In my experience working with small businesses, the ones that are most likely to succeed are the ones with owners that get “stuff” done. The best website, most polished marketing, expensive IT are all meaningless if there is no customer.
This is both a blessing and a curse from a branding perspective. Quite rightly, these businesses did not overinvest in “brand” before testing the market and possibly never even considered it in those terms – they just knew they needed a logo, website and business card. However, as the business grows, so do the customers and their expectations, and exactly when the owner is swamped (in a good way!), there is an urgent need to invest in branding. This is a key element in what will elevate the business from a “bustling one-person show” to a “professional operation” from the customer’s perception.
So what are the warning signs that indicate it is time to invest in a brand review/refresh?
Warning sign 1: Embarrassment
Have you ever suffered from website shame? That site you dashed off to get things up and running quickly is still hanging around. You give less and less thought to it until one day you meet a new business contact, who says: 'Hey, I checked out your website!'
You last touched it in 2015 – in fact it has © 2015 at the bottom of it. There's a typo on the About page and the blog hasn't been touched in over two years, and your first reaction is one of embarrassment. You find yourself making excuses to the contact, “Oh that old thing – we’re redoing it at the moment”.
At this point rebranding is imperative – your online presence should give you the confidence and pride to win business, and this comes with a polished brand that presents you in the best possible light.
Warning sign 2: You are stepping up a level of customer
As you grow organically, and success builds your reputation, it is easy to lose sight of just who your customers have become. From fellow small businesses, all of a sudden you are working for SME’s and before you know it, departments within huge customers. At this point, you have a new group of “brand stakeholders”. Often, the person at the customer who would engage your services in heartbeat is not the one in control of the budget. They have to convince their boss – or their bosses’ boss – or even worse, a procurement department, that you are the right provider. A well executed, professional brand will go a long way to equipping your sponsor to pitch your benefits internally, and pass the “sniff” test of a quick online check by someone in the customer. It might not win you the work, but it can certainly avoid you losing it.
Warning sign 3: It is time to hire staff
It is a big step to bring someone else into your business. Particularly in a services business – you are trusting your reputation to the way in which someone else behaves with your customers. You have to attract the right person, convey to them what it is that you try and bring to your customers, and be able to determine if they are performing.
This is difficult to do at the best of times, but it is made a lot more straightforward when you have a clearly defined brand identity and story. You can consistently communicate what it is your business is about and its value proposition to customers; you can determine if a potential candidate is likely to be able to deliver on that promise; you can help the employee understand the expectations you have of them, why they are important, and determine where to focus on training if necessary. Perhaps most importantly, from an internal perspective, you have a measure by which to determine if the employee is delivering on your business’ promise.
Warning sign 4: You hit a growth plateau
Everything was going so well – rapid growth, new customers, new products… but it’s stuck. There isn’t a crisis, there just isn’t any forward momentum. People have told you that you need to do some marketing, but you aren’t sure where to start. Online? Social media? Direct mail? And what would you say if you did?
Landing on the right marketing strategy relies on a solid brand foundation. No single channel to market is sufficient any more – prospective customers will see your website, your signage, your social media presence, business cards and everything else. Ensuring that these are consistent, and aligned to your target customers, means that they become reinforcing. This can be a challenging exercise – the organic growth you have enjoyed might not have required a disciplined definition of a target market, but this focus will brings its reward in terms of return on your marketing spend.
Warning sign 5: Simple tasks are difficult to do well
Your website is…fine. Your accounting software spits out template invoices that are good enough. You have a letterhead for when you need it. You even got a graphic designer to do a workbook for a client when it had to look slick. And then someone asks you to come and give a short presentation – oh, and if you could just send it as a pre-read with a covering letter and a short bio that would be great, thanks.
All of this content is there, you pull it all together and you realise – none of the colours are the same. Nor the fonts. Even the wording about your business is a bit different every time. And you settle down for a long evening of making it all consistent. Not the most productive – or engaging – use of your time. At this point a well-executed brand starts to pay for itself in time saved. A brand toolkit will give you consistent colours, fonts, imagery and copy, with templates for Word, Powerpoint and online posting tools such as Canva or Squarespace. It might be one of the less glamorous elements of branding, but looking good with minimum effort enables you to leverage your time on what matters.
Scaling a business is a busy time, and as small and micro business owners we can struggle to keep all of the balls in the air. There's always more to be done - on your service offering, your business development, your marketing. Often, brand development gets shuffled to the 'nice to have' pile, where it will be dealt with 'at some stage'. Sometimes it takes a crystallising moment by way of a 'warning sign' to give us the momentum we need. Have you suffered any of these signs? How did you go about resolving this, and how did it go? I'd love to know!