I'm a small business - why do I need a brand?

If you are a small firm or a sole trader, you could be forgiven for thinking that branding is not for you. "Big names spend money on branding, small companies just get on with the job" is a typical response when small businesses are asked about their brand activities. But this perception is wrong, as Rachel Miller writes

Even if you do "believe in branding", it may come low on your to-do list after vital day-to-day tasks that keep your customers happy and keep revenue coming in. That's understandable.

Why do small firms need a brand?

So how can I convince you that branding matters - whether you are a window cleaner, a solicitor or run a restaurant?

Perhaps the first thing to do is to tackle the wording. If you were to replace the word "branding" with "reputation" I might get your attention. You care about your reputation, right?

Well branding is all about the impression you make. If you want to succeed, that impression should do two jobs - it should convey what is special about your business and it should show you in a positive light.

Of course, many small businesses make a good impression most of the time without ever giving a thought to their brand. But think how much more successful you would be if you gave a good impression all of the time.

What I am advocating is that you think about the impression you want to make - your brand - and actively take steps to manage it.

There are two parts to this process. Firstly, you have to decide what you stand for - what your USPs are, who you are aiming at and how you want to position yourself. Then you need to make sure that all aspects of your business are in line with this.

It's about applying your values to everything you do, clearly and consistently.

There are many small firms that have seen real financial benefits as a result of improving their brand. Fiona Humberstone, managing director of Flourish Studios, has worked with many one-man-bands and small businesses. "For instance, we worked with a plumber on his logo," reveals Fiona. "He used it on some new business cards which he distributed in his area and immediately got three new jobs. We've also helped a management consultant with her branding. We redesigned her proposal document as well as providing a new logo and website. As a result, every proposal that she has made that year was accepted - a 100% success rate."

Mark McCulloch, founder of Spectacular Marketing says, "You have a brand whether you like it or not. It's best to embrace that and find the best way to connect your brand with your target audience."

Mark worked with a company called Exhilaration some years ago that sold experience days out and was run by a husband and wife team that loved sky-diving. The business came to a crossroads when it had to develop its online presence.

"It was a tiny company with a tiny marketing spend," says Mark. "The name was good - Exhilaration summed up what they did - but their communications were very dry and didn't convey the excitement of what they were selling at all."

Mark transformed the company's literature and their website and injected the excitement that was missing. "Personality was everything, so we gave all the communications a new tone of voice," he says. Not only did customers respond but suppliers and investors also sat up and took notice. The result? "Their turnover rose from £1 million to £3.5 million and they became second in the market," Mark reveals. Exhilaration went on to be bought by Lastminute.com.

Creating the right impression

But if you don't think branding is for you, you are not alone.

"Many small business owners I meet think that brands are something that only large companies need or can afford," says Bryony Thomas of Watertight Marketing. "But your company name, the way you answer the phone, what your customers say when they're asked about you - these things all build to create an impression of your company and what it's like to do business with you - and that is your brand. So, you can either just let whatever impression you give happen haphazardly, or you can take control and manage it to your advantage."

One small firm that has benefited by developing its brand is Gradwell, the Bath-based small business ISP. "I tended to pick marketing up on the rainy days, and then drop it again. I'd never really given it much focus," reveals managing director, Peter Gradwell. "We had grown organically among tech enthusiasts, but knew that for major growth we'd need to appeal much more widely."

Bryony undertook market research and discovered that Gradwell's existing image was off-putting to less tech-savvy small business owners. A new brand identity addressed this.

"It was a really tough decision to spend money on something that wouldn't directly generate leads.  It was about building the foundations," says Peter. "But, I'm absolutely sure that it was the right thing to do. It has had huge benefits across everything we do. To give a tangible example, we were approached by Hewlett-Packard to appear as a pretty high profile case study, and I'm sure they wouldn't have shared a stage with us if we hadn't looked as polished as we now do."

It goes to show that your brand may be just as important to your relationships with partners and suppliers as it is to your customers. Take Best Years, a supplier of knitted toys to independent and high street retailers. " Brand is extremely important to us," says commercial director, Gaynor Humphrey. "We have worked hard to put a distance between ourselves and our price-driven competitors. A strong brand boosts traffic to our website. And if our brand values chime with the values of retailers they are more inclined to buy from us. Our foot is halfway through the door before they have even met us!"

