Steve Woodruff, founder and principal consultant of Impactiviti, a consultancy that provides branding, identity and market strategy services to businesses, defines branding as the expression, projection and experience of the organizational identity and its promised value.
Sound too lofty for a small business?
Just look at some major success stories that started modestly, including
, which grew to revolutionize the way people listen to music, and Fuze, a small soda company that was just
Debbie Millman, president of design for
Sterling Brands, an independently owned branding consultancy that works with
and others, reveals that many of the major branding successes in the past five years have in fact come from the underdogs because of their scrappy, nonhierarchical nature.
"There's not as much decision-making by committee
in a small business," says Millman, asserting that small businesses tend to speed to the market with a focus on product instead of getting bogged down with red tape and risk assessment. Larger companies often have to use think tanks to keep up and stay focused.
Woodruff gets excited over "No Wimpy Wines," the Sonoma, Calif.-based
Ravenswood wines tagline, with a red crossed-out circle symbol to match. "While the elitist might consider this approach just a tad plebian, for the vast majority of wine buyers who are looking for a good quality, hearty wine, this is great branding," says Woodruff.
Ravenswood's strong presence in stores proves that small business doesn't have to mean small presence.
For a small business to get noticed, the key, says Woodruff, is to keep it simple and direct.
This straightforward concept proves a challenge for many small-business owners who are often emotionally attached to their work. They will often try to get the whole package out there in one fell swoop, which can cloud an otherwise potent image.
In many cases, hiring an outsider may be the most effective way to get to the meat of your message.
Woodruff helps business owners package their messages more effectively, offering his objective view. "One of my clients gave me bullet points of all their stuff," says Woodruff. "After a very simple suggestion
from an outsider, the lights went on."
Just like producing a good vodka, the message has to be distilled to its essence. "You've got to explain in a few words what you are doing and why," Woodruff adds. "You build all your branding and marketing off that core message. If you don't have that, you don't have anything."
If you're still lost, look to the leader of the company, advises William Arruda, president of
Reach Communications. A small business should be founded by someone who has a passion and a certain set of values, says Arruda, "so often understanding the brand of the leader is going to get
the small business really far as in understanding the brand of the business."
Grab an Audience
Now that the message is clear, you have to make it stand out. As long as you have something of value to offer, says Woodruff, you can make people take notice.
Sometimes that can be as simple as a silly face: For $50, Woodruff hired an artist to draw a caricature of his face for his Web site. "I got more comments on that caricature than anything else I have done from a marketing and branding perspective," he says.
Avoid stock phrases and business-speak like "we care about our people," Woodruff explains. He points a finger of shame at a certain large shipping company whose trucks read "synchronizing the world of commerce," a phrase that Woodruff believes only means something to those in the shipping industry. (The phrase didn't ring any bells for me, but maybe the general public should be given more credit.)
Arruda says small businesses face two barriers to effective branding: They don't know what would make someone choose them over a competitor and they want to be all things to all people.
The antidote, says Arruda, is self-analysis and choosing a niche audience.
"Fear gets in the way," Arruda continues, for small businesses, which believe they will lose market share by focusing on a target audience. "They want to be all things to all people," he says, but, as we all know from our everyday lives, this is never possible.
Wowing the public with that pithy and powerful message can be easy and cheap, says Woodruff.
"Going to a big ad agency doesn't exist anymore as part of small business," says Woodruff. On the Internet, one can find branding resources that fit the smallest budget.
In launching his company, Woodruff called on his graphic designer friends for logo help and he came up with his own tagline and blog, which was quite helpful in establishing his brand.
A Web domain name costs around $20, and he established a site within hours without consulting a single major-league Web programming resource.
Woodruff also recommends launching an email newsletter with an automated service. "I can get my name and brand in front of people every week
for maybe $300 a year," he says.
Finally, branding has changed since the dot-com era, when the credo was to make as much noise as possible, gain as many eyeballs as you can and worry about the long-term later.
Now, says Woodruff, people are realizing that the branding process is a long-term commitment: "Embed yourself, drip by drip, into people's minds," he says.
Despite the fad of the moment, companies small and large should adhere to the basic tenets of strategy, says Millman.
"Look at the classic Michael Peters, Harvard-Business-School definition of strategy," she says. "Perform activities differently, or perform distinctly different than your rivals."