I once had an entrepreneurial client who requested an ad campaign for his new business. After much research and competitive analysis, we recommended that he brand his company using a compelling shade of green. He immediately rejected the idea because he said, "I hate green." That same week the founder of another small business saw the designs we had prepared for the other client. The second company's founder insisted we use the green to brand his company because he said, "I love that color!"
Neither entrepreneur used objective strategy in their decision. Both relied on their own personal preference. Was this a mistake? Maybe--but probably not. After all, as the founder of a new small business, you are your brand to some extent. Your preferences matter. New companies are strongly identified with their founder, and strong brands often begin with strong personalities. That said, however, you may have certain biases that could impede your company's success. So when does personal preference get in the way and when does it pave the way?
This is a difficult question to answer, and entrepreneurs would be wise to ask themselves it when making branding decisions for their company. Here are some guidelines:
1. Whenever your personal preference is so strong that you can't "live with" doing things that oppose it, don't even try. My experience has been that while not all of a founder's personal preferences become enmeshed in the brand, all strong personal preferences--both strategic and arbitrary--will become part of the brand one way or another.
2. If strategy or objectivity points one direction, but personal preference points another, weigh the strength of both. In the example above, if the first client had listened carefully to our rationale for using that shade of green, he may have decided it outweighed his initial resistance to the color. Or perhaps he just knew that his hatred of green would far outweigh any objective rationale.
3. When you're unsure, get feedback from potential customers. Show an example to them in a way that makes them feel safe responding positively or negatively (removing your personal bias). Keep in mind that customers also fight personal bias and may offer subjective reasoning.
4. When intuition plays a role, consider your intuitive "batting average." In other words, if following your gut has paid off for you in the past, you probably can trust it. Entrepreneurs with a lot of experience in their industry often have great intuition when it comes to their verbal and visual identity. When they're instantly attracted to something--like a color, photo or font--they go for it.
5. Know that it's okay to defy conventional wisdom, as long as there's strategy involved. After all, the point of branding is differentiation. Just beware of rebelling without a cause.
6. If you're working with a freelance designer or agency, make a non-negotiable list of design elements you're opposed to and present it to your supplier at the beginning of the project. This list might include colors and fonts to avoid. It's vital that you do this upfront or you may face extra charges for "changing direction" down the line.
7. Don't compromise. If you hate the idea of tugging on heartstrings by using big photos of puppies in your ads, don't compromise by using small photos of them. Choose one direction (advertising wisdom: heartstrings) or another (your preference: direct sell), but don't mix the two.
Successful entrepreneurs build their brands on the same things that have helped shaped their personalities: their experience, insight and values. Be true to yourself, and you'll be true to your brand.