Lynn Baldwin-Rhoades talks with founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, Maria Ross, on how you can brand your business – on a budget! Maria revels in helping leading-edge companies big and small translate captivating stories into irresistible brands. Author of Branding Basics for Small Business (see below), Maria knows first-hand that creativity and cashflow are not mutually exclusive. Maria writes for Microsoft Small Business Blog UK, AMEX Open Forum, Sharp Skirts and WomenEntrepreneur.com and teaches, presents and blogs widely.
Lynn: You know, we hear lots about "branding," but what does that really mean? It's more than the look of the logo, although that seems to be the most common misconception. What's a more accurate picture of branding? And isn't branding just for big companies – not small ones?
Red Slice: I always like to describe “brand” as the mindshare that your business occupies in people’s brains. What parts “light up” when they see your logo, hear your name or do business with you? Is it the luxurious, classy, elegant, romantic part (Tiffany) or are you filed in the low-priced, good value but questionable community impact drawer (Walmart, perhaps?) If you think of brand as “reputation” you can see that it’s not all about what people see: it’s about what they hear and experience as well. So brand is expressed not just visually, but verbally and experientially as well. A strong brand helps attract more customers and makes sales “easier” within your target audience.
Given that definition, every company has a reputation, no matter what its size. And you can find hundreds of easy, low-cost ways to communicate that brand promise in everything that you do. Maybe a small business can’t afford to convey the brand through a slick, multi-million dollar ad campaign that airs nationally, but they can use the tools at their disposal – product quality, employee training, email signatures, social media – as a way to effectively communicate their brand. It’s not budget that matters, but how clearly and consistently you communicate the right message to the right people at the right time.
Power Chicks: Okay, you've convinced me. Branding is important. But for people who have already been in business for a while; is it too late for them to brand?
Red Slice: Absolutely not! In fact, you most likely have a brand already; you just might not be capitalizing on it or using it with intention. Again, going back to reputation, if you’ve been in business, customers have already associated certain strengths and weaknesses with you. The challenge might be that you have not intentionally fostered the image you want, and so one client might think of you one way based on their experience, and another may have a totally different one. And in fact, some of my best brand clients are those who’ve been in business and finally understand that the “brand story” they thought was coming through loudly and clearly is actually completely off the mark in terms of what value they actually offer! Or, they are looking to rebrand due to changes in their market, customers or offerings.
Brand also helps you stay honest and effective with your marketing decisions. Even if you’ve been around a while, developing a strong brand strategy to finally get back on track is a like a compass; it will help you make smarter investments – and say no to the wrong ones.
Power Chicks: What ideas do you have that can help folks brand without breaking the bank?
Red Slice: The biggest thing you can do on your own is just sit down and craft a brand strategy. That’s just an investment of time. Hole up in a coffee shop or comfy chair and think through your strengths, weaknesses, ideal customer, company personality, differentiators and messages. That is exactly why I wrote my book, as I wanted to give cash-strapped small business owners a way to walk through a ten question branding process themselves if they were so inclined. Themes will start to emerge, the same phrases will come into play over and over again, you’ll realize you keep mentioning the same three key value propositions that you offer customers, etc. All of that is fodder for your brand strategy and your messaging.
The biggest cheap resource for your brand efforts? Your own customers. Ask your best ones why they buy from you, what attributes do they associate with you, and what type of people they’d recommend you to. The insights can be priceless and you may uncover a strength you never knew your customers saw in you that you should be promoting more heavily. Tweet this tidbit!
Applying the brand cost-effectively just means ensuring you’re firing on all cylinders once your brand strategy is established. So look at every single customer touch point and use it as an opportunity to convey one consistent message. If “funky progressive solutions for 20-something entrepreneurs” is your thing, ensure your copy is sharp and casual, reword your auto-emails or voicemail signature to reflect the personality that appeals to that audience, get really active in social media by highlighting cool trends and time-saving tools so you are seen as the expert, maybe paint your office in hip, modern colors.
The key is, if you want to be “funky, progressive solution gal” then don’t let any customer interaction be conservative and boring. That just sends a mixed message. And same holds true the other way, because there are markets for everything: if your brand is about the lowest prices and simple value for senior citizens, then you don’t build a website with whizz-bang gadgets, complex interfaces and high-concept design that screams “20-something Mac user.” A confused prospect will simply become your competitor’s customer! People don’t work so hard to figure you out. And they won’t spend the time to do it!
Power Chicks: Maria, you've given us tons to think about – and act on as well. Thanks!
I can't let you go before I give your book a shout out. I 've read it and recommend it to my Marketing Shebang clients all the time. I recently saw this quote from one of your UK reader: "Your book should be in the hands of every business and only wished I'd come across it last year, there is so much value…"
Power Chicks Chime In: What did you learn from Maria's interview on branding? Would you call your current branding spot-on .. or way off? For those of you who've read Maria's book – reviews and/or learnings to share?
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