There’s nothing small about a small business owner. You are giants of the trade, and we know that. We also know there are tons of people who would get excited about your business if only they knew the story. This story is called branding, and today we’re teaching you how to tell it.
Brand is probably one of the most overused words today. And the reason seems to be that few people actually understand what it means. So—what even is a brand?
Let’s get scholarly and start with two very different definitions:
‘Brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.’ – American Marketing Association (AMA)
‘Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room’ – Jeff Bezos
In reality, your brand is a combination of these two things: what makes you different and what people think of you.
It’s the overall experience of your business: the feeling that your logo or any other branding material will evoke. If it all sounds a bit fluffy and intuitive, that’s because it is. Nevertheless, while a major part of your small business branding is making gut decisions, reaching the point where you are confident enough to make such decisions is a lot more structured.
How to use this guide
Branding is one of the key elements of setting up a new business, and just like business planning, setting up invoicing and accounting, it plays an essential role in your success (here’s a handy guide on the latter!)
But perhaps, you’ve looked into hiring a branding (or marketing) agency and thought: ‘I can do this myself. It’s my brand, who knows it better than I do?’
Truth is you can, and you should do branding, provided you have enough time and resources to dedicate to this complex process. This could mean hiring people to help you with specific tasks such as research, design, or content writing.
If you’re all caught up with developing the perfect product, your small business will benefit from some outside help when it comes to branding.
However, if you’re convinced that you can do it—fantastic! In this guide, we are going to teach you how to do it properly and why branding is important for your business. We’ll be going through each step, from the initial thought process to keeping your brand relevant.
This guide is definitely for you if you’re still trying to figure out what your brand will be. However, even if you’re running a successful business, you will find our guide helpful in case you’re considering rebranding, or as a checklist for keeping your brand up-to-date.
We’ve also compiled a quick Dos and Don’ts list that you can always refer back to.
What is branding and why is it important for small businesses?
Coca Cola is a brand. Apple is a brand. Google is a brand. Some of them make physical products, and some don’t. However, neither their products nor their services are their brands. Moreover, part of their global success lies in the quality of the offer, but another huge reason is great branding.
Branding is the process of building your brand in the customers’ minds. As a small business, you might lack the resources to continually develop new products and cutting-edge technology. But when it comes to good branding, you don’t have to lag behind the top players. In fact, branding is so important for small businesses since it helps you compete in a market that is more often than not oversaturated with similar offers to yours.
If you haven’t already, you should probably read Simon Sinek’s entrepreneurial bible Start with Why. You might be familiar with his central idea from this TedTalk.
In short, ask yourself this question: 'Why do I do what I do?’. As Sinek points out, ‘making a profit’ is never a reason to do something, it’s the result. So, if money isn’t an issue, this question can have a multitude of answers, the most important being:
- Because I want to solve this problem.
- Because I want to help these people.
- Because I want to solve problems/help people in this way.
One, or ideally, all of these will tell you what the purpose of your brand is. It’s unlikely your product/service alone makes your business unique. Instead, it’s the why of your offer that is the most important aspect of small business branding.
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Define your brand’s mission, vision, and values
So you start with the why: you need to know why you’re starting a small business in the first place. Once you’re clear on that you will want to translate this message into something that’s relevant and relatable to others. In Sinek’s terms, you want to move on to the how and what of it all.
Your mission tells people what you do. It should be short, clear, and memorable. If you produce toilet paper, your mission statement should just say: ‘We produce wonderfully soft toilet paper every day.’ Don’t get carried away with fluffy phrases like: ‘We believe touch is the most important of senses.’
Your vision tells people what you want to achieve in the long term. This is where you can get a little more creative, but still, bear in mind that it should relate to what you actually do. So if you design software, don’t say something like: ‘Our vision is to build bridges.’ Instead, go for: ‘Our vision is a world where everyone has access to great software that acts as a bridge between communities. We want our software to help people across the world communicate more effectively.’
Your values are a combination of your mission, vision and your ‘why’. They should explain how you work both on a daily level and how you want to achieve your long-term vision. Let’s have a look at 3 of our core values at ManyPixels:
Everything essential to our branding is there: the why (great design for everyone), how (cooperation and teamwork), and what (design made for your business).
