4 Inexpensive branding strategies for small businesses

Kelly Morr

Branding: that’s something that only huge companies, like McDonalds and Apple do, right? Not necessarily.

Many small business owners mistakenly believe that branding costs a lot of money. And certainly, there are agencies that will help you build your brand for a staggeringly high price that most small businesses simply can’t afford. But branding agencies don’t have a corner on the market.

Good branding is for everybody and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Especially in the digital age, there’s plenty you can do to make your business memorable. These 4 branding strategies can help your small business go from idea to successful reality.

1. Figure out your brand identity

thinking about starting a business illustration
All illustrations in this article by Emanuela for 99designs

Branding is more than just the logo that you put on your business cards. It’s everything you stand for: your customers, your reputation, your look, your feel. In short, your story. The first step to branding your small business is understanding who you are. And best of all, this branding strategy is totally free!

So what is your story? Ask yourself these 3 questions to get started:

What makes you different?

Something sets apart your business from others doing the same thing. What is it? Maybe it’s that the items you sell are lovingly handmade. Maybe your business has been in the family for several generations. Maybe all your products are eco-friendly. It doesn’t have to be something huge and game changing, just authentically you. A great example of this is Ben & Jerry’s. There are a couple things that make them different:

  1. They give all of their flavors fun, punny names
  2. Their company mission has three parts. Not only are they committed to creating fantastic ice cream, but they are also committed to sustainable growth and social outreach.
Ben & Jerry's branding strategies
photos via Ben & Jerry’s

Whatever it is, this key differentiator is what’s going to help you stand out, and is definitely something you want to build into your brand identity. You’ll draw attention and build trust simply by being your authentic self.

Who are your customers?

It may sound simple, but many businesses haven’t thought out who their target audience is. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to provide a great product or service: you have to know who you’re trying to sell it to. How old are they? What’s their income? Gender? When would they use your product and why?

dart in bullseye illustration

Once you’ve figured out your target market, you’ll be in a much better position to decide what your brand should look and feel like. Remember, you’re not cutting people out. Instead, you’re pinpointing your ideal customer—the people most likely to purchase your product or service—and figuring out how to best grab their attention. You’re looking for your 1000 True Fans. They’re out there somewhere, and you just need to figure out who they are and how to reach them.

What’s your mission?

mission statement

Now that you have a better understanding of who you are, compile all that brainstorming into a 1-3 sentence mission statement. This should be a concise statement that captures the essence of not only what you do, but why you do it. It should act as a guiding light going forward. Whenever you’re stuck with a tough decision, look back at your mission statement and it can help you make the right choice.

2) Make your brand memorable

What’s the difference between Airbnb and VRBO? They both do very similar things: they connect travelers with individual property owners who are looking to rent out their home. But even though VRBO has been around several years longer, it’s much more likely that you’ve heard of Airbnb. What has set them apart? They’ve made their brand memorable. Their name is unique, catchy and captures not only what they do but their spirit. Their look is friendly, and their app and website clean and easy-to use. Compare these to VRBO, whose name and logo is an acronym that doesn’t give you any more information.

airbnb vs vrbo

You can make your brand memorable (and for cheap!) by paying attention to a couple key details.

Spend some time on your name

You only have one chance to make a first impression—and for many customers, your business’ name is that impression. In a startup-flooded marketplace, getting your name right can be the key to your success, while a bad name can doom your chances with new customers.

These days, it’s not just enough to think of a good name, you also have to claim it as a unique domain name. Before you settle on anything, search to see if yourcompanyname.com available to buy. Also think about how your URL will look when it’s displayed. Here are a few examples of businesses that failed to step back and see their domain names as others would read them, with unintentionally hilarious results.

You also want to turn up in customers’ searches. Pickles may be an adorable name for your baby clothing company, but you’ll probably never end up on the front page of a google search for “pickles.” Is that okay with you?

A few other common naming conventions to avoid:

  1. Acronyms and initials. This kind of name causes trouble with SEO ranking. It’s also very difficult to convey a company message in 3 letters. (Yeah yeah, IBM has done it, but if you want to keep your branding budget low this probably isn’t the best strategy.)
  2. Puns. Are you considering a play on words or familiar catch phrases? You might want to think twice about that. The name may sound snappy now, but problems can arise when you try to branch into other markets where the pun no longer makes sense, or just isn’t funny. (And really, do you want to make any percentage of your customers groan when they think about your name?)
  3. Dull descriptions. A name that simply describes what you do isn’t forward-thinking and won’t give you freedom to move into new markets down the road.

Naming is fun, and very personal, but it’s also very important, which can be stressful. It’s something you can take on by yourself, but there are resources out there to help (even on a budget). Companies like Naming Force and Squadhelp will allow you to crowd source ideas for the perfect business name.

