Brands are for big businesses like Nike or Starbucks—corporations with entire branding departments and tons of cash to create a flawless brand identity, right?
If you run a very small business, building a brand can feel a bit superfluous.
After all, if your business is essentially just you, offering your product or service to clients or customers, spending time and money to create a brand can feel unnecessary at best, and downright presumptive at worst.
However, the reality is that no matter how big or small your business, you need a brand. Your brand is how your clients and customers see you, and it determines what opinion they form of your business—and they will form an opinion, whether you have a cohesive brand identity or not.
So, whether you run a small consulting business, offer freelance web development services, or run another similar type of solo small business outfit, the reality is the same: you need a brand.
That being said, building a brand for a small solo business can be a more difficult, nuanced endeavor than building a brand for a larger business, or a business that you intend to scale quickly. Should you keep your business strictly professional, or integrate yourself into your brand? How do you let your personality inform your branding efforts?
To find out, I posed these questions to entrepreneurs who have either been there personally, or who have experience advising other entrepreneurs on the ins and outs of branding.
Want to find out what the experts have to say? Keep reading.
The biggest takeaway I encountered? Don’t be afraid to highlight your personality as a part of your brand. It’s a response I encountered frequently, and I’ll touch on it again later on.
The general consensus is that when it comes to branding, tying your personality to your brand is key. “I try to insert myself into my brand in any way I can,” says Michael Motylinski, senior pastor at Wanderlust Bay Ministries. “It is central to what sets my brand apart from the others.”
Motylinski uses a web presence to help inject personality into his work. “I am able to let me personality really shine in my blog,” he says. “I’ve written a guide for officiating your first wedding. I get more traffic, shares, and responses from that article than any other branding I do.”
For Motylinski, figuring out how to fuse his personality with his professional work has been a process of trial and error. “What didn’t work for me was trying to fit in with all the other online ordination companies,” he says. “They all try for a pseudo-religious, stuffy, and official-sounding message. I have chosen to go the other direction and make my brand fun, spontaneous, and personable.”
When it comes to articulating your brand, it’s crucial to determine what feels authentic to you personally, and not to shy away from the impulse to make it personal. Integrating your own personality into your branding will make your brand feel more authentic, and will make your business a true reflection of both your professional skill set, and you as a person.
The idea of “customer service” might bring up the image of a call center, or some other type of full-fledged service team.
However, the reality is that even if you are the only person contributing to your business, if you take on customers or clients, you still participate in customer service to at least some degree.
So, how do you handle your customers, and what does that say about your brand? Do you answer client emails immediately, or do you leave them hanging? What sort of language and tone of voice do you use in your responses?
“It is crucial to inject your personality into the brand and convey it through not just the product or service offering, but most importantly through customer service,” says Jerry Lee, founder of Story Leather. “I have learned that offering an excellent product is not enough […] How you differentiate yourself is really in how you service the customer when a problem arises.”
The takeaway here is integrating your client communication and customer service into your branding, and creating a plan for how you will handle your customers or clients in a way that feels cohesive and representative of the brand you are building.
At the end of the day, Lee argues that happy, satisfied customers are key to building a memorable brand. “I have learned that it is really through customer service that customers will really remember your brand,” says Lee.
Creating a brand for your business is more than just picking a cohesive set of fonts, colors, and design elements (though those aspects are certainly important). It’s also crucial to pay attention to any intellectual property you need to protect.
“My best piece of advice for entrepreneurs to successfully brand their business is to protect your intellectual property, says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. “Protect your brand, your logo or slogan, and your domain name by registering for trademarks and copyrights.”
While this might be a less exciting facet of branding (let’s be honest, here), neglecting to do so can mean trouble down the road. You may even end up having to restart your entire brand image or logo design because someone has taken up use of your brand elements.
“By [protecting your brand], you will retain the exclusive rights to these original works and be able to keep competitors from plagiarizing or copying the unique assets,” says Sweeney.
So, we’ve established the importance of integrating yourself and your personality into your business and your brand—and one of the best ways to do this is by solidifying yourself as a subject matter expert within your industry.
“People trust experts,” says Bradley Shaw, of Seo Expert Brad Inc. “People believe in experts. Most of all, people choose to do business with experts.”
How do you create “expert” status for yourself within your industry? Focus on contributing to publications, creating your own personal blog or leveraging your social platforms, speaking at events, and generally creating a strategy that allows you to share your knowledge and experience within your industry. “My brand was built over many years via social media and guest posting,” says Shaw.
In addition to the importance of become an industry expert, Shaw offers these two simple tips for brand building: “Reserve your name on all social platforms, big or small. Also, keep your message and name consistent on all platforms.”
Building on the idea of becoming an industry expert, Alex Reichmann, CEO of iTestCash, believes that becoming a thought leader in your respective field is part of building a successful brand.
“I attach myself to my business when it comes to marketing my website with content writing,” he says. “I’ve written for numerous business, banking, and retail publications and find it helps to market myself as an expert in my field.”
That being said, Reichmann lets his business “speak for itself,” and doesn’t attach his name to his website and products. Rather, he lets his thought leadership within his industry serve as a connection back to his business. “If [people] read our blog posts or my editorials in publications, they will see my association with my business,” he says, and suggests that it’s important for entrepreneurs to determine if attaching their name to their business directly will best serve the needs of their particular business.
