By Bob Violino
Even Starbucks started small.
A strong brand identity is essential for success, no matter what size your business.
Was it Shakespeare who asked, “What’s in a name?” The Bard never had the opportunity to jog in Nike running shoes, ride a Harley through the streets of Stratford or kick back between sonnets with a cold Bud. These days, to paraphrase the playwright, the name’s the thing. Indeed, a company’s moniker and a strong branding program are often the keys to its commercial success.
Large enterprises have long understood the importance of a winning branding program. But today branding is becoming vital for many smaller businesses—especially those in extremely competitive markets where product and service differentiation are essential for success.
Definitions of branding vary, but in general it means developing a name, logo, symbol, Web site or other entity that’s commonly known by consumers or businesses to identify a company or its products and services. One of the benefits of a solid branding program is that customers are more apt to remember the business when they need a particular product or service. Another is that branding gives consumers the impression that a company is established and reliable. Moreover, strong brands will be recognized by consumers even if they don’t know anything about the company or use its products.
“Your brand is essentially what differentiates you from the guy down the street,” says John Kuraoka, an independent creative director in San Diego who specializes in branding for small business. “It’s what makes you someone a customer wants to go to.”
Martin Lindstrom, CEO of advisory firm Lindstrom Co. in Sydney, Australia, and a well-known branding expert, says creating a brand means not only standing out from competition but developing a rapport with customers. “Branding involves creating an emotional tie between the company and the product and the consumer,” he says.
Strong branding is especially important in today’s highly competitive business environment, where consumers and businesses can search the Internet to find other companies that provide similar products. And small companies aren’t only competing with other small ventures, but often with giant corporations as well. Lindstrom says he expects to see a growing number of small businesses emphasize branding to try to attract and retain loyal customers.
How can small businesses launch branding programs on small, even shoestring, budgets? Experts and small-business owners say it’s possible—it just takes planning, creativity and determination.
Have it Their Way
Small businesses looking to develop a brand should start by finding out what’s important to their customers. “A lot of business owners read books and talk to experts and then try to create a brand and impose their ideas on customers,” Kuraoka says. “But the brand has to be expressed from the customer point of view. What’s going to make you unique in a way that’s relevant to your key customers?”
Businesses can gather customer feedback inexpensively through formal or informal surveys, focus groups, follow-up questions or casual conversations. They should use this customer data to help develop components of their brand, including names, logos, letterheads and even corporate philosophy.
Lindstrom recommends asking questions such as how people use or intend to use the company’s products or services, which competitor’s products they may use and what they’re prepared to pay for the product. “Then bounce back all your ideas against the customers to find new ideas,” he says.
Lindstrom adds that small businesses shouldn’t spend a lot of money on designing elaborate logos, because most consumers don’t use logos to identify companies. He says small companies also shouldn’t break the bank on advertising, but instead devote a few thousand dollars to a clever radio ad campaign that reaches a targeted audience.
“Whether it’s paying bills, reading the newspaper or shoe-shopping online, the Internet and the wallet are increasingly becoming inseparable,” says Chris Winfield, president of 10e20, LLC, a New York-based Internet marketing firm. “The opportunities for small and midsize businesses are endless, especially with Web sites priced considerably less than a traditional marketing campaign.”
“The company had been around for 25 years and a lot of people saw us as small. Now they see us as being larger in the market. We look more professional and sound more professional than we did before.”
Web-based marketing (via e-mail and online advertising) can cost 30 cents or less per qualified lead, according to Google Inc., the leading Internet search firm, compared with $1 or more for traditional marketing and advertising media. Still, many small-business owners—including Santomauro—are Internet novices. Born and raised on Long Island, Santomauro spent his youth working in his family’s upscale seafood restaurant. There he quickly mastered restaurant operations, financial management, food preparation and every other facet of the culinary arts. Instead of tinkering with PCs and restaurant management software, Santomauro focused his time on customer service.
That approach served Santomauro well when he relocated to Greensboro and opened his specialty meat store in 1998. Yet when it came time to get on the Web, Santomauro knew he needed help. “That’s the number-one thing I hear from small-business owners,” says Paul Lipsky, associate professor of communications at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), a college with campuses in Manhattan and on Long Island. “Everyone wants to get on the Web, but they know they can’t do it alone. The key question becomes: ‘How do I get started?’
When Bangor, Maine-based Deventure Health Partners, a provider of medical transcription and technology management outsourcing services to small and medium-sized hospitals and clinics, decided to launch a branding program, it worked with Tortorella Design, a graphic design and consulting firm in North Canton, Ohio, to create a company name and develop a branding and promotional strategy. Its total expenditure was about $8,000.
