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The SME Toolkit: brilliant branding on a budget

Business owners are fighting on several fronts, trying to be compliant with regulation and spending most of their time on operational tasks: dealing with product development, handling finances, managing employees. Building a brand is often an afterthought, a missed opportunity that can cost your credibility and market performance.

Last updated: 14 Dec 2019 7 min read

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According to StartUp Britain, a non-profit think tank, more than 300,000 start-ups have been created in 2017, so far.

Stephen Cheliotis, CEO of The Centre for Brand Analysis, has a positive message for financially challenged businesses: “SMEs have huge advantages over big brands. You might think: ‘We don’t have the money, we don’t have the big marketing department’, but you’ve got the ability to be innovative and flexible.”

Branding is more than an eye-catching logo

Dawn Baird, partner of Belfast-based Sensei, believes branding encompasses your entire business: “Visibility and consistency are key to branding. This ranges from your logo, look and feel of your website, your offline marketing, to how you dress at networking meetings and what types of experience clients encounter when they contact you.”

Successful branding can differentiate your company in a crowded marketplace. Gordon Cesareo, creative director of Market Accents, says: “A considered online/offline branding programme addresses functional, emotional and aspirational needs in your customers and creates a unique experience,” he says. “A brand with a fine-tuned personality, a clear sense of purpose, strong beliefs and effective visual communication will undoubtedly resonate with your audience.”

Peter Lavelle, digital marketing consultant at Pure FX, is keen to highlight the link between search marketing and branding. “If your customers use a simple term to describe something you refer to in technical jargon with your colleagues, switch to the simpler term. This is especially useful in Google AdWords, where utilising your customers’ search terms in adverts makes branding more relevant. You can use your customers’ language with any budget.”

“The profile, reputation and trust that a well-managed brand helps you to earn can give you the permission to expand into new markets, or introduce new products”Tim Callington, strategy consultant, IBM

Outsourcing expertise helps to target customers from a fresh angle, with access to different resources. Ian Jephson, commercial director at Nottinghamshire-based Jephsons Shopfitters, believes in the benefits of outsourcing. He says: “When the financial crash hit, we knew we had to do something to establish ourselves. With help from a PR company, we determined our ideal customers, how we should address them and what messages our branding needed in order to appeal to them. We radically changed our look and approach in all of our printed and online channels. As a result, we have gained new clients and our investment in branding has had a substantial impact on our bottom line.”

Good branding fosters advocacy, according to Matylda Setlak, managing director of All 4 Comms, a marketing agency targeting Polish customers in the UK. “Customers’ experience of a product or service creates a perception of the brand. As an SME you have to pay attention to building long-lasting relationships with your clients, to increase their satisfaction and gain their loyalty. Happy customers will help you to expand through positive endorsements.”

Branding is about customer engagement

Tim Callington, strategy consultant at tech multinational IBM, offers a road map for SMEs with big growth ambitions: “Good branding has a vital role to play in your success because it’s what differentiates you from the competition. In competitive markets, a strong brand enables you to stand out from the crowd. The profile, reputation and trust that a well-managed brand helps you to earn can also give you the permission to expand into new markets, or introduce new products. The approach you take should be closely aligned to your marketing plan.”

It’s essential when developing your brand to concentrate on your customers’ needs. Consultant James Hammond, author of the bestseller ‘Branding your Business’, says: “The only way forward for business success is to create a memorable brand. Far too many SMEs waste money on expensive logos when they should be focusing on providing a truly outstanding customer service. Forget about USP and create your ESP (emotional selling proposition).” He explains: “Your ESP should describe what your brand delivers in terms of emotional benefits – for example, trust, joy or excitement. Communicate with feeling, use strong stories that capture attention. The bottom line is that branding is all about emotion – and most of these elements can be low cost.”

The nitty-gritty of building your brand

Col Skinner, from digital marketing agency Profoundry, shares his personal insights on how to create a brand: “Even as a one-man consultancy, branding was a very important stage. I believed that if I invested in building a business that I took seriously, then this would come across to my clients.”

Skinner recommends you:

  • Choose a brand name that differentiates you from the competition, but double-check the name is available across web domains and social media.
  • Find brands that you love and extract what gives you confidence.
  • Imagine your logo on items such as your website, business cards, merchandise. Does it look right?

On the content front, blogging can be a low-cost way to engage customers. Tech writer Gemma Church explains: “A blog is a great way to showcase your expertise, personality and brand – if you write it internally, it won’t cost a thing. Make sure you maintain an editorial calendar so you post regularly and, if possible, react to industry news to keep it fresh. Outsourcing may be a better use of your time, so you can focus on looking after your customers and growing your business.”

Seema Mangoo, founder of Hourglass Business Services, started her business on a lean budget. “I didn’t have anything to spend on branding. I knew the name of the business would be important, as well as the colours. I used my friends and family to share ideas because I knew they would be truthful in a kind way. Since beginning two years ago, I have changed the business’s name twice and the logo three times. What I would say to fellow SMEs is: be true to what you want and it’s OK if you change your mind. Keeping it simple and sharp worked for me.”

Not setting aside enough time and money can affect your reputation. According to Ginetta George, co-founder of Dogfit, based in Surrey: “Investment in brand design will help establish your business as a leader in your field. You want to look reliable, authoritative and capable. Your visual identity is your business’s calling card. Ours is a crowded market and brand design was essential to help us stand out and build relationships with our customers.”

Starting the branding process early on is important, says Berenice Smith, owner of Hello Lovely, a Cambridge design business. “How a brand is perceived determines its success and is essential in building awareness. When you are up against well-established brands, it’s critical to invest in yours, whatever the size.”

Smith sums up branding’s three core functions as: navigating the customer through the market to your business; providing reassurance that they have made the right choice; and reinforcing your identity through engagement. She recommends joining up with another organisation to extend your reach. “For example, educational publishers seek endorsement for products in schools to reassure teachers it’s the right product for them.”

Top tips

  • Do not scrimp on visual branding; it is your business’s calling card on the world.
  • Engaging your customers on an emotional level pays off in terms of loyalty and advocacy.
  • Low-cost but effective branding can be achieved through social media and blogging.
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