Not only is it potentially valuable to make sure your personality is reflected in your branding, but deliberately making your business a reflection of you as a person can actually help bring in clients.
“As an entrepreneur myself, I have found that both my business image and my personal image are intertwined,” says Michael Forney of FIDO Arts and Practices. “Who I am as a professional is who I am as an individual.”
Forney says that the integration of his personality into his brand has actually helped him gain more business. “When clients contract for my professional services, my personality, experience and views are all part of the package,” he says. “I would say that, all things considered, most of the work that comes my way is because of who I am. Therefore, any branding and social media efforts for my business must, by necessity, be part of who I am.”
This means that even though his business is tied to his own personality and viewpoints, Forney doesn’t shy away from expressing himself. “My views of the world, my political involvement, and social experiences drive my business plan and goals, and inform the messages I employ through my business social media,” he says.
Ultimately, it comes down to authenticity and portraying a cohesive message. “By pursuing my business in such a way that it reflects my personal values, I and my company maintain the same genuine message and image,” says Forney.
As touched on previously by Forney, choosing to integrate your personal social media accounts into your professional work—and therefore your brand—is sometimes a loaded decision.
Should you maintain a strictly businesslike, professional image across your social accounts that reflect your brand, and keep a separate personal social media presence, or should you integrate the two?
While it’s often tempting to separate your personal and business “brands,” for entrepreneurs who run small businesses, it is potentially smart to make the two work together.
“The key to building a successful brand as a freelancer is to integrate your “real self” into your brand,” says Victoria Heckstall, CEO of Unique Words and Giveaways 4 Mom.
Heckstall came to this realization after she discovered that her personal social media presence was drawing in more business than her professional social presence. “Over the years I have noticed that most of my clients find me from my personal accounts versus my business accounts,” she says. “Therefore, about a three years ago I started combining the two and have been receiving great results.”
Ultimately, it comes back to creating a brand that feels authentic. “Clients want to know that you are real person, and as long as you aren’t doing anything reckless, being your real self can help enhance your brand,” says Heckstall.
“Customers want personality from small brands,” says Melanie Downey, PR strategist and small business mentor at The Publicity Workshop, echoing the advice we’ve heard from many other entrepreneurs. “This is especially true for sole proprietors and freelancers (and for small, local businesses, too).”
Downey argues that the desire to connect with a brand that has a unique personality is why customers and clients seek out small businesses in the first place. “It’s the main reason why people seek out smaller brands—to know that they’re dealing with a real person they know, like, and trust, who will be able to meet their specific needs and will be easy to work with, versus being lost in the sea of a larger company, with someone they may not connect with,” she says.
So, how do you use this desire for a business with personality to your advantage when branding your business?
“The key to doing this successfully is knowing your strengths, and then applying them, though your brand messages, to the type of person who will be attracted by that uniqueness,” says Downey.
“The businesses who really catapult themselves into the world are those who own their individuality and build their business around that,” she says. “From my own experience as a small business owner (I owned a handmade skincare company, Wilava), my own brand took off when I aligned it with my personal and family life. It centered around my identity as a mother; I put the same care into my products as I did when I cooked meals for my family. This message permeated everything I did, from writing product descriptions, articles, public speaking, and presentation, to sponsorships and charitable affiliations.”
By highlighting her own story as a central aspect of her branding, Downey attracted an entirely new set of loyal customers and found her niche. “As a result, although my products were initially intended for people who had eczema, my best customers were mainly women who identified with me as mothers, who bought Wilava products for their families,” she says. “More importantly, [they] helped spread the word about my company.”
The most important aspect of branding, according to Alycia Yerves, owner of Alycia Yerves Creative? “Be consistent.”
“Carry your color scheme through all materials (digital and in-person),” she says. “Establish the ‘personality’ of your company, and maintain that ‘voice’ across social media and through blogs, websites, and PR opportunities.”
Yerves is also an advocate for integrating her own personality into her branding. “In the creative freelancer world that I am in, I fully support the integration of myself as the ‘face’ of my brand,” she says. “I believe once people get to know me personally, they will feel at ease with doing business with my company. In fact, giving my time and personal touch has been one of the main wow factors of my young business.”
Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, offers her own personal experience and several actionable tips for branding your business. Her biggest takeaway? The knowledge that you are always serving as a representative for your business, and therefore your brand.
“When you have a small business, it is by definition tied to your personal brand whether the company is named after you or not,” she says. “You will always be linked no matter what, so whether people see you in a meeting, speaking at a conference, shopping at the grocery store, or on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game, you must always remember you are your brand.”
Rather than feeling weighed down by this knowledge, Arnof-Fern suggests using it as an opportunity to grow your business. “You should always have business cards with you at all times, and look and act the part,” she says. “Everything communicates. How you dress, what you say, how you act, your website, voicemail message—everything.”
With this in mind, Arnof-Fern built her business around herself and her personality, and integrated her own image into her branding. “For me, I made a very conscious decision when I started my company not to name the business after me, but I can tell you everyone knows I am behind every decision and I have been referred to as the ‘Maven Lady’ on many occasions,” she says. “The business’s personality is an extension of my own, and I think it has to be consistent to be an authentic brand. Authenticity is the key—it has to be and feel real for it to work.”
Arnof-Fern offers the following tips for figuring out your unique brand, and determining whether your branding elements are right for you and your business:
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