A common sense guide to branding for small businesses


If you'd like to learn how to start branding on a budget but really don't know where to start, here are a few tips for brand marketing in the real world from Adrian Kimpton, partner at Sable&Hawkes.


Adrian writes:

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, SMEs employ 14.1 million people with a combined annual turnover of £1,500bn. All these firms have different products to market, different services to sell. And if you're trading, then you already have a brand, you have already adopted a market position, and you have a reputation that needs promoting and protecting.

But we're not all Apple or Nike and we don't all have the budget to start or the expertise to get it right.

I firmly believe that any business, however small, with a good idea, sense of purpose and belief in what you are doing, can write a great story, get noticed, and have a successful brand without such global resources. Here's how:

Your brand is what your customer says it is.
What makes a strong brand? What inspires loyalty in a customer? The nuance will vary from one instance to another, but the unifying thread is always the same: creating the right connection and establishing a sense of trust. People rarely recommend a plumber just because of his knowledge of the U-bend. But they do say, “He’s always on time, whatever he is, he's honest ... I trust him.”

And what of your local Indian Take Away. The Biryani has to be good of course, that's the trust bit – but throw in a complimentary bhaji now and again and remembering your customers names, now that's where the connections are made, that's where the brand starts paying its way. And if you want a more commercial and complex example – try First Direct. I blog about them frequently (http://ow.ly/KuCQZ) precisely because they are consistently at the top of Which's customer service ratings, and their brand is consistently rated as one of the most trusted in the UK.

Great branding owns the feelings in your customers that motivates them to act. That’s brand in a nutshell. Not a logo, strapline or vision statement, ultimately its your reputation that matters and their trust.

Found what works. Then do it again. And again. And again.
The core of any successful brand is finding what works for you and then delivering that over and over again. A consistency of service, of performance, of experience. Your brand, in other words, tells the world exactly what they can count on from your product, or service, and from you.

Ensuring the interaction you have with consumers is equally effective across all channels of your brand is the big challenge of your brand – but a business that focuses its attention on the quality and reliability of those experiences does more to build its brand than any marketing, social presence or carefully scripted blog will ever do.

If you want a great example of the online purchase experience, of course Amazon is the pinnacle and they only do online. Now Sports Direct are also excellent online, great deals, very user-friendly, neat and uncluttered shopping experience and very helpful and clear purchase pipe line, with no obligation to subscribe or join as well. But I don't think you could use the words user-friendly or uncluttered about their in-store experience. There is a clear difference between the two – bring in-store inline with online and the brand would be so much stronger for it.

Brands from the outside in.
Ultimately a business will only survive if it knows its customers inside and out, and the key is always think customer first and then to translate what is happening outside your business into something practical and profitable inside your business. How does your product or service alleviate your customers problems, reduce negative emotions, or undesired costs, give them the social profile they desire or just make their lives that bit more enjoyable?

And direct interaction with customers is ultimately the best way to fully know yourself and the good in what you do. Talk to your customers as often and as helpfully as you can. Don't be a pain, but don't be a stranger either.

The more you interact with your customers, the better informed you’ll be about their needs, their priorities, and their perception of your company’s value to them. And that will tell you which branding messages to drive home. I always think of Pimlico Plumbers at this point, and Charlie Mullins, undoubtedly the king of customer interaction whose relentless marketing strategy of direct customer interaction has had him dubbed the UK's first millionaire plumber. Customers can tweet plumbing problems to the firm for free advice, guides on common problems are regularly posted across the social network, again, free and customers can now directly request which van comes to service their boiler. The difference, the reg plates, like Bog 1 or DRA1N. They can cost anything up to £25,000 each, but have been a phenomenally successful publicity tool – spreading the word about his company across the country and online, encouraging even greater direct customer contact and bringing in new business.

Keep the Conversation going.
Keeping your customers at arm's length is no longer an option for brands or businesses. More than anything else in the past decade the use of social media has changed the way companies put their names into the public consciousness. And social media is now providing unprecedented access to customers and their feedback on you. What you are doing well, not so well, where new opportunities may lie.

This may seem like a potentially scary, complex and time consuming area of marketing but the in marketing terms, the value is very clear: meaningful customer collaboration elevates us all to better things.

