When you decide to start a business, you're faced with a number of critical tasks, many of which may fall outside your core areas of expertise. And creating an effecting branding strategy is likely one of those "What do I do?" situations.

Working with a branding professional can be the key to getting your business started on the path to success. Individuals who specialize in branding can provide invaluable counsel, guiding you through the complicated process of identifying the central focus of what your business stands for, something that must happen before you begin executing any of your branding strategies.

Where's the Value?
A branding professional will evaluate your business (typically using your business plan as a guide) and assess the marketplace before recommending image elements. You can retain someone to merely assist you with visual branding (logo, typestyle and colors), or you may want a branding professional to help you with all aspects of branding your company, which includes not only the visual elements, but things like how your phone is answered and how your product is packaged.

When's The Right Time?
Believe it or not, it's appropriate to begin working with a branding professional even before you name your business. After all, what you call your business will be a major element of your brand.

Since defining who you are is an important part of branding, it's important to have a branding professional onboard before you secure the help of other professionals such as website designers, graphic artists or copywriters. This is a smart business decision that'll save you money--you must have a well-defined central message before making an investment in website or collateral development, or you'll find yourself endlessly revising your materials.

How Do You Choose?
The best way to select the branding professional who's right for you is to do a sweep of companies in your industry and see which ones you think have done the best job of communicating their value. Look at things such as whether their collateral and website have a common look and feel and whether the overall tone of their message is professional and succinct. Then make a call and ask them who's responsible for their branding.

If you're not comfortable with that approach, carefully research different branding professionals and companies. They'll run the gamut from small printers and web domain providers that claim branding as a subspecialty to PR, marketing and advertising firms. Make sure you check out any potential firms' clients and follow up with their references. You want to ensure the person or company you enlist can truly provide the counsel you're seeking.

What Will You Pay?
It's impossible to provide an accurate guideline for what you'll pay for the expertise of a branding professional. The price tag will depend on two components: the level of involvement and the expertise you require.

If you wish to limit your branding professional's involvement to visual elements, you may be able to keep your expenses to a few thousand dollars. As you broaden the branding professional's involvement, your price tag will rise, and it could go as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. The price will also depend on whom you choose to employ; agencies may often bill at a higher rate than sole proprietors, for instance.

As with anything, you'll generally get what you pay for in the branding arena. Since the future of your company's at stake, you can certainly consider it prudent to hire the best branding professional you can afford.