Dee Blick, author of Powerful Marketing on a Shoestring Budget for Small Businesses, has worked with many small businesses on their branding. "Branding doesn't take shed-loads of money. It takes passion and time and thought," she says. But you neglect your brand at your peril, she warns. "Businesses don't own their own brand, they are custodians of it. Perceptions can alter quickly. Brands are constantly evolving and they need a lot of tending."

The message is clear. If you've got a business, then you've got a brand. What you do with it is up to you.


9 tips for starting out in design

 

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We ask a panel of top designers: if you could give one tip to a designer just starting out, what would it be?

When you're just starting out in you design career, everything can seem like a struggle. You can ease the pain by having the right drawing tools and learning from inspiring design portfolios, but even so there's bound to come a time when you find yourself asking whether it's all worth it.

Everyone's been there, though; even the mightiest creative director has found themselves considering jacking it all in and running away to become an accountant at some point.

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And so we asked nine leading designers to come up with their top tips for anyone starting out in design. Read them and see your career in a whole new way.

For further career-enhancing tips from more top designers, take a look at Computer Arts issue 250.

01. Know your niche

Creative director Mads Jakob Poulsen says: "Think about what you can contribute to the world of design. What's your niche? What's your special secret weapon? Don't be like everyone else – do what you think is fun."

02. Have a singular vision

"If you make things the way you think they ought to be, they're more likely to be what you'll be asked to make going forward," says Spin's Tony Brook. "It took me a long time to fully understand this."

03. Be versatile

Anagrama's Sebastian Padilla comments: "A designer needs to be versatile, like a Swiss Army knife. You need to be comfortable with working in broad fields such as typography, composition and copywriting."

04. Refine your skills  

"Hone your skill set," says Matt Howarth of ilovedust. "Whether digitally orby hand, work hard on your craft every day and in time you will find a style that you are comfortable with and, most importantly, enjoy doing."

05. Follow your heart

Dawn Hancock of Firebelly says: "None of us really know what the hell we're doing, but if you think with your heart and go with your gut, it will all work out in the end."

06. Lose the attitude

"My tip for a new, young designer starting their career is to lose any sense of entitlement you may have," says Steve Simmonds of weareseventeen. "Just because you've studied for three or five years doesn't mean you can come into the industry and expect it to be easy. This sounds harsh, but I get young designers all the time telling me what they are and aren't willing to do from day to day.

"You must remember that it's not just graduates fighting for their place in this industry; seasoned pros and entire companies are fighting too and good attitudes make all the difference. Be keen and enthusiastic: it goes a long way. Bread and butter work is a staple in any studio, so expect to be heavily involved in a lot of this at first. Don't expect to be working on all the bigger studio projects. This will happen in time; just approach the bread and butter stuff with bags of enthusiasm and make those projects shine unexpectedly. Do this and your rise through the ranks will be swift."

07. Stay the course

Becky Bolton of Good Wives and Warriors says: "Our general tip for people is to just try and stick with it! A creative career is going to be peppered with rejection and potentially confusing times. Without sounding too trite, it's important to try and believe in the value of your work and keep pushing through the times when you feel like quitting!"

08. Take risks

Ady Bibby of True North says: "Stand for something. Take risks. Don't be happy to merge into the mediocrity of creativity out there."

09. Only work with people you like

Designer and teacher Fred Deakin comments: "Biggest lesson: only work with people you like on projects you care about. If you take your time to make great work then eventually the money will come."


DE-BRANDING AS RE-BRANDING AND INTERNAL EQUITY (OR BRAND MYOPIA)

Strange as it may sound, some of the most important work we do does not involve building or even refreshing brands, but simply finding brands to retire.  I hesitated to use the word “simply” because it’s rarely simple. What stands between brand retirement and simplicity is that old bogeyman, Internal Equity—that and the business cultures that create and sustain it.