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Choosing a name for your brand
Choosing a name for your brand is like choosing a name for your baby. Actually, it’s a lot harder.
It’s counterintuitive to our experience—we all get names before we have a sense of self, and grow into them. With small business branding, the process works in reverse: you should know who your brand is before giving it a name.
Think of your brand as a person and find 3-5 words to describe it. Of course, this will have to do with the purpose of your brand that you’ve identified. If your goal is to help ordinary people look like movie stars, then you’re probably trendy and glamorous. And if your purpose is to help older people use technology, then you’re smart, caring, and patient. Don’t limit your list to adjectives: decide if your brand is a mother or a child; does it float or run?
There are many ways to choose a name for your brand. Personally, I love a good brain dump: just put all your ideas out there (post-it notes, online whiteboard), no matter how wild or incomplete, and try to look for emerging patterns.
Another method is to go back to your descriptive words and try to combine them—I feel like Mothercare is a result of this process! Of course, it’s always good to get out of your own head occasionally and ask others for input (branding service professionals, customers, even relatives and friends).
Finally, when you’ve come up with a shortlist of ideas, make sure that you check if the domain is available and that you are able to register your brand (you’ll need to check this with your local authorities, like a public registry or a companies’ house).
Create buyer personas
You’ve probably talked about a target audience or potential customers. But before any of that, you need to think about buyer personas.
A buyer persona (or marketing persona) is a fictional character that represents your ideal customer. Remember to create different buyer personas for each of your products/services.
As a small business, you have to focus on reaching the right people. In the long run, understanding your customer helps you build trust, and trust is a vital element for business success.
However, first and foremost, buyer personas are essential for branding. You need to understand who wants what you’re offering. Only then will you be able to decide what kind of brand they will be drawn to.
Help your buyer persona “come to life” you should by filling in some key information about them such as:
- Name: Yes, you should give them a name even if it sounds silly. Buyer Persona 1 just doesn’t have the same ring to it as Bookkeeper Ben or Editor Elaine. You need to know and care about your buyer personas. As is the case with good literature, well-developed characters are the ones we care for, even though they don’t exist.
- Age: Obviously you understand the importance of this demographic information—it’s unlikely your small business branding will have the same impact on teens and people in retirement. Also, try to be as specific as possible here. Remember that an age range of 40 to 60 can mean people at very different stages of their lives.
- Job: If your product is something that appeals to a lot of different people, their industry and specific job role is what really helps create an effective buyer persona. A construction worker and marketing manager might both drink Coca-Cola, but how, why and when they buy it can differ quite a bit! Also, it’s a good idea to think about people’s jobs in terms of their age. If your business targets people who’ve had a career change, your message will probably stick the landing with 30+ year olds who are restarting their careers as interns.
- Salary: This is another obvious one. How much people earn will impact how much of that they are willing to share/invest in you.
- Goals/wishes: Remember, we’re creating characters here. So even if your product is toilet paper, it’s unwise to put 'buy toilet paper’ in this section. You’re not selling anything at this stage! Instead, think of your buyer personas’ big aspirations, both professional and personal. It’s unlikely that buying toilet paper is going to be their raison d’etre. But, if you know what is, then you’ll also be able to figure out what kind of toilet paper they would prefer.
- Fears:And the same goes for fears. Think of what really scares them, be it divorce, bankruptcy, or climate catastrophes.
- Where do they find information: Think about what kind of information they’re looking for. You guessed it, this too relates to what they want to achieve and what they are scared of. You need to find out where and how to reach them.
You can also add things like hobbies and family members, anything that seems relevant or important for your brand. For some more guidance, take a look at these 8 useful buyer persona questions. Remember to be as specific as possible, but be aware of adding characteristics which can exclude part of your customer base.
Rinse and repeat for each one of your buyer personas. By the end of the process, you should have an interest in this unique group of people. You should feel like you know them and care about what they think.
Where do you find the data?
Although you might be tempted to approach this fun, practically literary exercise with nothing but intuition, that’s not a very smart thing to do. You need to do your research and ground assumptions on your buyer personas in reality.
