Q: I hear a lot about "branding," but I'm not sure what it means. Do I have to be concerned about it as a small-business owner?

A: Absolutely. Brand building is simply a new label for a collection of functions that have always been necessary to make a business successful, requiring ongoing effort in several areas to:

  • Increase the public's awareness of your business name and logo.
  • Build a strong company "essence" that inspires loyalty and trust in your current customers and provides a level of familiarity and comfort to draw in potential customers.

Often referred to as the "good will" portion of your business, your brand is intangible and has nothing at all to do with any real estate, inventory or vehicle fleets your company may count as assets. Instead, it refers to the reputation behind your company's name and logo. A carefully built brand is worth more in actual dollars than all the tangible assets put together and is what will reap monetary rewards when you're ready to sell your company. The first thing you have to do is decide how you want people to perceive your business, and then figure out what you have to do to get there.

So what goes into building your brand? Here's a look:

  • Consistency in advertising. Decide what you can do for your customers that your competitors can't and hammer away at those points in every ad. Create a "sell line" that defines your company in a nutshell and use it.
  • Customer service. Only employ people who can get on board with your brand, and make sure that each person understands his or her part in building it. Once a customer is ignored at the counter or treated poorly on the phone or on the sales floor, you've lost not only that person but everyone else that hears about the unfortunate experience. Remember that word-of-mouth can help, but it can also hurt. Get rid of employees who won't cooperate--even if they're related to you!
  • Public relations. Keep promises you make. See that your customers aren't disappointed with what they find once your advertising gets them through the door. Make it easy for them to make purchases and returns. They should leave smiling. If you tell your local Little League team that you'll provide team T-shirts, follow through. If you commit to a joint venture with another business, school or a group of any kind, keep up your end of the deal. Pay your invoices on time. Be a good citizen. Get involved with community projects where your business can do something positive (and maybe get some free press).
  • Your willingness to use the internet. A company with no web presence is archaic. Even if you're only interested in local sales right now, your customers are on the web, and they'll want to see you there, too. Get it done now.

Be vigilant. Every contact with the public will either serve to build your brand or dismantle it, and administering damage control can seem like managing a convoluted maze of tumbling dominos when something happens to threaten the public's perception of your business. If you want a second opinion, ask Firestone.

Kathy Kobliski is the founder and president of Silent Partner Advertising, where she oversees multimedia advertising budgets for retail and service clients. Her book, Advertising Without an Agency, was written for businesses owners who are working with small advertising budgets and can't afford professional help. You can reach Kathy via her website at http://www.silentpartneradvertising.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.