Internal Equity is often just a euphemism for a non-rational attachment to brands on the part of their stewards. These are typically product developers, marketers, sales personnel and managers of the P&L centers who believe they are dependent on the existence of these brands to meet required business results. The delusion is that the level of awareness and perceived value ascribed to these brands by internal stakeholders is also shared by the market.

To be sure, this is not always a case of brand myopia. Sometimes internal stakeholders do have very clear, accurate and evidential knowledge of a brand’s true worth or market value: the internal and external attachments match. But more often than not, the phenomenon of Internal Equity is rooted in phantom logic.

Such delusions are easy to come by. Saturated day in and day out by the same brand messages, names, logos and even by regular contact with the product itself, brands take on a life of their own. From there, it is easy to project value unwittingly, outwardly. The world, however, may see things quite differently (or see them not at all).

The late Wally Olins, of Wolff Olins and Saffron, sums up the issue with characteristic concision in his posthumous book, Brand New:  “How do businesses assimilate the companies and brands they acquire so that they fit comfortably into the whole without losing the characteristics for which they were acquired in the first place?’’

We might go further and ask,  should they assimilate them at all, or is it better to allow them to persist on their own, tethered to the parent by a long, thin, invisible thread, if only for a time? And with that we are in the realm of brand architecture—how to manage and deploy one’s valued strategic assets to catalyze business performance and/or achieve certain strategic ends.

What we have found in our work with clients is that quite often the majority of acquired items in a portfolio are not (nor ever have been) brands in any robust sense. They are usually mere trade names (sometimes trademarked, sometimes not). They have no marketing budget, effort or apparatus to support, manage or grow them. While they may be bought and sold by customers, they have no inherent brand equity; they are not actively marketed, advertised or otherwise promoted. They are not brands. It’s at that point of discovery that we invoke and apply one of branding’s cardinal rules:

The Brand Parsimony Principle: create and manage the smallest number of competitive brands that you can actively and effectively manage, leverage and grow.

Which brings us to the nub of the matter: how one determines—effectively and economically—whether a beloved brand truly is a brand or is a counterfeit, a mere trade name, not so well-known beyond the halls of the business it originates in. The obvious but expensive answer is to conduct formal research into what customers and prospects know, don’t know or think they know. Budget constraints often rule out this option, especially if the need is to make determinations about a large number of brands.

So, while quantitative testing, with statistically significant sample sizes, is almost always preferable, it’s also expensive. So what’s the alternative (apart from blissful self-delusion)? BrandingBusiness has developed a brand research instrument to answer the Internal Equity question.

Based on logic and experience, we have identified a set of dimensions that help us assess brand status (awareness and equity) indirectly.  To get to such a point, we do not ask for judgments, estimates or best guesses about a givenbrand’s market value, level-of-awareness or equity. Rather, we ask questions which admit of quantitative answers, along dimensions that we think can tell us something significant about brand status, things like: product history (number of years in existence), clientele (number of active customers); competition (total number of competitive products in the market); promotional support (whether or not a brand has a dedicated marketing/advertising budget or not—and how much, etc.).

We used these dimensions with success for the Process Systems (PS) division of Saint-Gobain’s global Performance Plastics business. PS designs and manufactures fluid management technology—advanced tubing, pumps, valves, manifolds, gaskets and seals—for highly specialized, often demanding applications.

Using the BrandingBusiness equity protocol, we assessed their portfolio of over 50 SKU’s and identified just four genuine brands around which the total offer could be organized, simplified and more effectively marketed and sold. In the end (or in the new beginning), we re-purposed them as functionally defined lead (line) brands, refreshed their individual identities, and assembled them into a new, more equitable and navigable architecture.


Design Matters with Debbie Millman FT Matteo Bologna

Matteo Bologna

Matteo Bologna is the founder and principal of Mucca Design. His multidisciplinary background in architecture, graphic design, illustration and typography facilitated his early business successes and inspired his decision to create a New York branding and design agency. As creative director, he oversees and inspires every project with energy, intellect, and a quick wit. Matteo is the Vice President of the Type Directors Club, and is frequently asked to lecture about branding and typography around the world.