Sunday, 2 December 2012

#4. Branding Your Business

Ah, branding. One of the biggest headaches for any business start up. But what does it refer to exactly?

Contrary to what most people believe, a brand is not a logo, an image or a name. These are tools or icons you can use to help materialise the brand into something more tangible and help people recognise it and associate it with what you do. It can be very helpful, but it’s not what makes a brand.

A brand is a set of values, promises, anecdotes and expectation that you adhere to and respond to. It’s what you tell people when they ask you what values you represent, what you promise you will do for them and the consistency you show when doing it. It’s what will make a customer choose your product or service over a similar one, and what will make them recommend it to others when they see that you’re being honest and their expectations are met.

If someone decides to buy from you because you’re cheaper, or closer, or just happened to be there, your brand had nothing to do with it. But if they do it because they can relate to what you claim is the basis for your business, or you’ve exceeded their expectations in the past, or you’ve been recommended by someone they trust, that’s when you can see your brand’s value and the effect it has on your customers.

I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in Manchester estate agents have such a bad reputation and deliver such bad service that more than once I’ve found myself pondering about the possibility of living in a cardboard box just so I didn’t have to deal with them. Yet they get hundreds and hundreds of customers every year. The reason? People will always need a place to live in. And since they are all equally appalling, the competition has come to a kind of stand still, in which customers find a house they like first and then look at which estate agent deals with it, instead of picking one they trust and asking them to show them some flats.

There is no brand there. Even though I can recognise the logos of a fair amount of them, there’s nothing that would make me pick one over another. But if tomorrow a new state agent opened that promised honesty, transparency and the guarantee that I will be listened to and my problems dealt with, and most importantly, delivered in all those areas, I’d become estate agency monogamous and would never look at another estate agent again, even if it didn’t have a logo. And that’s where the brand value is.

David vs Goliath

You could probably look at hundreds of logos or listen to hundreds of jingles and be able to associate them with a certain company. You probably also realise that these company’s customers are happy to pay a premium because of what their values or stories mean to them. The reason the “big guys” are so successful with their branding is that they have resources that micro business owners can’t even dream about. Things like:

· Bucket loads of money – Funds that allow them to hire great graphic artists to design their logo, great marketers to create the set of values they will sell and great creatives that will come up with an emotive story behind those values.

· Exposure – With big money comes the ability to sell their stuff through channels that are not available to small business owners, which means that people will be slapped with their name, image or logo over and over and learn to recognise it.

· Huge brand equity – People buy Nike clothes because of the perceived commercial value the name instils in them, not because the products are so much better than those from other brands. A small business will always have a harder time to build theirs.

· Trust – If only because they’ve been around forever, they are big and the perception that if so many people buy from them they must be doing something right.

It seems like we’re doomed, right?

No. Not unless you try and compete with them in their own terms. If you’re trying to pay for your logo to get a lot of exposure and be recognised, or create a set of values and promises that sound awesome without planning to stick to them and live by them in everything you do, or assume you only need to print some business cards and your name will be enough to get people through the door, you are trying to compete with the same weapons they use, and you will always lose.

So what do you do?

You hit them where it hurts, and you do so by using the resources that you as a small business have and they don’t. Let’s look at some of them:

· You’re quicker than them – Big companies have a lot of employees and a lot of layers of bureaucracy that anyone with an idea has to go through before anything changes. They also tend to be slower when it comes to changing with the market. They are like elephants. Small businesses on the other hand, can take decisions quickly and implement new ideas without waiting around for someone else’s approval.

· You have freedom – A big company will always have people they have to respond to, like boards of directors or stakeholders. Small companies don’t, which means they don’t have to launch a new product or service ahead of time just because someone wants to see an increase in profits, or distribute through a channel that is not the right match for their values.

· You can guarantee your business sticks to its values – The other day I read about a woman who had booked a holiday with Thomson and complained because she was grossly disappointed with it. A month later, she started getting emails from a Thomson employee who told her to shut the f*** up, insulted her and told her to book with Thomas Cook next time. Do you think Thomson’s CEO would have reacted in the same way, when their values promise great value holidays made just for you, and risk hurting their brand? Unfortunately, it would have been hard for him to hear about the complaint. This doesn’t happen with small businesses, as the owner tends to have a lot more control about how situations that challenge the company’s values are dealt with.

· You need a lot less to be happy – A small business owner does not need to pay employees, stakeholders or distributors, nor buy a lot of expensive equipment or resources, so it won’t need to earn as much money as a big company does. This means that their actions are less profit driven, they don’t need to expand continuously and they have a bigger margin of manoeuvre to make their customers happy.

· You can show your human side – People are tired of having to deal with faceless conglomerates. You only need to say “O2 customer service” in front of someone and see the expression of utter horror on their face to realise that. They want to know that if they have a problem they will be able to talk to a person who is invested enough in the business to care about it, they want to feel like they are helping someone they can identify with to create something great, they want to connect. This is a lot harder to achieve for a big company.

