by Illana Burk
When people start small businesses, they develop their brand in one of four ways:
- They buy their way into looking like they know what they’re doing (by spending piles of cash on high end designers, copywriters, etc … to make everything *look* snazzier than it actually is) – when they often don’t have a clue.
- They bootstrap and DIY everything and might totally know what they’re doing, but won’t look like it for another year or two because they lack the moola to pay for the help they need to show the world how great they are.
- They bootstrap and DIY everything AND they have no clue what they’re doing, and most likely won’t last long enough to figure it out.
- They put in the time and financial investment that it takes clearly forge a plan, a mission and a cohesive message, pay for the help they need and present a company that feels like it’s existed forever.
If they are one of the first three, the result is the same:
No one is buys their thing. And if they DO buy, it’s for the wrong reasons and they only do it once.
Sure, they might have sales, but they don’t have fans. They haven’t developed those raving hoards that will rave about them on the interwebs and send others their way. Because truly cohesive, visionary brands have fans; bland, generic or half-baked businesses do not.
When you fail at creating a real brand, you are failing at about half of your business. And more importantly, you are failing at developing a sustainable touchpoint that will make people want to come back and buy from you and ONLY you again and again.
So what IS a brand, anyway?
It’s not the logo that your next-door-neighbor-the-design-student whipped up for you.
And it’s not the colors you picked for your business cards that you ordered from that free place online.
And it’s not the stock photos that came with your DIY website.
A brand is, first and foremost, the backbone, the guts and the warm, fuzzy hug that your business embraces your customers and clients with. It is ALL of the things that inform all of those tiny design and word choices. It’s what you and your business stand for.
Your brand is the singular expression of your business’s essential place in the world.
So what happens when you don’t take the time to dig deeply into establishing who your business truly is and the role you want it to play in the lives of those it touches?
You end up in the generic pile. You become innocuous. Invisible. One of the many.
Because it doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how amazing your product is. If the way you express it to the world doesn’t show people the right things, it will fail. Full stop.
This has almost nothing to do with how much you spend. It has everything to do with how much you invest. Spending is throwing cash at a problem hoping for results - investing in intentionally using money to get desired results that move your brand forward. You can spend next to nothing on branding and be wildly successful (it’s rare, but it does happen - and usually to people who have an over-abundance of time). You can spend a fortune on making every detail slick and expensive-looking and fall flat on your face. Or you can invest the right amount for what you need to express your business with authenticity and vision and totally blow the lid off of your category and sales expectations.
But before you can truly invest, you have to get crystal clear on where your gaps are. This means being brave enough to get very, very honest with yourself about what your business really communicates - from the outside looking in.
Here are the six signs that you need to work building your brand.
1. No one ever tells you that you have a great website, or that that’s how they found you.
When a website is done well, it’s the cheapest and most effective marketing tool you have. Even if you have to spend $5k, $10k, or more on it, it’s still WAY cheaper than hiring another sales rep, and far more flexible and reliable in positioning your message than almost any other facet of your marketing. But there has never been a website that fell into the “good enough” category that actually helped to build the business it represented.
So if you have uttered the words, “It’s fine for now,” or, “Let’s just get something up and fix it later,” or, “Just pick a template – no one can tell,” you officially need work on your website.
A great website not only provides basic information on what your business does, it tells the story of who your ideal client is. If your website reads like the ingredients list on the side of a cereal box and looks like you picked it out of a catalog, how long do you suppose someone will stay?
2. You find yourself apologizing for your business card/website/marketing collateral.
“Sorry, the email address is wrong.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know … they’re terrible looking, but the info is the same.”
“Oh, lemme have that back … I need to add my new url to it. I’ll write it on the back.”
Here’s what those things actually tell people:
“I am too cheap to bother with spending $100 on nice business cards.”
“I don’t care at all about details.”
“Your impression of me and my business matters very little to me.”
If someone said any of those things to you, would you ever buy anything from them?
Every detail matters. The thickness of the paper you print your cards on matters. Design matters. That moment when you show a piece of your business to someone for the first time and they think it’s sturdy, impressive and well thought out is one of the most powerful moments you can have.
3. You hired a designer and/or copywriter before you really knew what you actually DO and/or why you do it.
Designers and copywriters are only as good as the information you provide.
That means that if you hire a designer or copywriter before you know who you serve, why you serve them and what makes you uniquely qualified to do so, you will get one of two things:
a. A beautiful and wildly ineffective brand that speaks to no one in particular, or …
b. A total nightmare where you blame them for being useless and flaky and then you tell horror stories to your friends about how unprofessional your designer/copywriter was. And you will use that as an excuse to fail.
Neither is their fault - it’s your business. That makes it your responsibility to know the answers to those questionsbefore you ever hire someone to turn your vision into a reality. Designers and copywriters are not there to do this work for you, they are there to communicate your ideas to the world.
4. You made design choices the same way you choose throw pillows for your sofa.
Your design does not belong to you. It’s not yours.
It belongs to your customers.
Your taste does not matter, because you are not your customer.
The one and only thing you should judge your design on is whether it effectively connects with the right customers and clients. A good designer helps you do that. What your friends and family think, is wildly irrelevant and usually counter-productive. Unless they are firmly in your target market, they have no business weighing in on your logo.
When making design choices, have the guts to ask those who are your ideal client, and no one else. If they love it, then go with it. Even if it’s not your favorite.
You aren’t picking curtains for your bedroom - this is a business, remember?
5. Your blog and social media posts only answer questions a monkey could Google in eleven seconds.
This is a sign that your brand lacks a true voice. The first step towards someone’s business is to prove your usefulness. If everyone and their sister have already said it, find a way to say something new or put your own spin on it. Every piece of content you put out represents your brand and is an opportunity to get a new customer or turn one away.
6. No one ever laughs at your jokes. They also don’t share your work or tell others about you. And your only testimonials are fake.
If you’re not getting referrals, something is very wrong. Relationships and loyalty are the keys to business sustainability.
So if no one is singing your praises, it’s time to audit your process. Have a trusted colleague (who will be fiercely honest with you) walk through your buying process and give you their impressions. Or hire a brand expert who can look at your entire brand presence and help you find the places where stagnation is occurring.
Branding begins and ends with you, the business owner. When your business feels invisible, it’s no one’s fault but yours. As terrifying as that is, and as tempting as it might be to blame designers and writers and consultants, the buck stops with you. There’s no way around that. You’re the one who decides what your business stands for and hires the right people and uses the right tools to translate those ideals into a living, breathing thing.
Because your brand is not one thing; it’s everything. From the ease of your purchase process to the colors in your logo to the words you choose in social media, your brand is the singular language of how your business communicates to the world. So take the reins, do the work, and create a resonant and effective language all your own.
Illana Burk is the Creative Director and CEO of Makeness Media LLC. MM is a collective of business coaches, copywriters, and designers who specialize in integrated business design for small and micro businesses. We believe that the most effective way to develop a brand is cohesively - from the ground up, and we aspire to show our clients that their business can be more than they ever thought possible.