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Marketing - 9 min READ

An education in branding for small businesses

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Author photo: Carrie Shaw

Carrie Shaw

Chief Marketing Officer

Every business, no matter how big or small, has a brand—“branding” isn’t just reserved for the Nikes and Audis of the world.

And it isn’t really fair, is it? Because even smaller businesses with limited budgets and resources need memorable and unique brands—the competition doesn’t go away just because you’re not a Fortune 500 company.

So, how can a small or medium-sized business build a brand—without spending an exorbitant amount of money to do it?

We talked to Trevor Hubbard, CEO and Executive Creative Director at Butchershop, about how they help companies of all sizes achieve their goals by defining their brands.

Who’s Butchershop? Butchershop is a brand consultancy that specializes in deep discovery and brand design, organizational design and experience design. They work with companies that range from startups to Fortune 500 clients including Zenefits, Nike, Converse, Okta, Mountain Hardwear, Zuora, and Good Eggs.

They’ll share five branding lessons for businesses that are interested in branding—and none of these require a bag of cash:

  1. Think about your brand holistically.
  2. Branding needs to come from the top.
  3. Sometimes, the problem isn’t your brand.
  4. You don’t have 100% control of your brand.
  5. Brands are built on relationships.

But first, let’s talk about what a “brand” is. (No, it’s not your logo.)

What’s the definition of a “brand?”

Most people think of a company’s brand in terms of a visual identity: the logo, the wordmark, the typefaces it uses, the color palette…

In reality, a brand is much more than that.

“In our philosophy,” says Trevor, “Brand is everything—it has the power to set the whole playing field. The brand is not your product, or your company culture, or your vision, or your mission, sound, service design, packaging, storytelling, marketing, content, visual identity, or your logo. It’s all of those things.”

In fact, a lot of Butchershop’s work starts with helping clients reset the definition of “brand.” It’s good for their partnerships—and it’s good for the industry too because it clarifies expectations.

Now, let’s look at some branding lessons from the team at Butchershop.

1. Think about your brand holistically.

Because a brand isn’t just a logo or a set of visual guidelines, the work that’s involved in building a brand naturally extends way beyond your Design team.

Yes, design is a huge, significant component of brand-building, but your Customer Support team (how do they talk to customers?), your Sales team (how do they talk to prospects?), and many other teams all shape how your business is perceived.

Creating guidelines for branding and tone of voice involves conversations with multiple teams and stakeholders.

And your audience? They include not only customers and prospects, but also investors, partners, and your employees. And there is a whole host of other relationships that you need to keep your business thriving.

One key component of Butchershop’s brand is its culture manual. The team created it for three reasons based on their experiences:

  1. Clients really want to know what it’s like to work with you.
  2. They want to know how you work through a project.
  3. They want to know your value prop and point of view.

It’s not just an agency thing either. “The manual isn’t just a cool video or a badass website,” says Ben McNutt, Head of Creative.

“It’s more like ‘what’s your point of view on the world of brand and business? People and process? Technology and evolution?’ These big topics matter to our clients, and they want to know what we think of them too. It’s important to define what makes you first, best and different. What you are fighting for—or against. When a company knows these things, a brand emerges. And the filter of how you are perceived is created.”

Butchershop's culture manual

“The culture manual acts as a lighthouse for us.”

2. Branding needs to come from the top.

Otherwise, it’s toothless because you don’t have a driving force behind it. When it comes to questions of branding, your CEO needs to be in on it—and ideally, bought in too.

“The CEO needs to understand the impact of consistent communication, what great design can be, strategic thinking, and verbal identity—and how all that tracks to their goals,” says Trevor. “That’s important whether they’re trying to reach new markets or get more funding.”

If you don’t have that leadership and transparency behind your branding efforts, chaos can ensue. Well, maybe not chaos, but something close to it: assumptions, lack of alignment... things that create inconsistent brands. Aka. things that you don’t want.

3. Sometimes, the problem isn’t your brand.

And even though brand is super important, it’s not always what your business needs to tackle first. Doing the research and discovery to understand audience and objective points of orientation help develop a brand strategy.

