A Solopreneur’s Guide to Business Branding
Branding is one of the most important aspects of building a successful business. Yet few solopreneurs, that is, sole proprietors who have started their own business, ever sit down to think carefully about their branding strategy.
There are many reasons why large multi-national corporations have teams of people dedicated to managing branding. They know exactly the types of strategies and tactics to build global brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and more.
Fortunately, branding isn’t just for the big boys any more. Small business owners can brand their business effectively as well once they know how. Let’s look in the first chapter at exactly what branding is and how it can help your business.
What is branding?
Branding is crucial whether you’re a small one-man operation or a large international web company. Your brand will make or break you in terms of market share and presence.
We can think of branding as a sort of shorthand, that enables consumers to make quick decisions about who to buy from, hopefully you. First, they have to hear about you, that is, find out that you exist. Second, they have to understand what you do. Third, they have to understand your unique selling point (USP) or your particular value proposition.
If they try your product or services, they will then form an impression of the quality of your product and decide whether it fits in with their lifestyle, tastes, preferences, and budget. A good brand will achieve what we can refer to as instant recognition, good or bad, with your target consumer.
The perception of the brand will not just be influenced by cost, but other factors as well. For example, a lot of consumers are turning to ‘greener’ products, or ones that are all natural.
Imagine you’re in the toothpaste aisle at your local supermarket. A tube of Colgate is selling for $3, next to a tube of Crest for $3, next to a no-name brand for $2, next to a Tom’s of Maine natural toothpaste for $4. Which will a consumer pick up?
Tom’s started in 1970, so at that time, it was one of the new kids on the block and had to go head to head with Crest and Colgate, but it achieved market share because of what the brand represented, a healthy alternative when it comes to brushing your teeth.
The vast majority of people pick up one of the brands they’ve heard of. They assume that because the company has a strong brand, the product is better and they have a higher chance of having a good customer experience. If they have tried it in the past, they will know which taste they prefer. They will tend to buy it no matter what the price is. However, they can also be swayed into trying something new if the price is right and if it fits in with their values, such as the Tom’s of Maine tube.
But first, people have to know that these brands exist. Businesses need to build brand awareness, that is, make their target customer aware that they exist. Studies have shown that it takes 17 exposures to a brand before the brand even starts to register on a consumer’s ‘radar’, and even then, if they are not interested in that niche, they will not be able to get them to try the product. For example, we’re sure you can probably think of a couple of names of golf ball manufacturers, but if you don’t play golf, you’re never going to buy them.
That being said, if your spouse is a golfer, you might nosy in their bag to see what they buy and give some to them as a gift, or ask a friend for advice, or go to the local sporting goods store to buy them and ask the salesperson for help. Chances are that salesperson is going to recommend one of the name brands. In fact, the store is going to stock several name brands. If you don’t have a name brand, it will be a lot harder to get shelf space or anyone to pay attention to you.
Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever brand yourself so that people will instantly recognize who you are and what you do. Your brand reputation will take time to grow, and can suffer from setback if you get negative publicity on the social networks, for example, but there are a number of ways to build your brand effectively to gain market share and boost sales.
Let’s look in the next chapter at why branding is important for the solopreneur.
Why is branding important for the solopreneur?
Branding is like a marketing shortcut if you are first going into business for yourself. Since you are a company of one as a solopreneur, you need to maximize efficiency in everything you do, especially marketing. Branding will give you:
- Instant recognition
- Word of mouth marketing
- Social media marketing
- Search engine optimization for free traffic
- The chance to build an email list
- The chance to gain affiliates and joint venture partnerships
Brand is one of the core reasons why Amazon.com can achieve 15% conversion rates. There’s, practically, no other retail website that comes close because none can match Amazon’s brand. Yet that brand only started in 1997, and online as well, not as a brick and mortar business. Yet as a result, many physical bookstores have closed their doors, such as Barnes and Noble locations, Borders, Hastings, and countless independent bookstores.
Amazon started out just selling books, but soon became a publishing house in both print and digital. In recent years, it has become the equivalent of an online department store. It is also an entertainment company, producing its own TV shows, and movies.
Why did Amazon become such a trusted brand in such a relatively short space of time? Good customer service, value, and weaving itself into the fabric of people’s daily lives are what did the trick.
