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Deep Dive: Branding 101

Deep Dive: Branding 101

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Deep Dive: Branding 101

Hello, WISE people! This is the September issue of Deep Dive from WISE Women’s Business Center, where we go into the nitty gritty of a topic of interest to small business owners. The theme of this month is branding 101, and boy-oh-boy do we go deep on this big topic. 

  • What even is branding
  • Why it matters to small businesses
  • The three main steps to build a strong brand
  • Tips & tricks to doing it well

And if you’re still hungry for more, read to the end where we’ve included some links to more resources you’ll appreciate. Excited? Pull on that swim cap and get ready to jump in.

Dive deep into branding

What is branding?

According to Jeff Bezos, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” It’s the perception people have of your business, and branding is the act of intentionally influencing that perception. Keep this phrase in mind: intentional influence. 

Intention: What promise are you making to your audience? How do you want to be perceived? Your intention is the basis for your brand strategy, and creating a brand strategy is step one in creating a strong brand; you need to know where you’re going in order to get there. We’ll get to that in the how-to part below. 

Influence: How can you guide that perception? Hint: in literally every single way any human being interacts with your company: picking up a business card, completing a purchase online, calling customer support, and everything else in between. You can start to influence perception by having a clear and compelling brand identity - how you look and sound - and then integrating that identity into everything you do.

At the end of the day, you can’t control your brand 100%; external events, your competitors’ actions, market trends, and more all play a part. However, through thoughtful, strategic, and consistent branding, you can go a long way in building an image of your company that drives you towards your business goals. 

Why a strong brand matters

If you’re reading this, you probably know that having a strong, clear brand is important, but it’s still important to internalize WHY that is. 

A strong brand:

  • Delivers a clear, consistent message
  • Tells your audience what to expect from you
  • Connects with people at an emotional level
  • Differentiates you from your competition
  • Builds trust and credibility
  • Motivates they buyer to take action
  • Creates loyalty and referrals

And those factors, if harnessed well, can drive your business towards financial success. 

How to build a strong brand

There are endless takes on the process of brand building. What we’ll share here is aimed specifically at small business owners and meant to be practical and doable on a small budget with a small team. We’ll go into each step in-depth and have included hands-on worksheets and exercises you can use along the way.

  1. Develop a brand strategy. Who do you want to be to your target market? What promise are you making to them? And how do you make good on that promise? Your brand strategy sets your goals and outlines the path to achieving them.
  2. Create your brand identity. This entails defining what your brand looks and sounds like, then creating the materials you need to bring it to life. Think logos and color palettes, but also style guides and employee handbooks. 
  3. Brand integration. You have the game plan (brand strategy) and the tools to bring it to life (brand identity), now incorporate it into everything you do. Yes, this includes marketing, which is what most people think of when they think “brand,” but also your business operations, employee relations, customer service, sales process, and more. 

1. Define your brand strategy

To get started on your brand strategy, have a little meeting with yourself to answer these questions: 

What’s my purpose? What drives me and this business?

According to Simon Sinek in his famous TED talk, people don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. If you’re feeling stuck on this, try his Golden Circle exercise to get to your why. 

Who’s my target market?

If you’re still in the “I serve everyone!” phase, you’ve got a side project to do, and it’s called defining your target market. You can’t build a strong brand without being really specific about the audience to whom you’re speaking. Start here, and get signed up for counseling if you need more help in defining your target market. 

What’s my competition doing? 

Next, do a competitive analysis. Understand what your competitors are up to in terms of their branding. Look at how they talk about their “why,” what messaging they’re trying, who their target market seems to be. Figure out what’s working and what’s not, and use those learnings to inform your own brand strategy. 

How am I different?

What are your differentiators? Key benefits? How do you stand out from your competition? Understand how you stack up and think about why a potential customer might choose you over the other options. These differentiators and key benefits will form the basis of your brand identity. It can also be helpful to boil it down to a nice, concise UVP. 

What promise am I making? 

Last, think about your brand promise. What expectations are you setting with your audience? Think about two companies that do something similar; take Whole Foods vs. Walmart’s grocery section. Both brands sell produce, but make very different brand promises. One promises to deliver high quality, organic offerings. The other promises the lowest prices. Understanding your brand promise is key to effective branding. 

Then, combine all that - your target market, your why, key benefits, differentiators, and brand promise - into a written document that you can refer back to later. If you’re a visual person, try Sunbird’s Brand Canvas.

2. Create your brand identity

Next, start bringing your brand to life by determining what it’ll look and sound like when you put it out into the world. You should (strongly) consider creating brand guidelines - a document that captures the essence of your brand, from your mission and values to your visual identity like your logo, color palette, and fonts. These guidelines should also include your brand’s voice (Serious or playful? Traditional or cutting-edge? Etc.), messaging strategies, and main channels.

There are a LOT of decisions to make as you craft this identity, and it can absolutely feel overwhelming at times. That’s where your brand strategy comes into play - every decision you make about the look, feel, and sound of your brand should be rooted there. When deciding on a font, for example, ask yourself - what kind of font communicates tradition and trust? Probably a classic serif. What font says energetic and creative? Maybe a funky display font. And if these kinds of decisions aren’t in your wheelhouse, that’s okay - it’s probably time to bring in a designer. 

Let’s look at another example. Simply knowing that your target market is outdoorsy adventure women and your brand values are practicality, durability, and sustainability can guide you in all kinds of choices. Deciding between earth tones and pastels? Probably earth tones. Question about brand voice? Probably straight forward, free spirited. Imagery? Mountains, dirty boots, friends rappelling down cliffs. Obviously it’s not quite so simple, but your brand strategy will guide your creative choices. 

3. Integrate your brand in all you do

You’re officially ready to bring your brand into the world. It should influence every piece of your business, especially those places where people interact with you. This includes social media - the photos you post, the stories you share, the language you use to tell them - as well as email newsletters, business cards, and of course your website. Your brand should also show up in how you handle customer service, how you train your employees, the set-up of your retail space, and the tone of your webinars. Even things like the music you play in your store, the way you write an out-of-office auto-response, and how you respond to criticism will all be framed by your brand strategy and identity. 

Other tips on branding for small businesses

Bring in help when you need it. This is NOT an easy process to do alone, so at the very least, coerce a business-savvy friend into being your sounding board. Consider, too, bringing on a designer or even branding expert to help you. 

Get feedback from your target market. Can’t decide which messaging tactics will resonate best with potential customers, or which differentiators they care most about? Ask them! And check out The Mom Test when developing the questions you use. 

Set clear goals. Use KPIs or at least key metrics to determine how successful your brand is in attracting, converting, and retaining customers. 

Test and make data-driven decisions. You can get real data on what topics people care most about by looking at engagement with different blog posts, and test different messaging strategies through paid search marketing. Work with a marketer or take a DIY approach to understand how well your brand is performing.

Iterate as you learn. If the data shows a specific messaging tactic just isn’t connecting, move on. And if through some trial and error you make some changes to your color palette, incorporate those. 

However, be as consistent as possible. Major changes every other week will throw your audience for a loop and ultimately be detrimental to building the clear and trustworthy brand you’re looking for. Introduce changes intentionally and slowly, and stay true to your brand values. 

Read, watch, listen

You’ve probably had your fill of links and resources above, but just in case…

Connect with us

Have questions? That’s awesome, because we love questions. Reach out to us at wisecenter@syr.edu with all your branding-related queries, or consider signing up for our no-cost, 1:1 business coaching to work with one of our in-house business counselors as you build out your own brand.