Why small businesses should worry about branding

Why small businesses should worry about branding

Branding is how you perceive a company (or a product) and what you feel or recall about regardless if you purchase. It’s a visceral reaction to the culmination of all your interactions with a company or product. The emotional response to a brand, positive or negative, shapes your attitude towards it. It’s why you’ll pay more for a luxury item, or why you lust for a specific make of car, or why you’ll reach for a specific product on a shelf. But because it’s a nebulous concept, branding can often be an afterthought for many small business owners.

Large companies spends billions to cultivate their brands

Branding is big business because it provides bottom line benefits. Brand management helps to create brand equity. That is, by carefully controlling every interaction with their “brand” companies want to create positive feelings towards their brand. They want to instill a level of trust in the company or product (brand trust) so you’re either A) willing to pay more for their product or will B) buy it more frequently or will C) prefer it over competitors. The level to which A, B, or C affects you is qualified as the brand “value” or “equity”.

Branding is often considered by many to be merely a visual or aesthetic exercise. And while maintaining and controlling your brand’s appearance and consistency is important, so your ads and products and messaging can be recognized with minimal effort - it’s only half of the process. Branding is more than just advertising and design. It also permeates every interaction a customer has with your company. Branding consists of how you’re greeted by sales staff; what your store or office looks like; and how the experience of buying effects the consumer.

If your brand promotes itself as affable and helpful and when I interact with your sales associate and find them rude and discourteous - regardless of the millions you spend - my impression of your brand may be tainted and likely negative. It’s sometimes the benign little things that can have a powerful impact on your brand - which can be frustrating to small business owners. Do employees smile? Are they responsive to customers? Is your place neat and your shelves stocked? Are you bathrooms clean? All these factor into how your brand is perceived. And your brand sets the consumers expectations - it helps determine what they’re willing to spend.

So why should a small business worry about branding?

A small business should concern themselves with branding because they often only get one shot with a consumer. Let’s face it, big brands can suffer a few bad experiences, because their billions spent on advertising or ubiquity can often overcome a single negative event. But when you’re small, you likely don’t have the marketing budget nor the resources or locations to counter act a bad experience. So it’s imperative your brand always creates a positive interaction.

If you’re operating a retail shop, make sure it’s clean and neat; keep the bathroom clean; have sales staff greet customers pleasantly and unobtrusively, such as “good morning, let me know if I can help you with anything”. Make sure your team isn’t aloof or distracted (you may need to keep the cellphones off the sales floor). Weigh all your decisions against how they affect your brand - even the innocuous ones. Remember, it’s the seemingly small things that can influence your brand’s perception.

Here’s an example: a while back a new restaurant opened and my wife and I enjoyed it so we started to frequent it. It wasn’t overly fancy, our meals ranged from $25 to $50 a piece, but it was a good atmosphere and the food was tasty. So every Friday we’d walk in around the same time and the hostess would recognize us and take us to our preferred booth (if it was available). The manager would come over and welcome us and sometimes offer us a complementary appetizer. We felt special, and we told everyone about the place.

But then, the manager left, and the new manager changed things. The food was still fairly good, but something was off. There was more staff turnover. Everyone seemed less happy. Things weren’t as tidy and the meals began to look sloppy. The changes manifested one night when my wife received her sour cream on the side in a small sealed “diner-like” plastic container. It’s not like she expected a crystal bowl, but it just wasn’t consistent with the restaurant’s brand. It was one of the last Friday nights we ate there - the changes had slowly eroded our experience until for us the brand failed - and apparently it wasn’t only us, the place closed a little over a year later.

Poor choices (probably meant to save money) had negatively affected the brand. What was initially a mid-upscale restaurant began to be run as a diner and so I suspect those like us that had spent $60 to $100 on dinner for two each Friday night no longer felt the experience justified the expense. They lost all the brand equity they’d created in us - we stopped going; and worse, we stopped talking about and recommending the restaurant to others. I suppose it seems silly to blame the restaurant's collapse on not serving my wife’s sour cream in a ramekin - and I’m not - it was simply an example of how the small things effected the brand until it lost its cachet.

Carefully weigh decisions against your brand

The moral of the my restaurant story, you need to consider each change or addition carefully. You need to constantly reevaluate your business and all the facets to ensure everything is consistent with your branding. And if something isn’t - you need to figure out why it’s not and change it. Moreover, you need to put in place policies or procedures that will help to manage and maintain your branding. Aesthetically this might be branding guidelines for all your visual communications. Internally it might mean extra training to make sure staff know what’s expected of them - or even undercover spot checks to ensure they’re following through. It seems over-the-top, but when your brand is on the line, and with today’s fickle consumer - you need to be constantly on-guard.

There is a retail brand that requires personnel to be “happy” while at work. They have rigid guidelines and perform undercover checks to determine the happiness levels of the store’s staff. Moreover, if the store passes the happiness check, everyone in the store gets a bonus, but if it fails, no one does. The culture therefore self-enforces the happiness policy. It’s a bit of an extreme, but it works for them, and they attribute higher sales to the happy shopping environment - even if it is compelled.

You probably don’t need to go to this extreme, but you should worry about how your brand is received and perceived by customers. Every interaction needs to positively promote your brand. Whether it’s an ad, a billboard, a store greeting, or a clean bathroom - don’t miss out on an opportunity to instill goodwill and favorable brand experiences. You may not get a second chance.

Jul 31, 2013

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