7 Basic Branding Rules for Small Businesses

  •    Designer and branding expert. Born and raised in Sweden, she grew up surrounded by an appreciation for good storytelling and great design.

Good branding is essential for any successful company, and particularly important for small businesses just starting out. It's easy for solopreneurs to forget this piece of the puzzle as they spend every waking hour working on the other aspects of starting a new business. However, allocating time for brand development from the very beginning will help get your business off to the right start.

If you have the option, working with a branding expert is always helpful. If you are on a tight budget, which most entrepreneurs are, there is still a lot you can do on your own. These seven basic branding rules will help you develop your branding like a pro.

1. Keep it Simple

When developing the visual identity for your business, it's always a good idea to err on the side of simplicity. If you have the budget, work with designers and brand professionals. If not, you can still achieve greatness on your own. A good brand is memorable, timeless and versatile. Think of iconic brands like Nike, Target, Apple and Chanel. Chances are you could draw those logos pretty accurately from memory. That's the power of simplicity.

When it comes to logotype — the type-only part of a logo — stay away from using excessively expressive type. Sticking to the classics will keep your brand from looking dated in a few years. Keep colors to a minimum and steer clear of using “dimensional effects" like drop shadows, which look dated and tend to not reproduce well in print applications. You also need to consider how your logo will look as a tiny profile image for Instagram. Think about creating a simplified version for use at small scale or on social media.

2. Be Unique

Your branding should — in the best way possible — represent what your business does. A logo for a French restaurant will look very different from that of a tech startup. While there is some benefit to staying within certain industry frames of reference, it's important to not fall into tired old clichés. Just because your business is based on principles of sustainability does not mean the logo needs to have a leaf in it. And tech companies do not all need to be represented by swooshy globe symbols. Not only are these overly predictable, they may also cheapen your brand because customers will automatically associate your logo with all the other bad globe or leaf-themed ones out there. Again, many of the world's most valuable brands are represented by wordmarks or symbols that are very simple. Create a logo that is memorable and establish a link between the user and your brand.

3. Be Consistent

Some of the most successful brands out there have managed to grow quickly because they start out thinking like a big business — even though your company may just be one person at the moment. Establish brand guidelines that outline usage of everything from typefaces to colors and make a point of always following them. Customize all your social media profiles so they look and feel consistent. Print business cards and other collateral as nicely as you can afford to. Online print-on-demand services like Moo, 4by6 and Paper Chase Press are great resources for that. Fine tune your brand voice and messaging to ensure that you are always speaking in a consistent voice that is appropriate for your target audience.

4. Be Authentic

When developing a brand, you need to gain the trust and loyalty of your customers. Learn who they are and speak to them in an honest way. Most people love supporting small businesses that have a great story. Connect with customers by telling that story in the most powerful way you can.

One big benefit of being a small business is you (and your employees) can provide a personal touch to your communication. Be there for your customers by responding to social media posts or emails and answering the phone — a big plus considering how impossible it is to get an actual person on the phone at larger companies. People love to see that there is a real person behind a brand and are more likely to become loyal advocates if they feel an authentic connection with you.

5. Research the Competition

Before launching anything, you need to map out the competitive landscape. Thoroughly research your industry so you understand exactly where your brand needs to fit into the marketplace and where there are opportunities. It's also important to look at your competitors' branding. You want to fit nicely into the marketplace, but not look too much like anything else (case in point, Airbnb and Automation Everywhere).

You also need to make sure you have all the trademarks and copyrights necessary for your business. Branding agencies and large companies often employ a staff of lawyers that perform thorough trademark searches for clients. That can be costly, but as a small business you can do a lot of the work yourself with a few simple internet searches.

First off, look conduct a domain search to find out if your domain name is available. If you can't secure a good one for the name you've intended for your business, you may need to come up with a new, more unique, one. That's how important domain names are these days. Do a basic search over at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to make sure there's not already a conflicting trademark filed in your category. If there isn't, file one for yourself.

Some digging around of Google is always warranted — for the visual parts of your brand as well. For example, if a main element of your logo is the letter M, search for “M logo," if it's a square and a circle, search for things like “square circle logo." Having trouble? You can find some more logo ideas here. Finally, ensure that you can get good handles and user names on all the major social media profiles. It should be easy for your customers to find you on all platforms.

6. Practice Polish

The so-called elevator pitch can be your most powerful business development tool. It's also one of the hardest to master. There's no one formula that works for all businesses, but a great pitch should aim to connect with the pitch subject on a human level, define your business in simple terms and explain what sets it apart from the competition. Also you have to engage the person in a dialogue by making them feel like their taking part in a conversation, not being pitched to (even though they are). Practice your pitch so that you are confident and polished. People — especially important types — have short attention spans. If you can't figure out how to explain your business in 30 seconds or less, you may have some things to figure out.

7. Build a Great Website

No matter what your business does, chances are most people will find you via the web. Your website is, in many ways, the main consumer-facing representation of your brand and needs to be impeccable. Make sure your website is simple, easy to navigate and functions properly across all platforms. The current wisdom is to think about the design of your site from a mobile perspective first, since an increasing amount of customers will be viewing your site on their mobile devices.

Make your website user-friendly by minimizing the number of clicks it takes the user to get where they want to be. Invest in professional photos of your product(s) and make your visuals as large and appealing as possible. Tell your brand story in an authentic, compelling way and make sure people can easily contact you. Update your site frequently to give people a reason to come back again and again. That will help you attract a loyal following and keep customers coming back for more.

Following these basic branding rules will help you look professional and put you on the path toward realizing your entrepreneurial dreams.