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Building Your Brand: Proving and Differentiating Your Small Business

Your brand is one of your small business' most important assets. Learn how to establish your brand — and how that can help you promote your business, build loyalty and become profitable. 

Your small business doesn't need to be a world-famous household name in order to have a strong brand.

There's more to your "brand essence" than just your logo and a snappy slogan. Your brand is the entire sum of what you do, what you excel at and the experience your customers have with you. It determines whether customers join your loyalty club and refer you to friends — or don't bother with you again.

In this article, we offer guidelines for building a strong brand that positions your small business clearly and effectively in the marketplace, and helps attract repeat business and referrals.

Table of Contents

  • Know Specifically Why You're in Business
  • Clearly Define Your Brand Promise
  • Target Whom You Want to Serve
  • Be Honest and Authentic About Who You Are
  • Differentiate Yourself from the Competition
  • Keep Your Messaging and Visual Identity Professional and Consistent
  • Create a Dialogue with Your Customers
  • Give Customers a Great Experience at Every Point of Contact

Know Specifically Why You're in Business

In today’s competitive marketplace, you don’t want to be a “jack of all trades, master of none.” While it may be tempting to offer clients a wide menu of products and services, it’s important to keep your brand focused.

Specializing in one thing allows your small business to stand out in the market. Being an expert in what you do, and doing it better than anyone else, helps the marketplace see you as the #1 source.

Tip: Your customers have specific needs, wants, values and characteristics. Ensure your brand lets them know you understand them, and can serve and satisfy them. 

Clearly Define Your Brand Promise

Your brand promise is powerful. It's the statement you make to your customers and target audience that lets them know what to expect every time they interact with you and your employees, products and services.

A brand promise is based in reality, and it's something you can prove. It's grounded in your company's culture, philosophy and atmosphere. It reflects how you serve your customers and deliver value to them. How you make a problem they have go away. How you make their life better. Why they can't do without you and would never go anywhere else.

If you were to try to think about what these famous brands promise, you might come up with something like this:

  • McDonald's: fast food with a consistency of taste and service, whether you walk into one in Timbuktu or Toledo
  • Starbucks: quality coffee in an inviting, casual atmosphere — your living room away from home
  • Volvo: cars that offer both safety and luxury
  • Zappos.com: any shoe you could want, backed by amazing customer service

Everything you do to market your small business should reflect your brand promise.

Tip: Need help defining your brand promise? Complete this sentence: "My customers buy from us because we're the only one that …" The more specific the answer, the clearer your brand promise will be.

Target Whom You Want to Serve

As discussed above, your small business can't do everything; likewise, it probably can't serve everyone. Daycares serve parents and families. Guitar stores serve certain musicians. Obstetricians serve expectant mothers. You need to know who your customer is in order to offer what they need.

Your customers may skew toward certain demographic or socioeconomic groups. They may share a particular problem, interest or need. Your brand needs to connect with these people. They're your target audience: the consumers you specifically aim to serve.

If you don't know who your target audience is, use your existing customers to define some parameters. While you may know the "80/20 rule" (i.e., 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clientele), this may provide too wide a sample.

Tip: To define your target audience, "go with the top 10 percent of your customer base," advises Sandy Upham, president of Wright Marketing Workshops. They're the ones who are already engaging repeatedly with your brand, avidly believing in your promise and delivering the greatest value to you.

Be Honest and Authentic About Who You Are

Your brand has to talk the talk and walk the walk. Otherwise, you'll present yourself inconsistently and confuse the marketplace.

If you've clearly defined your audience and what sets you apart, authenticity should come easily. Don't be hip and casual if that's not who you are, or if that's improper for the service you provide (e.g., a funeral home).

Tip: When it comes to your brand, be consistent and genuine. That will make it easier to build trust with your customers, connect with them and do repeat business.

Differentiate Yourself from the Competition

Knowing what you do best and being able to convey that to your target audience means knowing what you're up against.

