How can small businesses get branding right?

1977 Design partner and Clarify co-founder Paul Bailey outlines the three questions start-ups and small businesses need to ask themselves in order to get their branding right.

Image by flickr user Raffaele Diomede
Image by flickr user Raffaele Diomede

Brand is not just a tool for large, global businesses, it is a vital factor in every business. So any attempt to understand your business brand, no matter how simply, can only be a good thing. The clearer a business understands and communicates its value to people, the more appealing its offering.

Large, global businesses spend vast budgets on developing their brand, working with brand consultants, sociologists, psychologists, behavioural economists and designers, among others. However, the number of businesses who can commit to this scale of expenditure on their brand is minimal, so what does this mean for the relevance of brand to every other business – such as start-ups or small businesses?

Every business has a brand, it’s just that many don’t know it or, more importantly, how to develop it. Even when businesses are aware of their need to begin to understand their brand they often don’t have the knowledge themselves, or the budget for external consultants, and so they do nothing. They might design a logo, but a brand is not simply a logo or corporate identity system, it encompasses the wider environment or experience related to a business.

Over the last few years we have increasingly spoken to owners of small businesses and startups about the importance of brand. We explain that if their clients or customers don’t understand why or how a business is of value to them then it should not be a surprise when they show little interest in it. All businesses, large or small, established or startup, global or local, have similar challenges: they are part of their wider environment and have plenty of competitors, and so for the success of their business they need to develop an understanding of their brand. Therefore, at the times we find that a business is unable to commit to the budget required for brand consultants, we suggest that they can begin to realise their brand themselves in a very simplified way by considering three key questions:

  • What is your purpose? Why does the company exist, and importantly why is this of value to potential clients/customers?
  • What is your proposition? What is it that the company does, and importantly why is this of value to potential clients/customers?
  • What is your personality? How does the company behave, and importantly how might potential clients/customers experience the company?

One business who used this simple framework is a talent management company based in London. “We realised that our purpose is help people make the most of their talent. Our proposition is not managing talent but marrying talent and companies to create fantastic new projects for the public. And we approach our work without preconceived ideas of how things should be done – our personality is experimental, open-minded, and innovative.”

Of course, this simple framework omits a great number of factors that should ideally be considered, but it does help businesses get a better understanding of their business and brand.

A strong brand is not a luxury, it is a requirement for a more successful business. Better understanding your business and brand mean that you can better explain it’s relevance and value to people, including clients, customers, employees and partners. It also enables businesses to better work with external experts when the time comes. If a business has even a simple understanding of its brand then this can be used as an agreed reference point from which to then communicate, such as when designing their visual identity, developing a marketing strategy or planning a promotional campaign. The clearer a business understands and communicates the value it provides, the more likely it is to appeal to clients and customers, and therefore be a more successful business.

As brand professionals we should work to demystify what a brand is, give more businesses the opportunity to begin to develop their brand, and help businesses understand the value and importance of their brand.


Paul Bailey is partner at 1977 Design. His consultancy, alongside Click Studio, has launched platform, which helps businesses define their values and principles.

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  • John Lowdon April 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Nice article and great idea with Clarify. Another thing that start ups make a mistake with is building a brand round a singular product or service. We encourage our start up clients to take a step back from their initial idea to see it from a wider perspective and how it impacts the world. This helps to think bigger and bring more power to the brand.

  • Karen Mabazza April 14, 2015 at 2:01 am

    Very informative article Paul. I agree with you that every business large or small has its own brand that they carry and the more they understand their business — what it has to offer and what it will be from this point to years after, the more it will succeed. We see graphic design and branding of big companies whom we had admire and what they had in common is that they have a consistent marketing voice to their products and services which consumers remembers them about.

  • Kitty Hennessy April 14, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Insightful article and I broadly agree with all the points raised. Another important differentiator in branding – whether client side or agency – is personality and philosophy. I’ve noticed a marked increase with agencies, big and small, setting out their beliefs on their home pages – no free pitching, no unethical work, no exclusivity etc etc. Of course everyone is keeping a close eye on the bottom line but sometimes brand values are as important as brand value.

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