Branding a Small Business

August 23, 2017

By Dr Rodney Lim

For many small business owners, branding is often associated with naming your company for registration purposes or stamping a logo on marketing material. It is treated as nothing more than creating a memorable name, logo, symbol, tagline or design. To really benefit from what a strong brand can do for small businesses, especially those in the retail and services sectors, a broader, more holistic view is needed.  Here are three views about what branding is, and what they mean for a small business.

First, branding is about who you are and why you are in business.  Any genuine effort at deciding what your brand should stand for would inevitably require serious consideration of the critical questions of why you exist as a business (your mission beyond just making money), what key values and competencies you offer, and what you mean to your key customers.  It amounts to creating a distinct identity for your business, distinguishing yourself from your competitors and making a promise to your customers. 

In figuring out your identity, you can also think about your brand as a personification of your company, as it reflects its essential culture, values and traits.  According to research, brands can display a range of personality dimensions, such as sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness.  For example, a brand like Dove exudes a sincere personality as it values down-to-earth wholesomeness and honesty.  BMW manifests the glamor and charm of a sophisticated personality, and Harley Davidson projects a rugged personality that idealizes strength and masculinity.  Establishing clear personality values or traits in your brand is important because it can attract customers who relate to or aspire towards those traits.   Thus, for many small firms where the owner is the face of the business, there are opportunities to create meaningful brand propositions based on the owner’s personal values and traits.

Branding is also about what you do.   It does not only occur when you tell people what your brand is, such as through marketing and advertising activities.  More importantly, it occurs when customers interact with you and form impressions about your company.  This includes everything your company does, from the way you treat your customers and handle problems, to the cleanliness of your premises, to your employees’ grooming.  Your brand then, is the sum total of customers’ experiences with you.  This means that each touch point with customers provides an instance of branding, where you are judged on your how you provide experiences that translates to brand perceptions.

Thus, you should view your brand as arising from relationships with specific customer groups.  In a Harvard Business Review article, Mark Bonchek and Cara France suggested that you can shape how your brand is perceived by redefining the roles and responsibilities of your company in relation to your customers.  Instead of acting as a traditional provider in a one-directional and asymmetrical relationship, you can form collaborative, trusting and more reciprocal relationships with customers.  For example, where hotels have traditionally presented themselves as room providers, Airbnb models hospitality providers as peers.  Similarly, Nike behaves as a coach to athletes, and Air Asia considers its customers as guests rather than passengers.  For small businesses, your ability to interact with customers in a close and authentic way offers great relationship propositions for building unique brands.   

Finally, branding is what other people say about you.  As digital and social media become the primary avenues for communications, consumers no longer rely solely on company-generated advertisements and marketing messages for information.  Instead they are likely to learn about your products from each other, and collectively form opinions about your brand.  Your brand then, is what people decide it is, and is not necessarily how you want them to see it.  This reality that you no longer have full control of your brand may be difficult to come to grips with, but you also have an opportunity to collaborate with your audiences to co-create your brand.  One way is to engage in an online community where you can partake in your customers’ interests.  For example, if you own a small pet store, you can perhaps join a social media site dedicated to pet lovers to lend your expertise to matters pertaining to pet nutrition.  Another way is to make them a part of your product or brand by allowing them to engage actively in your creation processes.  If you own a restaurant, ask your most loyal customers for ideas on your menu, or ask them to help name a new cocktail.  Incorporating customers in what you do can create a strong sense of ownership and turn them into brand ambassadors.

Branding is a tricky process that requires creativity, persistence and insight, but if done right, can be the cornerstone for building a great small business.

Dr Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design. He is contactable at rlim@swinburne.edu.my