Budget Brand Building

It’s easy for an entrepreneur with a small business to feel dwarfed by the marketing power of big business – companies that can afford to spend a million or more on changes to their image. Can you build an brand for less?


Take logos. Seth Godin points out that logos are just placeholders and that generally speaking, investing a lot of money in a logo just doesn’t make sense. You don’t win customers because of your logo; you keep them coming back once they associate your logo with great value. So you need a logo? If you can’t do it yourself, someone else can do it for under $100.

What’s a brand, anyway?

Let’s look back to the origins of corporate image. It began with merchant marks, eventually becoming trademarks. Essentially, trademarks evolved because they enabled merchants to identify their goods and benefit from establishing a reputation for quality.

The big-business version of branding has evolved to create an image of more than just the product. Coke doesn’t compete with Pepsi over the quality of their sugar water, of course, but over associations people have with their brands. However, this is a waste of time for a small business budget.

Like the merchants, you should only care if you do two things:

  1. Generate Sales
  2. Bring Customers Back

First, build a business (not a brand). Building a business means getting your first customers in the door. With a new business, you don’t care if people associate your name or logo with “chic” or “rugged” or “daring” qualities. You’re not Nike or Apple; most people don’t even know what you do. So your first goal is for your advertising to bring them in. To that degree, the image your advertising projects may help attract the right customers. If your store sells trendy clothing, you should care most about whether your ads and signs convey what you’re selling and attract good leads. From that perspective, your ads could succeed without even having the name of your business, as long as there’s a way for the customer to take the next step.

Then bring them back. That means it’s all about the product. Focus on satisfying the customers, and that will bring them back. Past experience has shown me that even an unattractive logo and an unimpressive web site can work if your product is good enough, whereas the snazziest business cards, ads brochures and web site can’t save a horrible product.

One of the businesses I co-owned in the past was known among its customers for unattractive, largely inconsistent and even incoherent marketing. Multiple logos and even brands were used but almost interchangeably. Most clients were confused about which brand was even associated with which product.

To top it off, eventually a certain client of ours confided in me that she had initially been introduced to our company because a friend told her to “check out the worst web site you’ve ever seen.” (It was.) Not exactly what a business owner wants to hear, right? But people kept coming back because they liked what we offered. Most of our new business was from word of mouth, and a friend’s recommendation meant so much more than our ugly web site! The business is now very successful and the web site is still ugly.

So image means nothing? No. I’m not advocating ugly web sites as a marketing strategy, or neglecting image-building completely.  Even for small businesses, branding and image can have an impact. The key is identifying the parts of your business that are important. And better than image, is attitude.

Attitude. Instead of thinking about “image” – meaning a facade that your business hides behind – focus on keeping your attitude consistent in the employees you hire and the products you offer.

In some businesses image and attitude are the product: if you’re running a restaurant, the image and attitude create your ambiance, and ambiance can be more important than food in attracting customers. I often patronize one restaurant because its outdoor terrace with a view means more than the mediocre food: it creates ambiance.

Similarly, if you’re running an online business, your web site isn’t just an internet brochure or comforting presence, it IS part of the product.

Ugliness matters

While our ugly web site didn’t seem to affect our ability to get clients, hideous web sites and marketing materials can have an affect: on the employees.  If even you are reluctant to show clients your web site or business card, run, don’t walk, to hire a graphic designer.

Still, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

Good enough

You can start building your brand with things that are “just good enough.” Despite what I’ve said, you don’t want an ugly web site or business card, but you don’t need a work of art, either. With a budget under $100 you can get something good enough designed and then move on to the only parts of small-business branding that matter: getting customers, and keeping them.

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