Starbucks chain of coffee houses is another huge success story out of Seattle. From one small shop, it has gone global. Is its coffee REALLY better than other brands? It is a question of taste. But as with other top franchises like McDonald’s, the brand is a shortcut to getting exactly what you want and need when you wish. The atmosphere, décor, food, and drinks are the same in any Starbucks you go to, so you know exactly what to expect and how far your money will go.
The coffee is a good deal more expensive than that at Dunkin’ Donuts. Some might argue it isn’t as good so why would people pay 3 times more, but it is also what the brand represents, convenience, because there is one on almost every corner, and a certain ambiance. Starbucks is for coffee lovers, not donut lovers.
These 2 examples, clearly demonstrate that even a small startup can achieve huge things if they pay attention to branding. A bit of research would help you dig up what the old logos for Amazon and Starbucks looked like, and how they tracked and tested new designs until they hit on just the right one that they felt best represented their brand and made it instantly recognizable.
A solopreneur can also accomplish the same level of branding, as in, instant recognition, by learning more about effective branding and putting it at the head of their to do list. It can also be accomplished by thinking about any major new initiative, product, or service in relation to the brand. What would it add? What impression would it create? And would it take away from the brand in any way, or cause people to feel it was moving away from its core values?
A strong, unified brand can make all the difference between sales and starvation. It opens doors and created endless opportunities. Imagine that someone from Google called you. Would you pick up the phone? Now imagine that John Smith called you. Would you pick up the phone? Who would you more likely say “yes” to if they said they wanted to do a deal with you?
Having a great brand helps generate word of mouth traffic. People cat about brands all the time. They share experiences, make recommendations, and complain about bad experiences. In fact, statistics show that 1 happy customer will tell 1 other person about their great experience, but 1 unhappy customer will tell 7.
This being the case, every business owner should make building a strong, credible brand their #1 priority from the moment they launch. In this way even if someone does start to complain and badmouth their brand, the negative feedback will look like an isolated incident compared to a positive pattern of praise for your products and services.
Top brands will get lots of free traffic because happy customers will be more likely to link to them than to less prominent websites, and will share content on social networks more often too. More links and shares means more brand awareness, and from awareness to the willingness to try the brand to see if they like it.
Branding is something you will need to work on a little every day from the moment you launch your business. There are several challenges that you, as a sole entrepreneur, should keep in mind before you start. Let’s look at them in the next chapter.
Branding challenges for solopreneurs
There are a couple of branding challenges for solopreneurs that you need to keep in mind as you plan your branding strategy. The first is deciding on the best approach in terms of what brand you want to build. You have two choices:
- Branding yourself personally versus
- Branding your business
There are pros and cons to each approach, which are worth considering carefully before making any major decisions about how you are going to represent the brand.
Branding yourself personally
What do Emeril and Oprah have in common? They are their own brands.
They are their brand, and the spokesperson for their brand. You get to decide what your brand represents and how you want to present it. The disadvantage of this approach, however, is how much burden it places on you in reference to how much work you have to do and how visible you are. Oprah has plenty of people working for her, but SHE is the brand and front person and has to deal with media, nasty critics, and more. You need to have a pretty thick skin to put up with being the center of attention all the time.
On the other hand, if you have the skills, experience and/or position in your industry that will make people sit up and take notice every time you publish a new post at your blog or social media account, you should brand yourself.
Branding the business
In this scenario, you may be the expert behind the excellence of the products and services being offered, but not the brand itself. This puts you under less intense media scrutiny. It is also a good idea if you ever need to exit the business, that is, sell it and move on to something else. This may be hard to imagine when you are first starting in business, but the truth is that big brands buy other big brands and pay good money for them.
For example, Linkedin bought the #1 PowerPoint sharing site, Slideshare.net and then got purchased themselves by Microsoft for far more than the stock was valued. Why? Because the bigger company could see the huge potential of the brand and wanted to take to the next level.
Once you’ve decided which type of brand you are going to present, then it will be time to start organizing the material you will need in order to make your brand consistent. This will take time and you might not have a lot of money to start out. The main thing to decide is what you wish your brand to represent. What makes YOU different from everyone else out there working in your niche or industry?
This is commonly termed your unique selling point or (USP). It answers the question for the consumer, “Why buy from them?”
Your unique value proposition (UVP) is slightly different. What is the mission behind the company? What are your ethics?
Once you decide on your key differences and your USP and UVP, you will be getting closer to the point where you can start building your brand and making it stand out.
