Branding is a broad topic that many people have different opinions on. At the onset of writing this article, I wanted to include external research but there are just too many answers. Instead, I draw from experience. This is my personal guide to small business branding and I hope it helps you on your journey.
1. Just Because You’re Small Doesn’t Mean Your Branding Has to Suck
A lot of small businesses have bad brands. Their websites aren’t optimized for mobile, the images are formatted weird, and button sizes are different (along with fonts and font sizes). It becomes a sloppy-looking disaster and frankly, sends a message to your audience that you are a lower-quality option (which can be a viable approach if you are). Earning trust is incredibly important in the early days of operating a business and there are many small ways that things like design play into that. It’s your logos, your fonts, your copywriting, your images, etc. Years ago, this might not have seemed like an important thing for business owners to do, however it’s become painfully obvious to consumers which businesses care about branding (and don’t). And it’s not just in the business-to-consumer space, this goes to the business-to-business environment as well.
If I’m managing a 700-person company, how would I perceive Joe Somebody’s Startup Company? Probably not very much. This is where branding comes into play. It’s the unspoken rule of trust through visual design (and typography). I wish I could say people don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but they do. Don’t hide behind the fact you’re small. Take the steps forward to overcome that silent barrier to growth.
2. The Minimal Viable Elements of a Modern-Day Brand
Branding packages can cost anywhere between $0 and $1,000,000. It seems the larger the organization, the larger the budget they have for branding. And it isn’t about whether to use blue or green, rather the symbolic meaning of feelings and emotions that elicit connection to different people from different places and cultures. While that nice to have, it’s not something that’s very practical for the average small business. I’m going to give you the small business version of a branding package — one that’s viable and does the trick. Review each of these in order.
Element 1: Colors & Brand Feeling (Light Mode or Dark Mode)
When people interact with your brand, how do you want them to feel? When people interact with you, how would they describe your attitude towards customers (your personality)?
Relaxed, calm, casual, excited, secure, safe, reliable, formal etc.
This decision will dictate if you decide to have a more calm and relaxed brand, or one that’s formal and proper. It should also tie into your personality because, as the small business owner, you’re likely to be someone who serves on the front-lines. Plus you can’t run away from your personality — it’ll come out whether you like it or not.
Allow me to explain.
I screwed this up when I first started doing copywriting in 2016. I wanted it to feel professional, but the truth is my personality is not totally professional. I’m practical, honest, and say unpopular things. Some call me critical and others really hate it — this is who I am though. Out the gate, I wanted to make the blog use light colors. I opted for white and used blue because in B2B blue seems to be the color that resembles professionalism.
Obviously this has changed.
I’m writing under a dark-theme website and I personally find it fits more with those who want practicality. Now if this were a yoga studio, I’d probably stick to the basic colors of white, light brown, and green. Having an accent color is important too. Design-wise, it gives you that bit of color to make your brand pop. I used a tealish blue to symbolize our energy (with some callback to that classic B2B blue that so many tech companies use). You don’t have to go this far into detail, but these are things to think about.
Summary of Colors:
- How do you want people to feel? What colors reflect these feelings?
- How would you describe your personality? What colors reflect these personalities?
- Would you say your brand is more light-mode or dark-mode?
- What accent color matches elements of questions 1 and 2 above?
Element 2: Company Name
Folks like Gary Vaynerchuk will tell you the company name doesn’t matter (that you should go earn the reputation your brand carries). I agree with this advice, but don’t trust that the majority of small businesses will stick the landing. The truth about marketing is this: if you give me a stick and tell me to sell it as soap, I’ll make sure every person who sees a stick in their life thinks of soap. Case and point: Apple.
But look, we all can’t pull off what Apple has done. That’s why I suggest sticking with a name that’s reflective of what your business does.
- Stand Up Paddle Baddeck (aka SUP Baddeck)
- Phased Technologies (a Succession Planning App)
- MacInnis Consulting
- Marketing Qualified
- Myrman Realities
See what I mean? Think about this and play around with it. It will make your conversations with new customers much easier — they’ll understand what you do.
Element 3: Logo
You don’t need a high-paid consultant to tell you you need a simple brand — that’s pretty obvious already. The reality is there are image-based logos and text-based logos. Either one is fine, but I’d recommend using image-based logos to highlight key moments in your business or to showcase the vision you have in the future.
As for text-based logos, they’re practical. I’d recommend using a text-based logo until such time that you REALLY identify the key moment of your value proposition. Once you have that, switch to an image-based logo. And there’s nothing wrong with keeping a text-based logo.
Element 4: Webpage Layout
Page layouts are important but don’t create something totally different. As users of web browsers, we’ve become unknowingly trained on familiar designs of webpages. When a webpage isn’t designed how our brains imagine, we experience a shortly-lived weird moment where we look for navigation and process what we’re seeing (rather than have an intuitive experience).
That’s why I consider it a must for small businesses to follow typical and easy-to-comprehend layouts. The idea behind these layouts is simple:
- Start with the big idea
- Add details as they scroll down
- Fill in gaps where people would have more questions
- Add in a mid-page CTA to remind people how to get started
- Include social proof to build trust
- Close it out with a final call to your CTA
In my personal opinion, I don’t consider page layouts to be a hard mystery. By the numbers, these layouts work.
3. The Finer Details of Great Small Business Brands
At the finer-detailed end of small business branding, there are few elements that can help business owners stand out amongst the crowds.
Finer Detail 1: Mix In Your Personal Brand
Your business isn’t just a cash-cow, it’s a personal journey! A fun thing business owners can do is document their journey through blog posts, social posts, YouTube, etc. There’s a beauty of blending your personality and experience with the development of your business. It makes the whole thing more relatable, personable, and business for the fans.
Finer Detail 2: Become a Connector
A really neat thing you can do for your business and reputation is constantly connect with new individuals from different places and connect them to other people in your network who can provide value. For example, I often identify people who are on online forums that are experiencing difficulty growing their business. Some of these companies are in the same position and space as other people in my network.
I message these people with a kind hello and offer to make an introduction to people I know in a similar space or that are just a few paces ahead of them. They almost always engage with that offer. This allows me to connect people from California to Nova Scotia. Australia to Texas. New York to Calgary — it’s amazing. Plus, I build positive rapport with those I engage on both sides of the fence. This leads to more followership, support, and comradery around my brand and business. People look upon it positively.