With that in mind, you must be aware of your strengths and your weaknesses. Learn how to accentuate the former and how to address the latter — or, even turn those weaknesses into positives. For example, if you're a restaurant far away from Main Street, can you position yourself as a beloved "neighborhood place" for foodies in the know (and with easier parking)?

Your brand also needs to have some glimmer of personality. Consider what happened to the search engine formerly known as AskJeeves.com. When it launched in 1996, the brand was represented by a logo depicting a proper English butler. In the pursuit of concision, the company name later was shortened to Ask.com. Jeeves was fired from logo duties in 2005.

Four years later AskJeeves still had a brand awareness of 83 percent, compared to Ask.com's 72 percent, and the butler was brought back into service. The lesson? Celebrate rather than suppress what makes your brand different.

Tip: What do you do better than everyone else in your space? Focus on that.

Keep Your Messaging and Visual Identity Professional and Consistent

From business cards and logo to email newsletters and brick-and-mortar signage, all of your printed communications and sales materials should look, feel and sound like they come from the same source.

In terms of messaging, reuse key phrases that are your unique selling points, whether they're used in your brochure, on your website or in ads. Put your company slogan or tagline on everything — it's your brand promise boiled down to a catchy, memorable phrase.

Ideally, your brand's visual appearance and messaging:

  • Reflect your brand's personality and voice.
  • Set you apart from the competition.
  • Appeal to your target audience.
  • Command attention.

Tip: Don't have the right skills in-house? Explore hiring a professional copywriter and/or graphic designer to help with your marketing collateral. Projecting an unprofessional image will only discourage people from doing business with you.

Create a Dialogue with Your Customers

Sure, you talk to customers when they come in, call or email. That's a conversation. But conversations end. Dialogues are ongoing.

How can you be interacting with customers even when they're not doing business with you? Here are some ways to stay top-of-mind:

  • Post video demos of your products or services to your website, Facebook page or YouTube.
  • Put a poll on Facebook. It doesn't need to be related to your business (e.g., ask them what movie they're going to see this weekend).
  • Solicit product reviews on your website and on websites where your products are sold.
  • Respond proactively and professionally to Yelp! or Angie's List reviews, especially the negative ones.
  • Hold customer appreciation events so they see you in a new context; people love to know that they matter.
  • Share useful information; don't just send advertisements.
  • Send email newsletters targeted to your customers’ interests or purchase histories.
  • Share testimonials of satisfied customers.
  • Utilize customer satisfaction surveys.

Tip: Following these bullets will minimize the time your business is "out of sight, out of mind" with customers. 

Give Customers a Great Experience at Every Point of Contact

In our digital age, it’s both easier and harder than ever to reach your customers. They’re only a click away, but they may never meet you face to face. Make customer service a core value at all levels of your business, and become known as a brand that delivers a terrific experience. Your customers will reward you.

The first thing car-sharing company Zipcar does when its customers report they've been in an accident? Ask them if they are safe and in a warm place. Think of everything you do in terms of customer service, even if you're not directly dealing with customers. Consider the impressions they get when they:

  • See your ad, mailing, Facebook page, newsletter or website for the first time.
  • Walk into your place of business.
  • Call you.
  • Place an order over the phone or Web.
  • Send you an email inquiry.
  • Sign up for your mailing list.
  • Return to make another purchase.

While it may seem like extra work, these extra touches do matter. According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, 55 percent of consumers recommend a company to others because of its great customer service.

Tip: Go through the above processes yourself. Ask yourself: Is this as good as it could be? Would this impress me? What can be improved? Your customers should feel that you’ve gone the extra mile for them.

It's Easier Than You Think

These tips may seem to take a lot of effort. And at the outset of establishing and building your brand, you might have to do a little homework. Once you get going, though, it gets easier, more routine and more instinctive — as long as you know your market, trust your intuition, maintain consistency and be yourself.

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