5 Common Small Business Branding Mistakes

Because the world of brands and branding is often guilty of using opaque language and jargon, it’s no wonder that confusion and misunderstandings are so common, especially among small businesses and startups.

Larger companies have the luxury of appointing people who are experienced in this stuff, and can negotiate the fog of branding terminology and apparent complexity.

Small businesses generally have to work things out for themselves, which is when inaccurate assumptions are made, and incorrect conclusions are drawn.

Small business branding mistakes

Here are 5 of the most common small business branding mistakes:

1. “A brand is just the logo, right?”

Wrong. This is common misunderstanding number one, so let’s start with a quick definition . . .

‘Brand’ is universally defined as, “what people think and feel about a business”. In other words it’s emotional; it’s about how your business is perceived by people. It is not tangible stuff like services or products. A brand is not a logo, and a logo is not a brand.

‘Branding’ is the set of tools used to deliver a brand. These tools include the company name, its domain, its website, its marketing and PR, how it deals with customer enquiries, packaging, signage, stationery, the tone and wording of its communications, and so on.

And yes, the company logo is part of the branding. Sure it’s a fairly important part, but it is only a part.

Branding can therefore be used to influence what people think and feel about a business. If it doesn’t take control of its branding, a business is leaving customers to work the brand out for themselves. This is a great opportunity missed.

2. “We’re a conventional business, so it’s safer if we blend in a bit”

Many believe, quite understandably, that for their business to become a ‘brand’, they need to spend big on media.

We associate successful brands with TV or press advertising, viral videos, celebrity endorsements and publicity stunts. Although collectively this is sort of activity is marketing, its role is to deliver ‘brand engagement’ (and ultimately sales).

It’s hardly surprising that brand engagement feels irrelevant to small businesses.

But at its core, brand engagement is about making connections with people. This is relevant, and surely essential, for every business.

If your branding makes connections, it can get people’s attention. It can also improve customer retention, build loyalty, and encourage referrals. An engaging brand can tell people that your business matters and that it’s relevant to them.

Engagement can be achieved in lots of different ways, including:

  • Choosing a short, distinctive, non-obvious business name. A name that avoids common keywords words and focuses on how it ‘feels’ (not what it describes) will give people something to think about. If they’re thinking about it, you’ve engaged them.
  • Showing some personality. I’m not talking about cartoon cats and animated graphics, but if you’re the traditional safe pair of hands, a service-focused techie, or an energetic upstart, then make sure these characteristics comes across through your logo, website., marketing and communications. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. If your company has a personality (and it should have), then work out how you can show it.
  • Using real language. Too many companies seem magnetically drawn towards using generic business speak. It feels like safe ground, because it makes us look smart. Maybe. The trouble is, whatever business you’re in, you’re dealing with humans. Generic business speak is flat, dull to read, and leaves people cold. Loosen up, use colloquial language, and write as you would speak.

3. “We’d like our brand to appeal to everyone”

People choose one product over another for all sorts of rational and irrational reasons, including design, price, brand image, functionality, convenience, and so on. Every company knows that its services and products can’t appeal to everyone.

So it follows that its brand can’t be all things to everyone either. Customers are looking for brand ‘signals’ that are relevant to them and their preferences, as opposed to signals that aren’t relevant to them.

What we’re really talking about here is differentiation.

Differentiation is based on the straightforward premise that it’s hard for customers to choose you if they can’t distinguish you from your rivals. If there’s clear blue water between you and your competitors, make sure these differences are communicated through your branding.

Unfortunately there’s no magic bullet for establishing differentiation. By default, it’s different for every company! But it should always start with a clear understanding of who your competitors are. That way you can avoid doing what they’re doing.

This means research. So spend a few hours Googling your rivals and looking over their websites, making notes as you go. Record their similarities, their points of difference, and look out for the opportunities for your branding to be different. If you notice trends among your competitors (e.g. logo design, colour schemes, website styling and imagery, even business names), then do something else. Don’t follow the herd, and never copy.

As with brand engagement, achieving differentiation means being a bit bold (not mad, just bold) …and probably taking a few steps outside your comfort zone.

Be brave. Be different.

4. “Branding isn’t relevant to a tiny business like ours”

By this point I hope you’ll get the message that branding is very relevant to any business, whatever its size.

In fact, I’d argue that branding is even more important and valuable for small businesses than it is for the big guys. Multinationals can achieve branding success by throwing money at multiple media channels.

Small businesses need to work smarter to get their brand out there. In a way, branding can be seen as a set of ‘marginal gains’ for small businesses – a series of small improvements that contribute to making a business better. These include:

  • A clear brand statement that summarises what you are, who you’re for, and why it matters. Not as complicated as it sounds, there’s a neat overview of this on the For Dummies website.
  • A logo that’s easy to read, and reflects the personality of your business
  • A short domain name (no hyphens or keywords, which immediately make a business look second rate)
  • A strapline/tagline. Not the generic, “Delivering excellence every day” type of nonsense; an effective strapline is a distillation of a brand strategy.
  • A colour palette and imagery that differentiates you from competitors
  • A website that delivers the important information quickly and with a bit of style
  • A business card that’s just a bit nicer than your peers and rivals

Individually, these and many other branding marginal gains make small improvements to a business. But when you add them up, they start to make a very big difference.

5. “Re-branding would upset our customers”

It’s a familiar situation: when you set up the business you agonised over the name, the logo, and the website, until it felt right. Or maybe you didn’t have the time or money to think about such things too much, and just went live with a compromise.

That was then, this is now, and you know that your branding no longer cuts it. Your customers have changed, the marketplace has changed. You need to sharpen up your act. If only the decision to change was that straightforward.

Understandably, the reason people resist change is fear. Fear of choosing the wrong name (again); fear of losing business; and fear of the very process of changing.

But with a clear plan and good communications, changing a company name and branding is no big deal. And it’s certainly not a big deal for your customers, who generally don’t give a stuff about such matters – as long as you explain to them what’s happening.

Once the decision to change has been made, remember that rebranding could be an energising and exciting opportunity. It can mark a turning point in a business, it’s a great way to create a sense of renewal – and to signal positive change to the outside world.

Fear of change is not a good enough reason to avoid it. But take your time, do your research, and get your thinking straight before starting out. You don’t want to make a habit of rebranding.

Every company in the world should use branding to connect with the right customers and to drive sales. Most small businesses just happen to be the last to take advantage of this valuable opportunity. Don’t make the mistake of missing out.


Vince Bridgman is a creative branding specialist and co-founder of Novanym.com — the smart way to name a business.