If you have a brick and mortar business, refer to your knowledge on existing customers. Ask them questions and focus on anyone who is a returning customer or referral. If you’re operating online, make sure to check out your website analytics (in particular how these people ended up on your website), email lists, social media analytics, or ask for input from your sales team. Finally, use your communication channels to gather data—conduct surveys, incentivize people to sign up for your emails, or take part in short interviews. You can easily encourage them to do it with small gift cards or samples of your product.
If you are at square one, all of this is going to be a little more intuitive, but the thinking behind it still applies.
Develop your brand’s visual identity
Many people think branding and visual identity are the same thing. And for good reason: the way your brand looks is how you are remembered. While all the previous steps are very important in small business branding, this one in particular is where your business could benefit from some outside help. Whether you want to hire a small business branding service or just outsource design, it’s essential that you at least have an idea of what your brand should look like.
Start by creating a mood board. This could be a virtual or physical place where you gather ideas. If you opt for making a digital mood board (which our planet would prefer :)), there are quite a few cool options, including Canva, Pinterest, Milanote, Gomoodboard.
Make sure to include everything: colors, fonts, photographs, patterns, texture, logos, ideas you jotted down on a paper napkin. Check out what your competitors are doing as well as any other brand you like—and that’s any brand, not just those in your industry.
Slowly, start working your way through this inspirational jungle. Narrow down ideas by asking yourself why you chose a particular piece of design inspo and how it relates to your brand. Then go back to your buyer personas and consider what they would like/dislike. Of course, you have to love how your brand looks. But if you’ve created buyer personas that are convincing enough, right at this point, they will appear as little voices in your head telling you their own opinions.
By the end of the process, your mood board should give out a ‘vibe’ of your brand—it should evoke feelings and thoughts that are connected to your brand’s purpose. Others should be able to talk about your mood board using the same or similar words you chose to describe your brand!
While designing your brand is dependent on both your and your buyers’ tastes, there is a science behind colors that you should, at the very least, be aware of. You probably won’t have to produce a scholarly article on why your brand chose the combination pink and blue. Still, understanding the basic concepts of color theory and color psychology is very important for two reasons:
- It helps you make informed design decisions.
- It can help you with day-to-day stuff like printing and designing for different channels.
Color theory concerns types of color and the way they are mixed. For the beginning, you should know that there are three main types of colors:
- Primary (red, blue, yellow)
- Secondary (green, purple, orange)
- Tertiary (mixes of primary and secondary colors)
In addition to that, you should differentiate between:
- Hue (pure color)
- Shade (color + black)
- Tint (color + white)
- Tone (color + grey)
So if you say: ‘I want my logo to be red,’ it doesn’t quite cut it. You should think about what kind of red it is. Is it pure red, a combination of red and orange, or a red with a touch of grey? Again, is your brand loud and vibrant or understated, elegant, and mysterious?
And since you probably won’t work with just one color (think text and background at the very least), you will also need to find a way to combine colors effectively. Now you probably know that red and green make a pleasant contrast, but have you ever wondered why? The color wheel is the foundation of color theory and something which helps us determine which colors match well.
Common color schemes include:
- Complimentary colors (two colors on opposite sides of the wheel)
- Analogous colors (three colors next to each other)
- Triadic (three colors equally spaced around the wheel)
It goes without saying that you should think carefully about how and when you use color combinations. Complimentary color combos are great if you want to emphasize something. On the other hand, they can also get boring (think again of red and green but over Christmas).
If you’re planning on doing your design, this lesson is a must!
You know how something can look beautiful on screen, but when you send it to the printers, your bright oranges turn to be dirt brown? Bad news: it’s not the printers’ fault.
In design, there are two main modes for mixing colors RGB (red-green-blue) and CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black). The two ways of mixing colors lead to a difference in the way colors are displayed. RGB colors are brighter and clearer, while CMYK colors are more subdued. For a better understanding of how it works, check out this video.
The use of analogous colors can serve as a great way to guide people’s visual experience (start from light and emphasize with darker/brighter colors).
