Branding today is different than it was in the last century. One simple reason is that there are more ways to reach people, thanks to changes in technology, media and the way we consume content.
Even 30 years ago, most businesses thought about reaching their customers through analog means — print ads, billboards and direct mail campaigns. Vintage marketing shows us that brochures went beyond facts or products specs. They also set the tone for companies' style and branding. Of course, they are still around but today marketing brochures are as likely to show up on your tablet as in your mailbox.
Back then, you could count on the consumers and business people in your community to pick up local newspapers, since that's how we got much of our news. Thanks to 24-hour television and radio, websites and social media, the landscape for marketing is very different now.
The good news is that there are many more opportunities for marketers to reach their ideal audiences, both for bigger firms and small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). Yet, with so much more going on for consumers, SMBs need to have a different approach to capture attention and promote their businesses.
One strategy for SMBs is to think about their brands as more than logos or ad campaigns. Rather, brands should be considered living, breathing things.
Believe it or not, the idea of "the living brand" isn't new or a 2016 trending topic. A decade ago, the Harvard Business Review asked its readers, "What company comes to mind when you think of customer service?" Whether the answer is big retailers such as Nordstrom or Tiffany, or local B2B firms, HBR concluded that it's all about creating balance between what companies sell and how their employees embody brand promises when dealing directly with customers.
Of larger companies that have nailed down the best service, HBR wrote, "They consider employees their living brand and devote a great deal of time and energy to training and developing them so that they reflect the brand’s core values."
Another essential point is that a visual image or name is not a brand. Casey Cavanaugh writes in The Huffington Post, "A brand is not just a logo; it’s a reputation." He goes on to say, "It’s a way to attract and communicate with your audience. Because people are often exposed to your brand before actually interacting or doing business with you, it also acts as a way of setting expectations."
But how do you make sure brands are living brands? It's all about having the right mindset. To be specific, Gary Nix, an SMB branding expert who writes for Small Business Trends and The Personal Branding Blog, explains that it's about "the feels" you create. He notes that integrity, reputation and trust are important for small businesses, especially since they tend to know their customers on a personal basis in contrast to big companies.
But to create those attributes, relationships are key. "We as humans naturally seek out relationships. We are social beings, so we look to acquire and retain relationships with people that are like us, that we like, that like us back and that we can trust," Nix writes. "Recognizing and realizing this fact will help you in your personal relationships as well as your business endeavors. It is the relationship that you build that allows you to become bigger, better, faster, or stronger."
Capitalizing on trust and relationships depends on companies’ abilities to plan and position their brands too. Nix adds that having great logos and familiar names is a great start. But the biggest job for entrepreneurs is to make sure they are clear about their missions, visions and values, as well as the quality they provide to customers, regardless of their lines of business.
"Quality is defined as the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind," Nix concludes. "In the context of branding, this comparison is represented by your know how or how capable your product or service is in contrast to those analogous to you."
Lastly, according to Entrepreneur magazine, a brand strategy is "how, what, where, when and to whom" companies reach when communicating and delivering on their brand messages. Above all else, branding for SMBs is comprised of consistent efforts.
Certainly SMBs come in all shapes and sizes. There's no boilerplate approach to crafting their brands from scratch to perfection. But for those entrepreneurs who are passionate about what they do, the best advice might be very simple.
They should start with clear visual identities — great logos designed with the help of a top-quality partner. Then they should be authentic, making their brands and reputations shine by giving customers the best products, quality and services possible.