Branding Your Small Business


Expert advice from branding experts for entrepreneurs.

No matter how innovative a product or service, a business needs a clearly defined brand to set it apart from the competition. Yet, effective branding is a concept often wrought with mystery and confusion.

To help with the process, many business owners turn to branding experts for an outside perspective.

“A brand is a promise about the purpose, quality and dependability of a product or service,” states McGhee Williams Osse, co-CEO of Burrell Communications Group. “Outside firms can bring impartial perspectives and expertise to the process.”

Carolyn Grisko, president of Carolyn Grisko & Associates, seconds that perspective. “Branding is the process of identifying the unique characteristics and current positioning of your organization and communicating these elements through visuals and messaging,” she says. “An outside perspective is the best way to get this big picture view.”

“The process should begin with the end in mind,” Ms. Grisko adds. “You’re not creating the brand for yourself, but rather one that speaks to your targeted audiences.”

Developing a brand begins with some serious soul searching to determine what sets a company apart. Entrepreneurs should first take a hard look at their business objectives and be clear about what they want to accomplish, advises Rashada Whitehead, president of Flowers Communications Group. Mary Bahr, president and creative director of MAB Advertising, says her firm frequently starts the branding conversation by asking the client to name the words they most often use to describe themselves.

“Sometimes company owners are in a big rush to get to the design phase, when what they really need is to better define their mission, business objectives and target market,” she explains. “The visual aspects, such as a color palette and fonts, should complement the verbal representations of your company, so everything is cohesive and consistent.”

Ms. Bahr encourages business owners to choose a simple branding message and avoid buzzwords. “Don’t rely on overused terms like ‘solutions’ or ‘unique,’” she continues. She also emphasizes the importance of creating a distinctive and appropriate voice. “If you’re in a service business, you may need a more formal approach, but if you’re selling products like beer, you can be snarky and flippant because your customers will relate to that.”

Most firms that provide branding services suggest testing a number of messages and getting feedback before making a final decision. It can be time-consuming, but the results will be well worth it.

Measuring a brand’s success should also be part of the equation. “If your internal and external audiences feel your brand aligns with your organization’s goals,” Ms. Grisko says, “then the brand is successful.”

Ms. Osse suggests additional means of measuring success, such as attitude and awareness studies, plus satisfaction surveys. Advertising effectiveness studies can quantitatively measure how well the brand is communicating its story and/or benefits.

Selecting a branding expert to work with should be based on a number of factors. Branding firms that have many services under one roof can create synergy, maximize resources and build a brand with longevity. “Interview firms that offer integrated capabilities, as well as those that specialize solely in branding, and look for capability as well as chemistry,” Ms. Whitehead advises. “The likeability factor is often the tie-breaker.”

Fees for these services vary widely, but experts agree companies should be clear about the services they’re receiving.

“Many branding companies will get you to point A,” says Ms. Bahr, noting that the cost for a new product or company name may not include charges for a logo design or printing. “Small companies in particular should know when to stop the meter.”

The branding process involves an investment of time, thought and resources. If business owners have a clear idea of what their product or service stands for at the onset, they’ll be a step ahead.

“Outside firms can fill in all the other blanks,” Ms. Osse says. “After that, I’d advise women business owners to stay the course. Branding doesn’t happen overnight.”


About Hedy M. Ratner

Hedy M. Ratner is founder and co-president of the Women's Business Development Center, the largest, oldest and most comprehensive and successful women's business assistance center in the U.S. She blogs about entrepreneurship, working women, success stories, small business and more in “Windows to Business Success.”