In short, just remember that RGB is used for digital design, CMYK for print
Color psychology is the study of how different colors relate to human emotions/experiences. Since this relatively new field, it has delivered some contested findings. It’s also worth noting that traditionally, some colors have different meanings depending on where you are in the world (e.g., in Judeo-Christian cultures, black is the color of death and grief, while in many Asian countries it’s white).
Nevertheless, it’s worth considering what emotions your color choices might be evoking. Consider these common findings for some colors.
Of course, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. How your color choices will affect your customers will greatly depend on your brand and your customers! However, when you first start assembling your mood board, it’s good to think how colors you are leaning towards were used in different contexts (use contrasting examples and see which one your brand resembles more).
Another vital element of your mood board is text. Your small business branding inevitably includes a lot of writing (more on the actual content later). So you should be clear on what typography (fonts) you are using to get your message across.
Choosing the right font is another quite intuitive part of the branding process. You will probably be able to tell if a font looks ‘serious’ or ‘romantic,’ and this is also often related to our cultural experiences.
First of all, let’s distinguish between fonts and typefaces. A font is a family of typefaces, like Helvetica, Arial, Roboto. And then individual styles like Helvetica Bold or Helvetica Light are called typefaces. Choose no more than three fonts, as you want to keep your style consistent. You can always rely on different typefaces to add some diversity.
When it comes to fonts, there are 5 main types that you should be familiar with:
- Serifs: letters have a slight brush at the ends (or “feet” at the bottom)
- Sans serifs: clean ends, no strokes
- Slab serifs: larger serifs (strokes)
- Scripts: derive from calligraphy and cursive handwriting
- Hand lettering: a range of different fonts, include serifs and sans serifs; they mimic handwriting
You can find a fantastic, beginner-friendly guide on fonts here.
Again, give yourself ample time to make a decision that you’re going to be happy with. Here’s where a mood board can become your best friend—although two fonts may look exactly the same at the beginning, leave them on there for long enough, and their subtle differences will become the first thing you notice!
When it comes to small business branding, a great mantra to have is ‘dress for the job you want.’ If you are dreaming of your brand becoming a leader in the industry, then probably don’t opt for hand lettering that resembles children’s writing. On the other hand, if your brand is about children, this could be a great way to go!
Ok, so branding is a big deal for your small business. When it comes to visual identity, your logo is be-all and end-all. But no pressure!
If you’ve gone through the above steps and carefully considered your visual identity, finding the perfect logo won’t have to be a headache. That being said, professional logo design can truly be a worthwhile investment.
Perhaps you’ve seen funky logos but went as far as describing them as text or picture logos. Well, here are some common types of logos you may want to consider:
Perhaps you’ve seen funky logos but went as far as describing them as text or picture logos. Well, here are some common types of logos you may want to consider:
- Lettermarks or wordmarks: the initials or name of your brand (e.g., HBO, Google, McDonald’s)
- Symbols: a picture or symbol that represents your brand (e.g., Twitter and Airbnb)
- Abstract: images that aren’t a direct representation of your brand or name (e.g., Nike)
- Mascot: a character that is a mascot of your brand (e.g., KFC or Pringles)
- Emblems: they usually look vintage and include text inside a seal, icon or crest (e.g., former Starbucks logo, many universities)
- Combined: combinations of, for example, text and pictures (e.g., Burger King)
Make sure your logo is simple, memorable, and timeless. Don’t overcomplicate and try to fit everything in. I suggest you check out the new Heart and Stroke Foundation logo: it truly is a masterclass in effective simplicity! Even though their old logo wasn’t that complicated, by isolating just two elements (a heart symbol and a slash (stroke)), the foundation created a compelling visual identity.
Of course, make sure your logo is unique. Nike is at a stage where their swoosh is now very distinctive, but for good reason. It relates to the brand’s purpose: keeping people active. Still, if your small business goes with something too simple or generic, your logo might end up being boring and forgettable. That being said, remember that your logo won’t get to Nike stage overnight. A great logo will stand the test of time and become synonymous with your brand.