“We realized early on in our research that outsourcing typically entails a lot of fear for those [technology] people who remain behind in the hospitals,” says Michael De Ville, Deventure’s president. “So we knew we needed to make sure in our branding that they understood that even though they’re outsourcing, we’re still making them a partner in the process.”
With this in mind, Tortorella Design came up with Deventure, a derivation of DeVille’s name that emphasizes how the company creates working partnerships with its clients. Deventure also branded one of its services—delivering medical records to healthcare facilities over a secure Internet connection—with the acronym SHINE (Secure Health Information Network Enterprise). Part of the promotional program includes the tagline, “Make your transcription process SHINE.”
In another example, Applied Medical Services, LLC of Durham, N.C., which provides medical practice management, billing and other services, hired marketing and public relations firm 919 Marketing Co. in Holly Springs, N.C., to help with a re-branding.
For starters, the company changed its name from Applied Medical Systems, because that sounded too computer-specific, says President Michelle Durner. The company, which has 40 full-time employees and 85 contractors, also developed a new logo, a trade show booth, brochures, telemarketing and direct mail campaigns, and an advisory board with medical experts. The entire program will cost between $75,000 and $100,000, money Durner says will be well spent.
“This makes us different from the competition,” she says. “The company has been around for 25 years and a lot of people saw us as small. Now they see us as being larger in the market. We look more professional and sound more professional than we did before.”
This sort of branding program might sound pricey to some small-business owners, but Durner says there are ways to spend prudently. One is to look for the most effective means of reaching a target market for services and putting dollars into that. For example, Applied determined that the people it was trying to reach in hospital management weren’t especially Internet savvy, so rather then send e-mail promotions, it mailed out brochures or placed ads in selected trade magazines.
Another small company that re-branded was Scottsdale, Ariz.-based All Sport Entertainment Inc., a provider of online and on-location fantasy sports games and contests. In early 2004, after more than eight years as All Sport, it changed its name to Head2Head Sports LLC. According to President Kevin Gralen, the outfit, which has fewer than 10 employees, had enjoyed consistent and profitable growth, “But it was clear that the name All Sport didn’t resonate with customers.”
Most of the games the company offers involve head-to-head competition between players—a unique concept in its market—and some of its most popular games in fact use the name Head2Head (or H2H for short). To its tens of thousands of subscribers, the company had become synonymous with those games. “People would call us Head2Head,” Gralen says. We’d go to trade shows and they’d say, ‘There’s the Head2Head guys.’”
The company’s owners did some research with the help of consulting firm First Light Marketing in Utah, and determined that there was clear market value in the Head2Head brand—with both customers and business partners. “Small companies have very limited opportunities to burn a brand into someone’s brain,” Gralen says. “This is how people view us, the company and the types of contests we offer.”
Head2Head launched the three-month renaming and branding program in September 2003, creating a new logo and including it on letterhead, business cards, a weekly newsletter and other printed materials. Head2Head hired graphics design firm Moorhead Creative to help develop the logo. It also revamped its Web site to reflect the new image and developed an e-mail campaign to make sure that customers were aware of the name change. The entire campaign cost more than $5,000, Gralen says, but the company was able to save some money on the effort by carefully thinking through the changes before implementing any of them.
No matter its branding strategy, a small business must thoroughly research its market before launching a program, Kuraoka says, because building a strong brand is one of the most important initiatives a business will undertake. “It’s more than a company name or logo. Branding is about values—what you stand for, what the company name stands for,” he says. “Your brand is your reputation.
In a nutshell, what is branding?
Martz: It’s an implicit promise made between a buyer and a seller.
What kind of a promise?
It’s the promise that the buyer is going to have the same kind of experience consistently. At Starbucks, for example, the customer is going to experience the same taste, the same smells, the same quality, no matter whether the store is in Seattle or Miami. Branding is about much more than simply having a logo or using a particular color.
Why is branding important to small businesses?
It’s the way they can differentiate themselves from their competitors and create a preferred position in the market place.
What’s the biggest mistake small businesses make in developing and managing a branding program?
Lack of consistency. They change depending on what the favor of the month is. The customer doesn’t know what to expect. Also, often the relationship with the customer is present but not nurtured. Without nurturing between the company and its customers, there is little incentive for the customer to increase his or her loyalty to a company.
With the result that…?
When a competitor offers a better price for a similar product or service, the weaker brand relationship provides no glue to hold it together, and the customer defects.
Is creating and managing a branding program expensive?
Branding is not advertising. It doesn’t require significant capital investments, which means it’s in the reach of most small businesses.