I know we talk about branding a lot on the USImprints blog, but today I’d really like to tackle something that is easily neglected: branding for small businesses.
After my rough draft, I realized I had to break this into two parts in order to reach the proper level of depth with this subject.
Today, we’ll talk about why small business branding is vital, and common small business branding approaches.
In my follow-up, we’ll take a more actionable look at how small businesses can focus on branding despite limited resources and explore how we at USImprints have been working to improve our own branding efforts.
In the business world, it seems we can never shut up about branding.
Brands. Brands. Brands. We love our brands. We proselytize and preach every little thing we can about why branding is a business’s salvation. We revere and painstakingly analyze every nanoscopic reason why particular brands are so great. We celebrate and define ourselves with these same brands, just as we persecute and distance ourselves from the bad eggs.
All this branding talk is almost always in the context of mega corporations pumping cash into branding, advertising, and other promotional activities with war chests so big, they make Scrooge McDuck’s tower of gold coins look like pocket change.
On the other hand, small businesses have scarce resources to develop their brand identity. And usually when we see smaller businesses with well-defined brands, they’re companies with high visibility & wide audiences (web, digital, & e-commerce) or businesses whose success and branding are directly linked (e.g., restaurants).
Branding is critically important for everyone; big and small
So what about the little guy? Should small businesses be focused on branding, and if so, why?
First, let’s take a look at some actual facts we know about brands and consumers. Here are some concrete things we know based off of the work of numerous studies:
- Even short exposure to brands impacts our choices and attitudes. More so when we don’t even realize we are absorbing brand messages [source]
- We build actual relationships with brands. For instance, consumers tend to build strong, trusting relationships with sincere brands. They usually have short-lived flings with exciting brands. [source]
- When faced with an overwhelming number of choices, consumers may value uniqueness because it helps them differentiate alternatives [source]
- Brand personalities can be both activated AND assessed without conscious effort from the consumer [source]
- When consumers are exposed to a brand’s logo their desire for whatever that brand embodies grows (e.g., prestige, creativity. etc.) [sources: 1, 2]
- At the core, strong brand relationships are rooted in beliefs of superior product performance [source]
Undoubtedly, brands are immensely complex and powerful. And as I’ll touch on later, they exist with or without an organization’s intentional efforts.
While smaller businesses exist that do just fine without brand management, the answer for any company that wants to grow is absolutely yes. Branding is vital.
Though, I couldn’t tell you what the size threshold is (depends on too many factors, industry, regional/local/nationwide business, B2B or B2C etc.), there is a point where neglecting brand hurts everyone involved. I’d go as far to say that once a small business reaches a certain size, it’s irresponsible to customers and employees to not take the reins of their brand.
It’s not what you think – Why small businesses need to build brands
The why is a different story.
If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve done some reading about branding before, so I don’t want to repeat a lot of the same reasoning you hear. Most of it is externally focused; all about the consumer.
Instead of status quo, I’m here to tell you the primary reason why even small businesses need to focus on branding is internal.
It boils down to this: if you build your brand well, you’ll be building your company well. The two have to be congruent or else consumers will ultimately identify your brand reputation as something other than what you want.
Branding is about improving your business from the inside out
Much like good pipework, strong brands make sure everything is connected tightly, and that there is a continuous direction of flow throughout the entire business. When small businesses sprout beyond the first few, closely-knit employees into larger, more complex machines, any conscious effort at creating a brand helps keep everything self-contained; doing what the business does best; doing what the business is known for.
I know I just said that branding affects the way a business operates, but I need to change that language:
Brands define the way businesses operate.
The Birth of Modern Brand Management
Let’s look at a textbook example of this: Procter & Gamble’s “Brand Man” Memo.
The birth of modern brand management is often credited to a memo written in 1931 by P&G employee, Neil McElroy.
Procter & Gamble has long been a company sprawling with multiple product lines, divisions, and brands. McElroy recognized that there was too much chaos within the company and between its various brands.
Not only was McElroy’s Camay soap division having to compete with rival companies, he found the Camay line competing with P&G’s own Ivory soap brand.
McElroy insisted that not only should each brand have a single person overseeing the brand and every operational function within it, but a small team to help with other tasks so the “brand man” can keep their attention on the big picture.
Instead of unwittingly competing against themeslves, instituting formal brand management allowed Procter & Gamble to market Camay and Ivory to separate target markets. Within this structure, each brand had central oversight, ensuring that every business component adhered to the brand. Within this brand oversight, decisionmaking within the company was able to be decentralized while still being effective.
As evident from this classic example and its lasting influence: branding has always been more about shaping the internal guts of the business than the outward appearance.
And just to further demonstrate the influence of the Brand Man Memo, take a look at this comparison of the memo and a present day brand manager job description.
The brand is the central nervous system
There’s nothing easy about branding, though. In many ways, you might look at it as the central nervous system of a business. A strong brand keeps the entire body consistent within itself. Imagine if our conscious minds were responsible for every little thing within our body.
Keeping our hearts beating.
Concentrating to remember to breathe regularly.
All the way down to tiniest minutiae – maintaining our digestive system and even regulating white and red blood cell production.
You get the point; good luck with that!
Just as it’d be impossible for us to function if we had to make a conscious effort to handle every single thing within our bodies, management can’t possibly oversee every little detail; even in small businesses.
Otherwise, each department is merely going to do what they’re supposed to do. Sales will sell. Customer service will do all they can to keep customers satisfied. Marketing will focus on growth opportunities. Product development will make new stuff to sell. Accounting will keep the books and make sure the company is liquid enough to function. Ad infinitum.
All of these divisions must avoid butting heads and running into each other. Just as important, they also need to work together.
