Whether they realize it or not, many companies don't have an accurate sense of how they are presenting themselves to the public. To help make the message clear, sometimes an outside perspective is in order.
Copywriter Laura Scholes was doing work for some entrepreneurs when she realized that although they offered valuable products, they had no brand identity to support them. "They came to me and said, 'I need help writing my website,' and I thought, 'No, you need help building your brand,'" she says. "They were so concerned with talking about what they did and how well they did it that they weren't connecting with their audience, which is crucial."
Scholes parlayed that realization into an entire new branch of branding services at her San Francisco-based firm, Story House Creative. Just six months after launching, she estimates that branch comprises 25 percent of her income.
Scholes is not alone. As more businesses realize the importance of building a strong corporate identity, a host of brand-centric service firms have sprung up to help with the task. From naming and logo design services to companies that put a storytelling spin on products, branding has become an industry all its own.
"Our time-pressed lives leave us too busy to fully assess whatever it is we want to buy, forcing us to turn to brands we already know and trust," says David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "That makes building a strong brand increasingly essential." Here's how some pros are helping entrepreneurs.
First Steps First
Story House Creative works with small businesses to craft a clear brand identity, from tag lines and bios to web content and other marketing materials. The company works with clients all over the U.S. via phone, e-mail and Skype.
Scholes advises her clients on the importance of being consistent in what they want to say. "I ask as many questions as I can to really figure out what this person's special thing is," she says. "They haven't really thought about what sets them apart, so I tease that out and create the brand around that."
While the firm works on copywriting, design, video and search engine optimization, Scholes handles all branding work herself. "A lot of entrepreneurs say they don't want to think about their brand--they just want to do what they do," she says. "So they come to me to help them see who they are and communicate it."
An Identity-building Machine
When a group of marketing innovators banded together to lure startups to Cincinnati, they capitalized on the city's wealth of branding talent and experience, a byproduct of its status as home to corporate giants Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Macy's. The result is business accelerator The Brandery.
Co-founder Dave Knox says the group was inspired by the premise that in business today, branding, marketing and design are actually more important than technology. He points to 2011 Brandery class member RentShare, a digital tool that helps roommates share rent and other expenses. "They had a great, easy-to-use product, but they knew success depended on acquiring more customers," Knox says. "They came here from Brooklyn because they knew our program had this focus and that it's crucial to set yourself apart with smart branding."
Each startup is assigned eight to 10 of about 50 Brandery mentors with related expertise. The Brandery also pairs each firm with brand marketers, designers and researchers at local agencies that donate their services.
In only its second year, The Brandery received more than 125 applications from seven countries for eight program slots. At the end of the three-month period, graduates presented to more than 350 investors. That's good news for the organization, which provides a $20,000 investment for 6 percent equity in its participants.
Telling a Story
When former journalist Thomas Scott started blogging about his home-staging business in 2007, he discovered that his industry-related content radically improved how business prospects perceived his company's brand. Scott realized there was an untapped market for providing other businesses with content that's well-written and entertaining, while helping consumers relate to them on a personal level.
Soon after, he launched Brand Journalists, a Nashville, Tenn.-based firm that specializes in corporate storytelling. Scott says that because today's consumers don't like being "sold" with heavy-handed marketing messages, successful branding is more about crafting interesting and consumer-relevant narratives. "The marketing materials and the logo don't become the brand," he says. "It's the company's story and how it's expressed."
Brand Journalists offers blog and web content, ghostwriting services and reporting on the human stories that make companies relatable for consumers. For example, for an insurance broker, Scott's team blogs about issues related to city life, such as what to do if the tub in the apartment upstairs overflows through your ceiling. "If you try to sell renter's insurance as an agent, people tune out," he says. "But when you talk about the coffee they drink and neighborhoods they like, and how important it is to have renter's insurance as part of that story, it connects with people."
Brand Journalists saw its income double in 2011, an achievement Scott expects to repeat in 2012.