Unraveling the Branding Myth: Is Branding Possible for Small Businesses?

Modern day marketing theorists talk a lot about branding. The definition of the word has expanded significantly over the years and some now seem to think that brand identity should be the center of every company’s marketing focus. In the past, old school marketers relegated branding to big companies and recognized that small businesses lived and died by their reputations and good word of mouth. Where’s the truth in all of this? Should small businesses be concerned with branding? If so, what should they do to build a strong brand?

What is Branding Anyway?

brand_cowIt all started with cowboys and cattle rustlers. The original brands were burned into the hides of cattle to identify them as part of the herd, and to keep thieving rustlers from slipping off with them on a dark night. The standard marketing definition fits the original meaning. The American Marketing Association Dictionary defines a brand as “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”  Branding, in the classical marketing definition of the 1900s, had more to do with product logos and product identification than the values and ethos of the manufacturing company. David Ogilvy, the father of modern marketing, defined a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”

The concept of brand value or brand equity was also part of the classical thinking (way back then in the last century). This was the prevailing notion that customers would pay more for a brand that they recognized. Large companies were willing to spend substantial sums of money to establish this kind of recognition. The assumption was that the expeditures would be substantiated by the price premium they would be awarded as a leading brand.

Because brand value was inextricably linked to the advertising spend required to create it, branding was big company stuff. Proctor and Gamble was the king of the household brand. For the most part, small businesses didn’t think about branding because they didn’t have the economic resources to create one.  From time to time, a small business owner might be convinced (with large promises from well-meaning advertising folk) that they should attempt to create a brand for their company. What generally appeared was a logo or a wordmark that may have been recognizable to their customers, but carried little in the way of brand value. Brand marketing was the purview of large companies and marketers famed for their brand strategies made a killing.

Eponymous: Hoovered Up A Budgie

Occasionally the strategies backfired. An old friend who has lived in the UK for many years set me rolling on the floor with a story about a missing parakeet, later found inside a vacuum cleaner. The phrase she used was, “hoovered up a budgie.” The budgie is the parakeet, and “hoovered” is the British synonym for vacuumed, stemming from one of the original manufacturers of the device.

When brand names become so well known that they become part of the vernacular, they’re said to be eponymous. Xerox, Scotch Tape, and Coke (where I live) are examples. Manufacturers’ efforts to make these brands “household words” backfired, because the product names became synonymous with an entire category, including competing products manufactured by other companies.

Branding in the Post-Modern Marketing Age

Then the definition changed. Compare David Ogilvy’s definition with one from Seth Godin, the marketing guru of the new century. Here’s Godin’s Definition:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.

Godin’s definition still links the brand to a product, but expands Ogilvy’s “intangible attributes” significantly to include “expectations, memories, stories, and relationships.” I would submit that the current definition has expended even beyond Godin’s succinct description, which was penned way back in 2009. In the past, branding was a product strategy. Now, it seems to take in every aspect of marketing. When marketers talk about branding today, the term encompasses every attribute of a company’s identity and existence.

Here’s yet another definition from the Marketing Donut blog that illustrates the continued inflation of the term’s meaning:

Your brand is one of your greatest assets. It’s not just your logo, slogan and design scheme, but your customers’ total experience of your business. Your brand is in your customer promise, your business values, your personality, the way you talk to your customers. It’s in the way you package your service and answer your phone.

Elsewhere on their website, the Marketing Donut folks suggest brand-building methods that include “building long-term relationships with your customers.” That’s a major expansion for one short word. My opinion is that the term “branding” has just gotten a little too big for it’s britches.

Is Branding Possible for SMBs?

Certainly, marketing is both possible and worthwhile for a small business, but let’s constrain the definition of branding before we discuss it. We’ll leave the creation and definition of value, support of the total experience, and the building of long-term relationships where they belong – in general business, marketing and sales strategies.  We will expand the definition from Ogilvy and even from Godin to allow branding to expand beyond products to a company, but let’s limit it to the customer’s perception of the company. In other words, let’s define branding as “the company identity in the customer’s mind.” So, the question boils down to whether it’s possible for small businesses to make an impression that will stick.

Yes, and No.

It’s theoretically and practically possible for a small business to spend enough money on conventional advertising to make a brand impression stick, given high margin products and probably some constraints to the market size or definition. My favorite example is Bashinski Fine Gems and Jewelry,  a fine jewelry company started by a grammar school friend, Stephen Bashinski. Over the past several years, Bashinski and his advertising agency, Haynes Marketing Network, have made a big splash in the Middle Georgia market with the tagline, “It says more when it says Bashinski,” and with a series of advertisements that focus not on jewelry, but on a little white box with the Bashinski logo. The ads are clever and people talk about them (watch the videos below and on YouTube , you’ll love them).  From all appearances, Bashinski Jewelry has built brand equity in the local market.

This kind of advertising program obviously does not make sense for every small business. Even if the advertising is held to local markets, the expense is still significant.  This kind of program makes no sense for low margin businesses or for B2B businesses that operate in narrow vertical markets. But does that mean that these businesses shouldn’t be concerned with branding?

Yes and No and maybe I’ll have to eat some of my words. B2B and low-margin businesses really can’t build a company brand with advertising, but there are lots of other marketing strategies that make sense. It’s reasonable to assume that the intent of any marketing strategy should align with the goal of creating positive impressions in the minds of customers and potential customers.  Inbound marketing strategies certainly orient this way – they’re intended to attract potential customers with interesting information and to hopefully create positive impressions that will lead to business relationships. And yes, positive impressions are enhanced by the values your company demonstrates and the way the team answers the phone, so to this extent the broadly expanded definition of branding might apply.

The Answer: Branding isn’t the Focus

The final question is one of focus. Should the primary marketing focus for most small businesse be on building the brand? No. Unless your business has the audience and the profits to captivate them (like Bashinski), don’t waste your time, money, and energy.  Focus on customers and prospects instead. A customer-focused strategy that’s intent on finding new ways to meet their needs and desires always makes sense. If this focus permeates your business, your team, and the way you communicate with customers and prospects, positive brand associations for your company will naturally follow.

Would You Like to Talk Marketing?

As you can probably see, it’s a subject that I thoroughly enjoy, and I’d love to talk with you about your business and your plans. There’s no risk. The first conversation is absolutely free and we’ll probably generate at least a couple of good ideas. Interested? Feel free to contact me by phone or email, or fill out the form on this page and I’ll be in touch.

Photo Credits:  Cow with Ouch Brand, from Mark E. Wade