A good idea might actually be a bad idea if it doesn’t fit within the parameters of the brand.
And this is precisely why branding is so important within the business itself. This is exactly what prompted Neil McElroy to break P&G’s practice of 1 page memos and take a chance by outlining the modern brand manager.
The point being, because every single element of the business is involved, managing a brand is hard. Incredibly hard.
How small businesses are managing brands wrong
Most smaller businesses get branding wrong by either:
- Not making a concerted effort to create and maintain a brand
- Assuming that managing their brand is only cosmetically maintaining the ‘face’ of their business.
Historically, even we’ve been guilty of each of these acts. Even to this day, we are making many improvements with our branding and making sure we’re approaching it right.
The problem with assuming brands are like faces and not more like a central nervous system is that, at a certain point, inconsistencies become too evident. The face wears a bright smile and tells everyone how great everything is, meanwhile the rest of the body is twisted up like a human pretzel.
Internally, great brands establish two things:
- Expectations of how each part of the business should operate and the role of each
- Parameters and limits of each division
Returning to the human body analogy, the right arm knows the structure of the entire body. The right arm also knows that the legs are key for walking, yet also plays its own, smaller role in helping the rest of the body walk. Finally, with the help of the nervous system, the right arm knows its limits and thus won’t risk damaging itself or the body by attempting anything beyond those limits (parameters).
Different classes of small businesses
For small businesses, branding can be especially hard because it is possible to run a profitable small business without any real effort in branding. This naturally creates varying levels of small businesses. You have small businesses that operate just to achieve a functional goal: sell enough to keep the lights on. I like to classify these as unevolved businesses. Much like animals in the wild exist entirely on the premise of survival, so do these companies.
On the other hand, you have small businesses that are much more sentient. These businesses share the impetus to survive, but also seek to exist beyond a basic level of survival. Maybe they also seek an impact on community, expansion and growth, or innovation; all are possible areas of focus for what I’d classify as an evolved business.
Success to one is surviving, success to the other is thriving.
So in light of this simple classification, we can ask: Is there such a thing as a brandless business?
No — the closest you can get is a business with a generic brand.
What do I mean by generic brand? Here’s a really loose formula: general opinion consumers have of all known businesses within an industry + the services/products they provide + any industry stereotypes + and how they feel about having to pay for those services or products + how good the business is at what they do, and you arrive close to what can be considered a ‘generic brand’ (if it doesn’t already exist, I’m sure an improved definition could easily be formulated by someone else).
Common types of branding approaches in small businesses
With this in mind, I see several common approaches to branding in small business. In fact, these approaches aren’t even limited to small businesses.
These assumptions start with the principle that in spite of any branding efforts, all companies establish a brand over time.
- Organic Branding – like an untended lawn or garden, the brand naturally grows through the business
- Parented Branding – businesses that have had some level of concerted effort invested in their branding
- Synthetic Branding – businesses that attempt unnatural brand development, much like trying to create life from a mad scientist’s lab experiment
- Fraudulent Branding – often the result of synthetic branding; companies whose branding is a contradiction
An organic brand is incredibly common because it is the default approach, and often leads to the creation of generic brands. Still, there are plenty of businesses that have established good brands with organic branding. In a lot of these cases, these brands are maintained by transitioning into parented branding.
A parented brand borrows from the idea that, as businesses, we have the most influence over our brands, but like children, we cannot program them like robots. Instead, parented branding understands the kind of brand they want to be. This understanding is applied in various ways in order to give the brand the best opportunity to grow up accordingly.
We often see synthetic branding with organizations that don’t understand the all-encompassing nature of branding. It could also be looked at like an outside-in approach. If the company simply creates the perception that their brand is something, then it will become true within the company. Synthetic branding has a wide scope because it can range from taking an ‘overbearing parent’ role with your branding to trying to create something from nothing.
Synthetic branding often leads to a common problem we see in businesses of all sizes: fraudulent branding. This is a case where consumers realize that there is a mismatch in brand identity. The company is telling one story, but the story the consumer experiences is contradictory. Just like with actual fraud, fraudulent branding has heavy consequences on a company and its reputation.
Basically, a brand is defined by how it is perceived from external factors (consumers), but we control almost all the factors that determine how we are perceived. We don’t dictate our brands in the same way that saying we can walk on water makes it true, but the power of influence is ours.
Why is easy. What about how?
Smaller and medium-sized businesses rarely have the luxury of brand management teams devoted to creating and maintaining brand standards within the company. One thing about business growth, is that there is no recommended point where business owners and employees should sit down and unify their branding across the entire business.
Hopefully, by this point there’s no mistaking that branding is crucial for any business and should be done with an inside-out focus. As mentioned earlier, practical advice for improving branding and internal operations is beyond the scope of this particular article, but the best starting block is to take some of the concepts discussed and apply it to your organization.
A very simple framework might look something like this:
- Assess if you would consider your organization an unevolved or evolved business
- Assess your organization’s approach to branding (organic, parented, synthetic)
- Assess what type of brand identity you are establishing through all business activities
- Discuss with key decision makers what type of brand identity you would like to have
- Find out how your customers perceive your brand
- Begin implementing brand standards that improve congruency across all departments
- Repeat process to refine and improve
Like I said, very basic framework. There are a lot of details in each of those general steps that could lead to a more successful implementation.
Remember, smaller businesses make up for a lack of resources by naturally having more favorable brands, and by being more nimble. It is much easier to invest trust in all employees to operate within the brand, while also being easier to get oversight from those in charge when there are grey areas.
This leaves plenty of room for experimentation! Just like we learn how to define our individual personality as we grow up, businesses better figure out their brand personality as they mature.