Q: What is the best and least expensive way for a startup to build a brand for a service oriented company?

A: I love this question. When it comes to being a service-oriented company you are right to want to invest in building a brand and thought leadership as heavily as you invest in representing what you offer for services. Building a brand of expertise around the stakeholders of the service company is a huge advantage over competitors.

I had to smile a bit because I love how often we are all searching for the “best, least expensive” way to do…anything. It’s worth noting the “best” way and the “least expensive” way are almost always different things.

With that said, I actually think there are a number of ways to build a brand around yourself and your services when you are on a budget. There are certainly far more opportunities these days (due to the platforms and tools available to us) than there were in the past.

Related: Want to Stand Out From the Crowd? Know Your Unique Value Proposition.

Here are a few of my favorite:

1. Identify. Clearly identify what you stand for. Product-focused companies get really clear on what they offer and how it brings value to their potential customers. Service-focused companies need to do the same for their prospects. Too often service companies back out to the most umbrella offerings and end up diluting the special “something” that could be used to differentiate their services and ultimately make a sale.

The first thing you need to do is spend time identifying your brand pillars. What words do you want to be associated with?  These pillars will help steer your efforts and help you prioritize your time. It will also make sure you are building a brand around authentic traits you truly identify with.

2. Explain. Once you have a sense of your brand pillars you need to write out your product story. Even though you are a service-oriented company, you still have a product story. You can adopt many of the traditional positioning models to help you work through this. Whether you push through a SWOT – strength, weakness, opportunity and threat – analysis or a product ladder statement, you need to understand how your service-company’s brand differentiates, stacks up against and ultimately beats your competition.

By working on your positioning this way, you'll find you get a very clear picture on what your brand involves. The elevator pitch, website copy,and your “services offered” page tend to get very clear. You find your values will emerge from this work and before you know it, you are feeling grounded in what you offer and why it’s special.

3. Share and validate. This is where most people go first (before doing the hard work above), and they start sharing whatever feels right. The story gets tangled and before you know it you are fighting “communication debt.” Once you have a sense of your service-oriented company’s brand, and you have mapped it out to positioning, promises and other aspects, you can start sharing.

Related: New Business? Here Are 5 Tips on How to Craft a Great Brand.

The best way to start sharing is by assessing what partnerships you can leverage to get the word out. Perhaps an industry site will let you chime in as a contributor or an industry blog will interview you. You start building your brand by leveraging the relationships already in your rolodex. This will enable you to validate your brand story in market, which is a critical piece to succeeding fast as a service-provider.

4. Grow. After you have validated your brand story and positioning in market and you see what’s resonating, it’s time to turn it up and grow your distribution. Speak at conferences, hold meet-ups, do webinars, write an ebook, invest in your own blog and attend any event you get an invite to. Some of the most cost-effective ways of building your brand are the most obvious ways -- just start sharing your point of view. Your viewpoint will start to spread and eventually gather an energy of it’s own.

Other ways to grow your brand as a service-provider include: jumping into industry forums, spending time contributing on Q&A sites like Quora, curating the best content in your space and responding with your own opinions. Publishing free resources that could help elevate your industry is a great way to show your commitment and that often provides a soapbox in which to share your ideas.

5. Revisit and optimize. I think marketers, and service-providers specifically, forget about this way too often. When your brand is so closely tied to the success of your company (like it is for a service-provider or agency) you need to optimize it the same way you would a funnel for an ecommerce site. You need to be testing your take to market angle, your trigger words, the titles for your services and your descriptions, among other aspects. You need to revisit as you see certain words hit strong and others perform weakly. You need to test what events you should be spending your time at against each other. There is ROI in your brand building, and you need to be measuring it and optimizing it.

Those that forget to circle back to their sites or those that don’t optimize their presentations, tend to lose out. Their stories don’t resonate with the market in a fresh way. They appear outdated and that is a really scary thing for a service-oriented company.

When you are crafting your brand on a budget as a service-oriented company, I would argue a lot of the hard work is actually nailing down the promise you feel.

Related: My Company Has a Jersey Accent: Branding With a Distinctive Voice