Posted on: 24 February 2015

What branding should mean to your business

Small business owners are having to work harder than ever to get a share of peoples’ attention and hold it long enough to build a relationship and make a sale. On top of this, as we live more of our lives online it gets ever harder for small businesses to stand out.

Along with the quality, type and uniqueness of the products and services you sell, your brand is a fundamental part of your business. Despite it being intangible, it could be your most valuable asset.

Steve Dixon was brand guardian and creative director of the ghd hair and beauty brand until its sale in 2007. Since then he has worked with brands such as Greggs the Bakers, Skype and The Car People, amongst many others. He now runs brandthing, a successful marketing consultancy. Here he shares his views on the importance of branding and how to get the most out of your own brand

What is branding?

“Despite what many people think, your brand is not just your logo or motif,” begins Steve. “It consists of a lot more than a design and certainly isn’t something that can be created overnight.”

That’s because your branding is multifaceted. It is made up of everything that your business represents, from your product packaging, through to the quality of your after-sales support, to how you and your team present yourselves.

To put it another way, here’s a definition of brand from Seth Godin, the entrepreneur and author: “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”

Why is branding important?

For someone to choose to do business with you rather than your competitors, you need to stand out. Steve says that the era of the USP (unique selling point) is past, and that it’s now all about how you do things, not what you do.

“That’s not to say that product and service quality are unimportant,” he says, “it’s just that the uniqueness of products and services is diminishing because they can be copied. What can’t be copied is your brand.”

Your brand has the opportunity to create an unbreakable bond between you and your customers. Think of Apple, the world’s top ranked brand1. As Steve points out, “Apple’s products haven’t always been the best on the market, but what is undeniable is the value of the branding.” People flock to buy Apple’s products because of the entire Apple experience – when new stores open the queues stretch around the block and people often cite Apple’s website as the best there is. This clearly demonstrates the importance of branding.

Striving for this unbreakable bond with your customers is worthwhile for any business, whatever sector you’re in, for two reasons:

  1. It forces you to define what you stand for and therefore how you present your business to your audience to build a relationship
  2. It improves the way you promote your business to the market by moulding your marketing activity to your customers’ needs.

“Ultimately your brand represents how your business is going to make your customers feel special every day,” states Steve, “which has the added advantage of helping give you a sense of direction too.”

The branding activities you can do today

Branding activities take many forms, including giving yourself space to think about your business and how it presents itself to the market. Defining your brand, asking your customers how they perceive your brand and researching your competitors’ brands are three key activities that will benefit your business.

We’ve already established that there are several elements to consider when branding your business. These can be summarised as:

  1. Brand attributes: the physical features of your products and the characteristics of your services – such as the superior quality of the materials a decorator uses or the speed with which he resolves customer complaints
  2. Brand benefits: how your products and services claim to satisfy the wants and needs of your customers – like providing peace of mind that the decorator’s work will be completed efficiently, with little mess and disruption and with the involvement of the customer when they need to be.
  3. Brand essence: what you promise to your customers that is unique and valued by them – the decorator’s brand essence might be ‘caring for your home like my own’.

Recognising your brand attributes and benefits is relatively straightforward, and should be done as a team so that you can benefit from everyone’s differing perspectives. Identifying your brand essence, however, is a rather harder task.

Identifying the brand essence

Start by summing up the promise you’re making to your customers – what is their gut feel about your business, or what do you want it to be?

“ghd’s brand essence was ‘belief’,” says Steve. “It made our customers feel important, which differentiated us from our competitors and, alongside the quality of our product and our promotional activity, helped justify our premium pricing structure too.”

Asking your customers what they think about your business and your brand goes hand in hand with defining it, and this is essential in the process of deciding how to brand your business. In particular, customer input can bring a lot to the table when you’re trying to define your brand values – it’s amazing how many businesses find a big difference between how their customers perceive them and how they perceive themselves.

Your brand values are emotive and are there to attract your target audience. They are qualities that describe your brand and, along with the other elements of your brand, give people reasons to choose you. They can be short, like Google’s brand value: ‘do the right thing; don’t be evil’. Or they can be long, like the BBC’s worldwide values.

To involve your customers, if you have their email addresses or are connected with them via social media, launch a quick online poll using sites like Survey Monkey. Ask questions that will help you express your brand values, such as:

  • ‘What one word would you use to describe our business?’
  • ‘What benefits do we bring to you that our competitors don’t?’
  • ‘How does doing business with us make you feel?’

Alternatively, you can ask your customers the same questions on paper when they visit your shop or when you’re sending them an invoice for the work you have completed.

Finally, and as Steve says, “it’s no good telling your customers that your shop is better than the one down the street unless you’ve checked for yourself that that’s the case.”

So be sure of what you’re competitors are up to, how they’re standing out, and find what’s different and better about you.

Developing a brand strategy

Developing a brand strategy might sound like hard work, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. It just requires you to think about your business in a new way.

As with any strategy, it’s all about the whys, hows, whos and whens of achieving specific goals. First of all ask yourself what exactly it is that you’re trying to achieve by branding your business. Is it to steal market share from a competitor? Or to launch a new product? Maybe it’s to better articulate how you’re different. Once you know your objectives, then you can start setting out your plan for achieving them. A lot of this will incorporate what we’ve talked about already. But the key will be to confine the work to increasing brand awareness without getting distracted by operational or other broader business strategies.

“Two essentials of your brand strategy are to come up with your brand positioning and your brand value proposition,” says Steve.

Brand positioning

Your brand’s positioning is the space it occupies in people’s minds compared to the rest of the market. Ford’s brand positioning is ‘Go further’. L’Oreal’s is ‘Makes you feel valued and good about yourself’. Steve says “if you’re a mobile hairdresser, think about what your customers would be happy paying and what extras they expect as part of that price, and then look at what the competition are offering. If there’s no-one filling the space, take it.”

Brand value proposition

“Your brand value proposition is the one thing that makes your offer engaging and is made up of several elements,” says Steve. Work out what your target audience is and what it needs or wants, then start to consider the rational and emotional benefits of your brand that satisfy those.

“The rational attributes are facts and descriptions that explain what you do, what makes you different, who your customers are and the symbols, names and colours you use,” says Steve. “The emotional attributes express your personality and set the tone of your communication. They explain who you are, how you feel, how you look and how you speak.”

The final feature of your brand value proposition is your ability to show how you deliver what you promise (your ‘reasons to believe’). Proving your claims of ‘the best customer service on the market’ with certificates and awards is one such justification.

Knowing when to rebrand

If you feel that your brand has become dated, you might think about refreshing it. Or perhaps your business has expanded, matured and represents much more than its current brand reflects. Either of these are good reasons to think about rebranding – in fact Premierline has recently rebranded for the latter of these two reasons.

Alternatively, business might not be going well, and operational, logistical and strategic changes haven’t made a difference. In this case, it’s sensible to take a look at your brand to see if improving it can help. But before you start creating a new logo or tinkering with your existing one, make sure you’re certain it’ll make things better, not worse. As recent rebrands like Black + Decker’s show, a rebrand can backfire.

On the other hand, a rebrand can initiate a gear change in your small business, internally as well as externally. “I call it re-ignition,” says Steve. “A business that has hit a glass ceiling, is finding it difficult to penetrate something or wants to improve its credibility can benefit a lot from a rebrand. It can also be a great help in re-engaging with your own people.”


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