In that respect, don’t make a choice based on the current hot trend. If you’re lucky enough to have a business that’s going to be successful over a longer period, you may have to adapt your logo slightly. Here are some great examples of successful logo updates. Notice that the really clever ones were those that only needed a slight update, like McDonald’s, Apple, or Coca-Cola, which has barely changed since the 1940s!
For a useful checklist, refer to these 10 qualities your logo should have.
Find your voice
No matter how excited you are about it, remember that your brand isn’t you. Whether you’ll be hiring a content/copywriter or if you’re planning to do all the writing yourself—you need to find a specific style and tone that you will stick to.
This is the time to start thinking about your target audience. A buyer persona is an in-depth look at your ideal customer. When you think about a target audience, you need to be less specific, but still consider vital demographics such as age, gender, occupation, location. Essentially, think of a group of different people with a common interest in your brand.
Before you write anything, start reading. Look up everything: books, blogs, magazines, social media posts, newsletters. Again, not only from your industry but anyone whose writing you found compelling, interesting, and valuable.
Find two or three words to describe what you want your writing to be or do. For example, ‘I want my content to inform and ask questions’ or ‘I want it to be emotional but funny.’ Don’t shy away from contrasts like these: you should try to be different than your competitors while offering the same, or better yet, a higher value.
Make sure that anyone who is producing content for your brand is on the same page about your voice, tone, and style.
- Voice is essentially the way you talk/write. It’s your style, words, and expressions you use/don’t use.
- Tone is adaptable according to the situation. When you’re posting on social media, you’re probably going to be less formal than writing a proposal for potential investors.
- Style concerns what the writing looks like: where and how do you use capital letters, quotation marks, how you spell certain words, etc.
You can create a style guide or a simple chart that outlines specific characteristics of your writing (e.g., ‘Being informative means that we offer true and trusted information and reference data’). Include helpful examples as well as a few dos and don’ts (e.g. ‘Use scholarly sources for reference as much as possible.’ and ‘Don’t make claims that aren’t supported by data.’)
Adapt your voice for specific marketing channels
It kind of goes without saying: you probably wouldn’t share this article word-for-word as an incredibly long Twitter thread. While you’ll want to maintain a more professional tone on LinkedIn, if your brand is related to children, your website should present information in a way that even children should understand.
However, you still need to be consistent. If your website is very technical and serious and your social media sounds like Buzzfeed, potential customers will get confused about what your brand is.
Here again, it’s critical to know where your audience is at: which online space they’re occupying and how they look for information. Don’t waste resources trying to reach out to them on platforms they don’t use.
Make your story your customers’ story
Aaaand… again we go back to Sinek. Remember: great businesses sell their beliefs, not their products. Your story is what helps establish a connection between your buyers and your brand.
Think of your buyer persona. Is it your average Joe looking for a story of someone just like him, who understands his biggest dreams and challenges? Or is it the bold innovator looking to be pushed, inspired and learn something new?
This is an opportunity for you to frame your brand’s story in a way to meet (and hopefully exceed) your target audience’s expectations. Don’t give false information: saying that you dropped out of an Ivy League school just so you can build your brand, when in fact you had failed all your classes will probably come to haunt you at some point.
On the other hand, if you’re selling camping equipment, it’s ok to say that you got the idea one breathtaking evening you spent in the wild (even though it was in the shower one random morning).
Think of your values and your place in the world. Go beyond 'we provide a product or service and instead explain how this fits into big concepts like individuality, innovation, compassion, communication.
How about some examples?
Well, you can always rely on Apple to be a good one! This video story is dramatic and perhaps a bit cheesy, but the gist of it is what you should be aiming for. The power of this example is that the story of the brand becomes the story of its consumer.
Keep your brand relevant
I’d like this to be one of those dramatic moments where I say: now forget everything you’ve learned.
This, however, is not one of those moments. All the above steps are relevant and critical for understanding why branding is important and how it works. On the other hand, nothing lasts forever. Not even the Coca Cola logo (although it’s been pretty solid for over 100 years, it was unrecognizable between 1890 and 1891).
Everything changes at some point: design trends, the way we talk, marketing, the way people shop. To stay on top of your game, you need to be aware of these changes and adapt accordingly.