Define your brand’s look

Once you’ve got your name and story nailed down you can start thinking about what your brand looks like. These two things are prerequisites because they will guide what you want your brand to look like.

A logo will likely be the cornerstone of your visual branding strategy. We usually recommend it as a starting point for all of your other visuals. Just remember to take in mind all of the different instances you might need it: on your product packaging, website, business cards, app icon, etc. You’ll want something that you can use anywhere and that will grow with you into the future.

branding illustration

Unless you are a designer or have a background in design, we’d highly recommend you pay someone to create your logo. Good news, it doesn’t have to be expensive! There are several options out there. We’d recommend a logo design contest (but we admit we might be biased). You can also consider a logo maker or freelance designer. We wrote an article to help you pick the best option for you.

Find your voice

Voice is something that is easily overlooked, but if you’ve got a knack for words can help make your brand incredibly memorable. Groupon built their brand on a fat tortoise-shell cat that got the final, sassy word on all of the deals offered on their website. And Dollar Shave Club used a pithy voice and sense of irreverent humor to create a viral video that launched their company into a major player.

 

3) Get your brand out there

Branding strategies are kind of like dating strategies: after you’ve done all the self-work to figure out who you are and make yourself look good, it’s time to put yourself out there a little bit. It’s not always easy or comfortable, and you’ll probably have some misses before something sticks, but it’s all about persistence. (And you don’t have to shell out the big bucks to find true love. That’s good advice for both dating and branding.)

cat and girl cuddling illustration

Establish yourself as an authority

By establishing yourself as one of the most intelligent, knowledgeable voices in your field, you’ll create a reputation for excellence. Don’t hesitate to display your credentials, your knowledge and your skills. Let customers know that you are confident and capable, and that you know your field. This is pivotal to establishing trust.

One of the best (and most inexpensive) ways to do this is to create original content, such as blog posts or videos. This allows you to express your business’ brand in new ways and to draw in new viewers. Think of the questions that your customers will be asking and then answer them. If you give good advice, people will learn to trust your brand. (And with a little bit of marketing and/or SEO knowledge, you can also use content to grow your business.)

Learn how to use social media for more than just taco selfies

You shouldn’t stop taking taco selfies, but you should learn to leverage your social media accounts as a branding strategy. It’s free to create an account on any major social media platform, but it can take time to master and maintain a business account. Figure out where your customers hang out and focus on the 1-2 platforms they use the most. For some businesses, that might be LinkedIn, for others Snapchat. Update your profiles regularly (daily is best, but at least a couple times a week), engage with your customers and share all that content you’re creating.

Social media is also a great place to advertise if you have a limited budget as it has so much information about its user base. You can create a Facebook ad that is only shown to people of a certain age, in a certain geographic location, who have tacos listed as an interest.

Give away branded products

Some promotional products, like t-shirts or pens with your company’s name or logo, are tired. I mean, everyone loves a free pen, but is that really the best way to get a customer thinking about your pet grooming company? Free giveaways should be practical and related to what you do (or what your customers do). What about a free traveling water bowl for dogs (with your logo on it, obvs) for your pet grooming business? Or coasters that you can give out to local bars that highlight your ride-sharing service.

dog with branded pet bowl illustration

4) Live what you sell

If you’ve done everything above, you’re probably talking the talk. But if you want to let your brand grow, you’re going to have to walk the walk, as well. Your brand is bigger than just the branding strategies you use, it’s the reputation you gain, and what customers say about you behind your back. So…

Look after your customers

One of the biggest things that can harm your brand’s reputation is shoddy customer service. If a customer has an issue, make sure it’s cared for. Your customers will remember and come back after even one good experience, and they’ll sing your praises to others.

Continue to break the mold

There are countless other small businesses competing for eyeballs, dollars and attention. Many of them are following the same strategies as one another, to the point where they all look the same. You may start off with a great idea that blows away the competition, but unless you continue to innovate someone is going to come along and outdo you.

As you grow and invest in other parts of your business, you should also continue to invest in branding strategies. That’s not to say it ever has to break the bank, but as your budget allows you may want to hire experts to help you continue to refine your look, voice and reputation.

At the end of the day, the best branding strategy is to be bold, colorful, clever and unusual. In other words, be yourself. It’s important to put time and thought into your brand, but you don’t have to invest a lot of money in order to be great.

Need a quick strategy reference? We’ve go you covered with a branding checklist.

branding checklist infographic
by SundayRain for 99designs

The author

Kelly Morr
Kelly Morr

Kelly is the senior manager of content strategy at 99designs. She likes writing stuff, making stuff, coming up with far-fetched ideas, figure skating and cuddling her two cats.

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