Those are your weapons. If you use them, you will be playing in a different field and you won’t have to concern yourself with beating them at their own game. Plus, working on your branding doesn’t have to cost the earth, and it definitely doesn’t mean you need to hire experts to do it for you. Like Dan Germain from Innocent Drinks (yes, it started as a small business too) says: “If you pay someone to do the fun stuff and come up with ideas -- well, that's crazy! It's got to feel right and natural, not bolted on, which is why I think you've got to do it yourself. The brand has got to run true inside the company and out.”

A Little Anecdote

I buy quite a few books and albums online - some of them fairly main stream, a lot of them more independent and obscure. For a while, I made most of my purchases on, purely because it has low prices, it delivers fairly fast and it has a good selection.

This is what I get from Amazon when I buy something:

Thanks for your order, June Gil Fernandez
Want to manage your order online?
If you need to check the status of your order or make changes, please visit our home page at and click on Your Account at the top of any page.

And this is what I get one it is dispatched:


We thought you'd like to know that we've dispatched your item(s). Your order is on the way, and can no longer be changed. If you need to return an item or manage other orders, please visit Your Orders on”

But one day, I was looking for an album by Greg Holden, a British singer/songwriter I like. Since he wasn’t signed through a major record label (he got known by posting his videos on Youtube), his album was available via CDBaby – an online platform founded by Derek Davis in his bedroom, which allows independent musicians to distribute their work outside of the usual established channels.

CDBaby came to life as a way to support independent musicians and help them share their work. The reason it worked so well was that Derek, the creator, made a huge effort to cater for these independent artists and make things as easy and pain-free as possible for them, while it provided music lovers all over the place with the chance to support less know artists they liked in a very direct way (as most of the money goes to them).

The site’s values obviously included supporting a fairer, more humane system for artists to live off their work, and I wondered how well this would translate in their marketing efforts when it came to how they communicated with the customers. So I had a look at the site in search of the album and it turned out the first batch of CDs had sold out, but there was an option to tick a box and they would let you know when it was re-stocked, which I did. Soon after that, I got this message from them:

”Hi June -

You asked me to tell you when this CD arrived, and it's here!

GREG HOLDEN: A Word In Edgeways


It's back in stock now. You're the first to know. It just got here an hour ago. We can send it to you in tomorrow morning's mail. Just click this link:


Awesome. I bought the album. And then I got this:


Thanks for your order with CD Baby!

(1) Greg Holden: A Word In Edgeways

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from
Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of
Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, July 30, 2009.

We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We miss you already. We'll be right here at, patiently awaiting your return.”

How great is that? And how different from Amazon’s generic message? CDBaby knows that it can’t compete with the huge variety, budget and low prices you get at Amazon, so it doesn’t. It also knows that one of the reasons customers buy from them is that they want to feel like they’re doing something important by supporting independent artists. So they use their confirmation e-mails to reinforce this message, by making sure they use the customers name rather than something like “Dear customer” and by making her or him feel like their order was important enough to let them know the product they wanted was in within an hour of it arriving (although that probably wasn’t the case) and their purchase was big enough to make the whole city of Portland march down to the post office to say “Bon Voyage!” (although they probably didn’t). In a nutshell, the experience is almost like calling a good friend and asking them to buy you this album you like and send it over to you, but even better because they probably wouldn’t have access to a packaging specialist from Japan or a private jet.

Not only is this a great way to convey how important your business is for them and make you feel unique, it also create huge opportunities for word of mouth – and word of mouth is one of the best things that can happen to a small business. I can’t count the number of people I’ve recommended the site to by telling them to keep an eye for what they get when they order.

So when you’re thinking of what your story is and what your business stands for, keep in mind your weapons. Think of how your story is meaningful to your audience and make every effort to back it up with everything you do and with everyone you work with. Make sure your brand is consistent when you talk to your customers, when you sell something, when you solve a problem, when you go into partnerships or when you let your audience in on what’s happening behind doors. And most importantly, don’t forget your audience wants to connect with you in a way they can’t with a big company -  be humane.

Next week…

I will likely be in a constant state of drunken stupor as I only have 2 weeks left at my job and I want to go to all the Christmas parties my company and suppliers are throwing – that’s 3 this week. On Tuesday Google is taking us to Narnia (I’ll let you know what this means when I know), on Thursday we have a Mad Men themed company party and on Friday my department is going out for drinks.

Still, I will do my best to write my next post in the brief moments of lucidity I’ll have in between. Next week’s will be about pricing and budgeting, which is something I know a lot of people have a huge problem with.

Thanks for reading, you wonderful people.


  1. Great post! I'm looking forward to reading the next one. Not sure where you went, but hope you come back soon! We miss you!! :)

  2. Hello hello!

    So sorry about my sudden disappearance... It took waaay longer than I thought to battle the mountain of work and all the running around that freelancing involved after I quit my work, but I think I almost have it under control. I'm even half way through my next post!

    I promise I'll be back very soon! x