So how to stay fresh, hip, and relevant? Here are 3 simple tips:
Blog: The days of static websites are over. Those who blog regularly have over 50% more visitors than the average static site. This means that apart from making sure your products are top-notch, you also need to develop an effective content strategy (who you want to reach/how/why/to what end). If you’re ever stuck on ideas for more content, here’s an article of actual 101 ways to source content. That ought to do it!
Be present on social media: From using the right hashtags to posting frequency, there are many social media strategies that can help you stay ahead of the competition. As we said, you don’t have to be present on all the channels. Figure out where your customer base is and stay connected. If they are digital natives, don’t waste money printing catalogs—instead, get their attention with a stellar Facebook ad!
Keep thinking about your brand: What is branding without rebranding! Long-term branding success requires pushing boundaries and staying one step ahead of the competition. You’ll know you’ve got it right when you are confident enough to do something like Doritos’ no logo campaign. It’s brave, exciting, totally new. Sure, at the end of the day, it’s just crisps. But in the marketing/branding sphere, it’s changing the world as we know it.
Dos and Don’ts of Small Business Branding
1. Be unique. If you missed this the last three times: you need to be monitoring your competition. Not just because it helps you stay on top of your game (you don’t want to be worse), but because it helps you figure out your USP (unique selling point). Being unique is probably one half of a successful branding strategy.
2. Empower your customers. The other half is people liking what you do. It’s not about sales anymore. Good branding allows your customers to ‘live their truth.’ Share values and beliefs that they can identify with, and they will become lifelong customers, and likely even ambassadors of your brand. Make your story their story.
3. Create value. A product in itself isn’t value. Your brand needs to do more than what the customer pays for. Think about what matters to your customers - whether it’s a fair price, lasting quality, or innovation. Then take every opportunity to go the extra mile to deliver what they want.
4. Be consistent. Your brand is not you, but it should come from you. Don’t advocate something you don’t believe in. Every hour of every day, bear in mind your mission, vision, and values. It may sound cheesy, but it will help you understand and appreciate your brand better. And if you won’t, who will?
1. Don’t ignore trends, but don’t fall victim to them either. Let’s give a good and bad example. Coca-Cola celebrates Black History Month by showing the evolution of its iconic bottle and highlighting important dates from Black History. It’s simple, respectful and elegant. On the other hand, there’s Pepsi making it seem like a can of their soft drink is the solution to all the issues behind Black Lives Matter protests. Be relevant and trendy, but also aware of the limitations of your brand and its place in the wider world.
2. Don’t wait too long to rebrand. Even the big players rebrand, and so should you. Don’t wait for a drop in sales to start thinking about it either! Brands often need to change their image to appeal to a different audience, align with a new strategic direction, or simply become more relevant. Rebranding can include anything from updating your logo and visual identity, changing your website layout to upping your content game.
3. Don’t try to do everything yourself. So you’re a chef who makes fantastic burgers. Chances are you might fall short with graphic design or copywriting. Be realistic about what you can do and leave the rest to professionals. Platforms like Upwork and Fiverr are great places to find skilled freelancers. For all your graphic design, we suggest you check out our simple, inexpensive approach for all your design needs.
4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you advertise your product as ‘the best’, chances are many people won’t believe you. Even if you think you are the best, is there any way you can prove it? Make sure your customers’ expectations are realistic. Work to exceed them, of course, but at the very least, promise what you know you’re able to achieve.
Why is branding important for small businesses? In short, you cannot achieve commercial success without good branding. Whether you’re planning on doing everything in-house or getting help from small business branding services, you need to understand how the process works. As we have explained, branding is not a one-time thing. It will remain a relevant aspect for as long as you have a running business
Good branding starts with introspection (why) and ends with advocacy (why you/me/this). You are building your brand around your vision of what the world should look like. No, that’s not an overstatement. This is how your small business can survive in a world where each industry has its giants.
The body of the elaborate construction is that your brand consists of audience awareness, style consistency and a unique offer.
Finally, remember that brand development is a never-ending process. If you’ve done everything else well, your brand will only need slight tweaks now and then. The trick here is to ditch the ‘small’ of small business. Your revenue might make you a small business, but the goal with your brand is to build something timeless.