Your mission statement
What is your mission? In other words, why are you in business? What do you hope to achieve? If it is only to make money, this is not an ideal branding message.
Your business plan
Many new business owners don’t start with a business plan, just an idea, and some passion. However, a plan can help you set goals and determine the best strategies to adopt when you are building your brand.
For example, a new bricks and mortar business will use a number of different strategies that an online company doesn’t need to worry about. However, an online business might find it tougher to stand out in a very crowded market.
So, how can you build your brand and make it stand out from the moment you start up in business? Let’s look at a few considerations in the next chapter.
How to build your brand and make it stand out
There are a number of ways to build your brand and make it stand out. The first is to know your niche and market so well that you can differentiate yourself from your competitors and make doing business with you seem like a no-brainer.
Your niche research
Your niche is your topic or area of interest, such as dog supplies, golf, quilting, and so on. You might have started your business because it was a hobby or a topic that you were passionate about. However, some niches are a lot more profitable than others are. Doing niche research will help you understand exactly what problems the people in your niche have that they need to solve. Your branding building will be all about conveying the impression that you have the solutions they’re looking for.
Your market research
Many aspiring business owners don’t do enough research and then wonder why they don’t make money. In order to gain market share as a new brand in your niche or industry, you need to know who the top brands are, the price points of their products, and why people buy from them. You can read reviews to find out what people love about their products and what buyers complain about, and then try to go one better.
All of this can be tedious for a solopreneur dying to sell lots of stuff. But remember, a brand is shorthand and offers instant identification and hopefully trust too. If you’ve ever heard the saying, “You never get a second chance to create a (good) first impression, and then it’s time to consider exactly how you wish to brand your business and follow through.
In the next chapter, we will look at how to present your brand in all of your marketing materials.
How to present your brand in all of your marketing materials
Before we get started on all of the ways you can present your brand, the most important word to remember is CONSISTENCY. Being consistent in terms of appearance and messaging is the most important way to build an effective brand.
A lot of people who hear the word, “branding” think about a logo, such as the McDonald’s one above. But effective branding is about far more than that. It is also about the message they are trying to convey. The golden arches and the red and gold coloring stand out, and the arches look like a letter M for McDonald’s, but the logo itself doesn’t tell us much about the values of the company.
If we search for them on Google, we see this listing.
Most people will already know about the burgers and fries. The “& more” suggests other things worth find out about. The phrase “quality ingredients” is a little contrary to what we might expect in relation to fast food. The invitation to find out more about the menu and promotions is an invitation to click on the link. When the reader clicks, they should be able to find what they have been promised right away, more information, a menu, and so on.
The McDonald’s slogan is, “I’m lovin’ it.” It might be catchy, but again, it is less than ideal in relation to telling an alien from outer space what the brand does. However, everyone here on Planet Earth knows. Why? It’s because of the consistent branding and branches all over the world.
Branding is like a promise. It sets up an expectation and that expectation needs to be fulfilled.
What are you promising your customers? All your presentational devices should help support that promise:
- The name
- Color scheme of logo
- Font used in the logo
- The image or design used
- The emotions conveyed
- The personality of the company
Aim for a logical name unless you can come up with something catchy.
A good example would be The Motley Fool, which is a strange name for a website that advises you on investment strategies. But it is memorable, as is the URL, fool.com. The slogan is also interesting: To Educate, Amuse, and Enrich.
As you’re creating your branding materials, ask yourself what kind of emotions you want them to elicit. The emotions of a green cleaning products company are going to be very different from an insurance company or a law firm. Geico ads stand out in an industry, which is dull. This is because they are clever and amusing.
Once you have decided on what image you want to convey, write it up, and use fiverr or 99designs to see what the pros come up with.
Evaluate the logos based on their ability to produce the emotions you want. Look at color, font, and so on. Does the logo inspire trust and credibility? Fun and excitement? Remember, you will be using this logo EVERYWHERE so be sure it is clear, the words are easy to read in a highly visible font, and that it will look good on your website, stationery, social media account pages and so on. It should also look good no matter how large or small it will show as on different sites.
The Slogan and USP
Domino’s slogan used to be “Hot pizza to your door in 30 minutes or it’s free.” It clearly expressed the unique proposition that Domino’s had to offer. However, a sad vehicle crash ended that promotion recently.
Now their marketing seems flat, as we can see from the above. But it does give a couple of good calls to action about ordering pizza online. The logo is still distinctive:
Keep in mind that brands can and do change over time. For example, after “Supersize Me,” McDonald’s is going to have a very hard time branding themselves as the place families go to bring their kids for a fun meal.