Butchershop often gets clients that come to the team saying, “We need a new website. We don’t look the part,” or, “Our website’s totally wrong because it’s just not telling our story, we’ve grown, we’re in new markets, or we have new products…” None of those points have to do with a website. They have to do with brand.

Sometimes, the real problem is that you need to better understand what your customers need. Or that people don’t get what your product does. A website isn’t going to solve either of these problems.

Butchershop’s campaign for Good Eggs was heavily data-focused and used new insights to create a brand campaign that spoke to their target audience: Bay Area moms. Sometimes, when it comes to a brand strategy, research and data are your best friends.

A website isn’t a magic cure-all, and if you treat it like it is, you’re setting up your brand project for failure. “So we encourage our clients to see brand as objective rather than subjective,” says Trevor. “And once we define it, we can filter decisions on topics like, what would a website for our brand be like?”

4. You don’t have 100% control of your brand.

Often, the idea of branding is confusing to people because they think that a company just has to “create a brand” (new logo, new brand identity) and that’s it—the work is done.

But businesses don’t create brand perception.

Your audience and customers do.

“It’s up to the company and the leaders in the company to understand how they want to be perceived, and to make choices with the right brand strategy and platform to shape that perception.”

And even then, a branding project is rarely a foolproof sure-win. It’s not what any business wants to hear (hey, everyone wants only what’s guaranteed to succeed)—and rarely will any creative agency admit it—but it’s true.

But branding is one of those processes when it truly is the journey that matters, and not necessarily the destination.

“When we get comfortable with talking about failure and what will make you fail in the context of your vision, you start to see that a lot of things that businesses want to do may be misaligned,” says Trevor.

“You may have a CEO who’s a product person and doesn’t believe in the power of brand, but I guarantee that most people in that meeting believe in clarity, alignment, and clarifying assumptions.”

And that’s what Butchershop does: finding those subjective conversations and turning them into objective points of orientation.

5. Brands are built on relationships (and not just the ones with your customers).

It may seem strange to tie in branding—which people think of as this flashy, creative project that companies take on—with relationships, which tend to be very personal and human. But relationships have a huge impact on brands.

Whether you believe in the idea of brand loyalty (where a customer will stick by your brand no matter what) or that customers will leave you for a competitor with a lower price, you still need a way of retaining customers.

And you’ll have a much easier time retaining customers if you have strong relationships with them. Your brand is a part of that. Marketing and advertising are all about what you want to say about yourself.

“Branding is about what everyone else says about you,” says Trevor. “So it’s up to us to know our audience and give them good touch points.”

Are you friendly with customers who have questions, like Buffer (who even has a “Happiness Team”)? Do you make it as easy as possible for them to get refunds and exchanges, like Zappos, or do you make them jump through annoying hoops? Do your emails always sound exciting and fun when you’re announcing new products, like Threadless?

These are all ways of creating a positive perception of your business that strengthens relationships with your customers.

In other words, these are examples of branding.

How should small businesses think of branding?

One thing that Trevor is adamant about when talking about Butchershop is that it isn’t just a “branding company.”

“What we really do is figure out ways to build trust and create value,” says Trevor. “Those things aren’t typical of a branding agency.”

It might be a good way for small businesses to approach brand-building too. Instead of focusing on companies and commerce, think of a brand in terms of what your leaders and people represent. What are their strengths? What do they think makes your business unique?

It’s conversations like these that led to the realization that companies can still be human (and now it’s something that many successful businesses, like Zappos, have embraced).

And the relationships you should be thinking of aren’t just the ones with the people who pay you money either. Your relationships with your own employees and other partners who pay you with their time, their energy, and resources absolutely matter too.

“Brand” is all-encompassing, as Trevor and the Butchershop already know. “I was talking to our CFO—he was looking at the data and our attrition rate is the lowest out of 150 companies that he works with,” says Trevor. “That’s what I’m most proud of. Our people love it here.” .

You could say it’s part of their brand.

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