Use technology to gain insight and input into what you do, create bonds with people, not commecial relationships customers, and put every effort into converting your most committed customers into “brand evangelists”. A great example of a great and free idea working so well is The Guardian which chose to engage with its users by challenging them to “Own the Weekend.” It invited its readers to do “something cool” at the weekend, take a picture of it that included its “We Own the Weekend” slogan, and tweet it to the Guardian with the hashtag, #owntheweekend for the chance to win an iPad Mini. This simple and crucially free content-based campaign generated hundreds of thousands of responses and dramatically increased engagement with its readership and media partners.

In this regard, authenticity is key: old school self-promotion rings false, and todays consumer will tune you out in seconds. What they are open to is receiving messages that relate your brand to their lives, interests and needs and to have a bit of fun in the process. That's how you turn customers into evangelists.

The brightest sail in the biggest sea.
Your brand should bring your competitive positioning to life in voice, image and experience. And if you’re a company with a product already in the marketplace, then you’ve already completed your competitive positioning.

Being different, being seen to be different is very useful in capturing your customers attention as long as your difference is authentic and useful. Construction company Hilti provides an example of differentiation in a sector. Whilst most other construction companies use technical images of buildings and products in their communications, Hilti emphasised its relationship with the people involved in construction, showing black and white photographs of workers using Hilti tools, which are highlighted in the company’s corporate red.

The point is, that only one product can be and therefore say they are the cheapest, only one service the fastest. The rest of us need something else, something more. Does your position get across why you do what you do, and why that helps your customers solve their challenges or improve their lives? Hold that thought, and consider another example, Rachel’s Organic Butter. Their packaging identity is based on black so it would stand out from the typical yellow, gold and green colours (representing sunshine and fields) used by competitor products. The result is that the brand appears more premium, distinctive and perhaps even more daring than its competitors.

If you are in it. Be in it together.
We have already said that authenticity and consistency are key to any brand and every member of your organisation has a role in shaping that. If everyone in your organisation doesn't understand your brand, purpose and advantage, then at some point you're going to go off message.

What does that mean in practice? It means making brand awareness a universal measure of performance. Use it as part of your recruitment process, your review process and criteria for promotions and bonuses.

John Lewis is a great example of positive employee brand advocacy. The business calls employees partners regardless of their position, is the largest employee-owned business in the UK and for a very good reason – staff understand and trust the brand, and the John Lewis culture reflects what it wants to stand for on the outside through how it operates on the inside. And this is where small is a distinct advantage. The smaller, the more personal the business, the more personal and authentic the internal brand can become.

The collective experience of your brand is happening whether you are there to control it or not, whether you like it or not – everything you do should reinforce your brand message and having a committed, brand-led organisation can at least mitigate against the edges.

Living the dream. Telling the story.
People relate to products and businesses that they think share their beliefs, values, outlook on life. If you are committed to living a sustainable life, you will naturally be attracted to eco-products and the business that make a point of telling that particular story. And stories like that really do work. You have to live them of course but they come from a set of beliefs and carry a message that its simply much harder to copy than the functional features of a product or service.

Basing your business on a belief that your customers can share also helps you show your customer why you should matter to the people you want to them. Yes our product is good, but we also think the way you think, feel the way you feel. If it works, that bond will create a lasting impression and relevance in heart and mind of your customers, even if the market or competitor landscape changes. Pret A Manger for instance makes a big play of valuing fresh food and minimising wastage. So, all its food is made on location each morning (with no sell by dates) and any left over at the end of the day is given to homeless charities and shelters.

In this way the company has laid out a value and has followed it through with the way it runs its service.

If you've got here, well done ... And finally.
We said upfront that great branding owns the feelings in your customers that motivates them to act. That’s brand in a nutshell. Not a logo, strapline or vision statement, ultimately its about (in our case (cost))-effective management of your reputation and it's about trust and affiliation. Manage the experience your customers have of you consistently, authentically, enthusiastically and with a clear, positive and relevant position and you will be going some way to creating a successful brand.


By Adrian Kimpton, partner at Sable&Hawkes.



Sable&Hawkes are a graphic design company based in Cambridge. We deliver brand positioning, visual identity solutions, creative direction and corporate and promotional design in print and online.