Be aware of events that surround your company. If you try to ignore them and go on branding as if nothing ever happened, you’ll commit brand suicide.
Launching your brand and developing a mature brand are different from each other in a number of ways. In the beginning, it will be all about just getting your brand out there so people will pay attention to it. Over time, however, as your business matures, you will start to consolidate your gains and grow your brand in strategic directions. Let’s look in the next chapter about how to increase the reach of your brand.
How to increase the reach of your brand to grow your business
Launching a new brand can be a lot of fun. Everything is new and exciting and you are going from 0 to X in a matter of a few short weeks or months. Your graphs all show lines shooting upwards dramatically. It’s exciting and everything you do can help build brand awareness.
Once you’ve started to develop the awareness level, however, your next task will be to boost brand reach. Building your brand is all about consistently putting out the same message, repeatedly over time.
The more ways you can put out the message about your brand, the better. There are so many free ways to spread the word about your brand and present your target audience with messaging that it’s tough to know what to do first:
- PowerPoint presentations
- Guest blog posts
- Press releases
- Discussion boards
- Email marketing
The truth is you need to do a little every day. There is a lot to do and you’re all on your own at this point, so do what gives you the best results by tracking and testing.
For example, LinkedIn is a great way to expand your brand reach IF you are interested in connecting with a professional audience and/or other businesses. Pinterest is the best place to connect with women between 30 and 45-they make up about 85% of the audience at that site.
YouTube skews towards a male audience, but using the right keywords in your titles and descriptions of your videos can turn your channel into a magnet for women interested in high-quality content that can make their lives easier.
Every piece of content you create, for whichever of the above purposes, or more, should further your brand. If you’re a golfing website, everything should be about the various aspects of golf, not golf and pets and barbecue.
Use your knowledge of your niche to go where your prospective customers are, rather than wait for them to come to you. Use your niche research to plan products and services and write your sales letters.
Don’t sabotage your own brand
Sooner or later, you are going to have to hire someone to help you, such as a virtual assistant or a freelancer from a top marketplace like Upwork. When you hire people, it’s essential for them to be on the same page as you in terms of what the brand represents.
A brand resides in the collective minds of your target market. What most of your market thinks about your company is your brand. If most people think you’re credible, you have a credible brand. If most people think your products are affordable, then affordability is part of your brand.
If you suddenly start to take a different tactic, however, and don’t bring your customers along with you, you can sabotage the brand you’ve worked so hard to build.
If you suddenly start worrying about a lot more profits and customer service or quality decline as a result, word is going to get around. If some marketing ‘guru’ decides that launching an all-new version of your product is a good idea, remind them of the fiasco with Coke and then having to bring back the original formula as “Coke Classic.” They broadened their product offerings in the long run, but the mistake cost them more than they can ever estimate.
Be your best brand ambassador
Building your brand takes time, but it really is in your hands. Write and develop an ‘elevator speech’ that tells people what you or your brand does in 30 seconds or less. Practice it until it becomes like second nature to you.
Start with a story
You know how terrible it is when you’re running late and your car won’t start? I sell a solar-powered instant battery booster so you don’t need to worry about finding someone to jumpstart your car.
The above is an example of an effective marketing story. If the person is a driver, that story will resonate with them and make them eager to learn more. If not a driver, the person might know someone who is, and possibly even think it would make the perfect gift, if it were affordable.
Practice your elevator speech and join your local Chamber of Commerce. They are always looking for people who can teach them about important business topics. Attend conferences and trade shows. If you offer a presentation, it will give you exposure and back-of-the-room sales after you speak.
If you are branding yourself as a person, rather than your business, consider offering a course at your local community college or Learning Annexe. Polish your public speaking skills and sign up for a speaker’s bureau. Write a book and publish it on Kindle and you will soon be viewed as an expert, not a newcomer.
Build your brand to the point where you can walk into a room full of people in your same niche or industry and they will know who you are and what your company does.
Branding is an ongoing process, but it is one of the fastest ways to gain recognition and market share provided you define your brand and your goals from the start.
Branding isn’t just for big business. A well-developed brand creates instant recognition with the target audience so that they know exactly what to expect. Take some time to decide what you wish your brand to represent in the eyes of your niche buyers and see what a difference it can make to your market share, sales and profits.