How to build a brand for your small business

January 24, 2024 | 6 minute read

Steve Strauss

Written by
Steve Strauss

The senior small business columnist for USA Today, Steve is also a brand ambassador with 20 years of experience and the author of 18 books, including his latest, Your Small Business Boom.

What comes to mind when you think about BMW, Apple, or Starbucks?


Each company evokes very clear emotions and ideas. You know exactly what to expect. BMW is “the ultimate driving machine.” Apple sells design-forward computers and products. Starbucks is the place for a consistently tasty cup of coffee.


The fact that each of these companies has a strong corporate identity - or brand - is no accident. They spend a lot of time, effort and money so you consider them in that very specific manner.


You can think of a brand in any number of ways. It could be, as some say, your promise to your customers; Nike promises to help you with your workouts. Or a brand could be that one thing that makes a business unique, an “X factor.” Southwest Airlines is the friendly, low-cost airline while Virgin Airlines offers extra perks and an exceptional customer experience. Still others think of a brand as a company’s reputation – Walmart’s reputation is a place for low prices.


A brand can be all of these.


Benefits of a strong brand identity for small businesses

Creating a great brand helps you get noticed, stand out, attract top-tier clients and make more money. Indeed, once you build your business brand where it is known (even if it’s only in your niche community), you are well on your way to not having to compete on price. In fact, you can charge more because your clients will value your work/service above others'.


Charging a premium for your services is one of the many reasons to consider working on your brand. In addition, a great brand:


  • Gives your business credibility
  • Keeps it top of mind
  • Results in consistent business, as well as referral business
  • Ups your income potential


How to build a brand for your business

So, how do you go about building that all-important brand? While it is not difficult, it take consistent, concerted effort. Here are the steps to take:


1. Research competitors and your target audience

A great brand attracts some customers while “repelling” others. That’s good, desired even. Take Harley Davidson for example. The motorcycle company has an “outlaw” image it has carefully cultivated. For those who like that sort of thing, Harley bikes are the obvious choice. And for those who don’t, it’s not. And that is fine with Harley Davidson.


So, the first step is to identify your intended target audience. Who are your desired, potential customers? There are three steps to this identification process:


  1. Analyze your existing customer base: Query your current customers. What do they like about your business? What similar businesses do they frequent? What is their take on your brand?
  2. Engage in market research: Check out the competition. Research your industry. Review sites and social media channels.
  3. Create an “ideal customer”: Based on your customer base and research findings, create a composite “typical” customer of your business. What is their age, gender, education background, and financial status? What do they read, watch, and listen to? Once you know this, reaching them with a magnetic brand becomes easier.


2. Understand your brand story

A brand is not simply a clever tagline and logo. Rather, your brand is the story you want to tell the world about your business. As such, you need to know what that story is, and why you want to share it. Ask yourself:


  • What are our brand values?
  • What do we believe in, and why?
  • What makes our business unique, different, special, and better?
  • Why would someone choose us?


Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, once said, “A brand has to stand for something.”


What will your brand stand for?


3. Define your brand’s voice and tone

One way to look at a brand is that it is the personality of a business. Jimmy Buffett created a business empire around the song “Margaritaville.” Margaritaville is now a billion-dollar enterprise consisting of concerts, restaurants and bars, cruises, even retirement homes. And one reason for its success is the clear brand voice of Margaritaville. Fun, friendly, tropical . . . it is a brand people want to be part of.


So that is what you need to consider. What do you want the personality, the voice and tone, of your business, to be? The answer depends on your type of business, your desired customer, and your brand values. And remember, like Margaritaville, it must be real and authentic; a CPA will have a different tone than a skateboard shop.


4. Create visual elements of your brand

With this step, you take your research, goals, and tone and begin to translate them into tools and visuals, your brand assets. These consist of:


  • A logo
  • A tagline
  • Brand colors and typography
  • Iconography
  • Photos and graphics
  • Website and social media pages


The secret is to combine all these things in such a way that your intended brand and business personality are clearly communicated. Consistency and clarity are key.


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5. Develop a brand strategy

A good brand does several things at once. First, it needs to clearly identify the business and why it is unique, different. Moreover, it should stand out in the marketplace. It should also be memorable. Your strategy needs to accomplish all these goals at once.


Say, for example, that you want to open a burger joint. You cannot (and should not) try to compete with McDonald’s. Instead, you need a brand that sets you apart. Maybe yours is the ‘Home of the “Southwest Burger.”’ A desert theme could identify you and be your motif. The important thing is to be authentic and different.


6. Have others promote your brand

Once you have that unique brand, one way to become better known is to have others promote it. Consider investing in some public relations and work to have a media outlet do a story about your business and brand. Team up with (or hire) influencers in your industry to promote your brand; that is especially good these days with younger customers. Consider sponsoring a local event that ties in with your business.


7. Monitor and refine your brand

A brand is not a static thing. As your business changes over time, so too might your brand. It is important to continue to experiment and try out new strategies. That ad that worked so well for so long might grow stale. New opportunities, like social media, might emerge. Unless you keep trying new things, you might miss out.


Tying it all together

Branding takes time. It takes effort and thoughtfulness. It takes forethought. Creating a brand that resonates and is memorable is not easy, but it is quite worth it. Because, once you do that, people will remember it, and when that happens, it can be powerful.

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