a minimalistic, creative voice and they’ve stuck to it.
MailChimp is more playful. Their logo is pleasantly cartoony, their use of color is bright with pastels, and their Twitter bio describes them as “Build your brand, sell more stuff.” It’s clear that while they want to offer professional services, they don’t take themselves too seriously. They fit right in with the younger companies looking to build their online presence with services like MailChimp.
Brands can run the gamut from playful and silly to downright serious and luxurious. The key to choosing the right style is picking one that suits your audience. If you sell baked goods online, then there’s a good chance you want your branding to be as colorful and playful as your confections. If you’re selling automotive repair services, then you want a brand that emphasizes reliability and security. In short, your brand’s style needs to reflect the perception you want your customers to have.
As Shopify notes, this early reflection can inform some of the other critical steps in brand-building, including:
- Business name
- Consistency of content across website, blogs, brochures, and social media
Start Off Running
Once you’ve chosen your brand, the next steps should be simple. You don’t have to wait until customers give you credibility—you can start off your brand with a specific target audience in mind and simply begin business as if you’ve been there for five years already.
That said, there are some areas where it’s more important to start off than in others. For example:
- Customer relationships. Keep in mind Seth Godin’s advice about a brand being made up of individual customer stories. No matter how much work you do to make your brand appear customer-friendly, none of it will matter unless you can actually be customer-friendly. That means investing in CRM that makes it possible to engage with customers in an organized way.
- Be generous with your information. Press kits, brochures, blogging, social media—the more transparent you are about what your brand is supposed to mean, the more people will get the message.
- Craft an “elevator proposal.” The idea behind the elevator proposal is simple: if you can craft a short, 30-second introductory presentation on what your company does and which problem it solves, then you have a clear brand. If you can’t, then you need to work on it. Make sure that your branding inspiration can be distilled into a simple explanation.
- Create content. Whether it’s a bakery scheduling a social media blitz for “National Donut Day” or simply a SaaS blog, you’ll want to start creating content as soon as possible. That won’t only give you more credibility as your brand goes, but it will help establish a starting point.
Find a Way to Be Different
Although it’s important to take lessons from successful brands, you don’t ever want to copy-and-paste their branding strategy for your own.
Why? For starters, they likely don’t share your target audience. Many of us would love to enjoy the branding quality of a Wendy’s—but if your target audience is elderly vegans, you might have trouble selling to them the same way Wendy’s sells quick burgers.
It starts with identifying your target audience and building an ideal customer profile. Get into the details of what makes your audience unique. Ask these questions:
- Who is the person who comes to a brand like yours to do business?
- What kinds of problems are they having that your brand can step in and solve?
- How can you communicate that you are indeed the solution for them simply by showing off your brand?
These questions will go to the heart of your branding message—and more importantly, they’ll make you resonate with your target audience come decision time.
Keep Dancing in the Dark
As Bruce Springsteen tells us, “you can’t start a fire without a spark.” That means that even before you build a consistent audience with your brand, you will feel like you’re shouting in a vacuum—or, better yet, dancing in the dark. You’re putting forth all sorts of effort to get your brand noticed, but no one’s paying attention.
The key is to keep at it. Keep on dancing in the dark. And don’t be afraid to tweak your brand along the way if you find out that your first instincts weren’t correct. Brands as large as AirBNB have re-done their logos and even changed colors as they grew, slowly aligning themselves to the brand they want to portray, not the brand from which they started.
Ambitious words like “branding” might seem like they’re out of bounds for startups and new small businesses. But every successful brand had to start with a seed. Just make sure that you get started with the right choice of seed when you start watering that brand of yours.