As it’s the face of your start-up, getting your brand right is absolutely vital. But it’s not a case of setting it and forgetting it – the best brands are those that can evolve
Visual identity can have a fundamental impact on how any business is perceived and the extent to which people will engage with it. But what does brand image mean in the SME context? Is it the company logo? Is it the company name? Is it the company website? Essentially: it's all of the above. But brand image extends much further than that. Your name, logo and website are certainly all examples of the mediums you can use to communicate brand but they shouldn’t define it.
Whatever channels you operate in, the first thing your customers or prospects will come into contact with is your brand. Your brand is the most influential asset in your arsenal and it defines what you stand for as a business. It’s a reflection on your team, product and service, so it needs to be able to communicate who you are within seconds of engagement. That doesn't mean it needs to explain what you do explicitly – but it does need to convey what you're promising customers and reflect your core values, personality and purpose.
Your visual presence may look instantly appealing but if your customer experience isn't up to scratch then your brand image is going to be weakened. Everything you do – from the way you answer the phone to the content you post on Twitter – can and does have an impact on your brand. So, from the outset and at every touchpoint, it's really important that you give the impression you are a trustworthy organisation that takes things seriously.
One of the best bits of advice I’ve heard is to tell your story as you think it will be in six months’ time. Act bigger, act established. Your brand is a great way to do this. Everything a customer or prospect sees and interacts with must feel professional. Yet it also needs to be distinctive and honest. Brands help you stand out in a crowded market and can give you more credibility than your competition.
People are becoming increasingly quick to judge, so how you operate as a business and communicate with your audience need to be considered in equal measure. They are just as much a reflection on the business as the services and products you sell and can influence the way you are viewed by your audience. However, don't be under the impression that people will automatically get you or understand your purpose. It's not their job to get you: it's your job to earn their engagement.
You also need to get over the fact people are fickle – they may be judgemental but don't fight it; roll with it and use it to your advantage. Embrace this judgemental audience and feed them what they want to see. Yes, it's a sad world we live in when people judge by appearance rather than on merit but that's the way it is. Clever brands understand this and leverage it to their advantage.
Which brings us on to the strength of your brand image. Investing in how your brand looks may seem like a luxury investment or even a poor use of valuable funds but no one ever made an impact with a poor branding strategy. Poor brands look cheap. People can spot a logo created by 99designs a mile off. That's not to say don't go there but be prepared to understand why successful businesses are happy to spend thousands on getting it right.
A good brand is something that everyone in the business is proud of. Why not ask your team if they would be proud to have it on a T-shirt or visible on their LinkedIn profile? If the answer is no, the brand clearly holds little value to them and obviously isn’t working. If your brand does work, not only will it inspire confidence, it will be equated with quality.
Also don't be afraid to change it. Holding on to heritage can be more dangerous than evolution. If your brand is the same now as when you were a start-up, then you probably still look like a start-up. As businesses grow, they inevitably change and evolve: new services are created and team dynamics change, which by default impacts your core values. These developments need to be embodied in your brand so that your operations and identity are in synch. If they aren’t, your audience may become disengaged.
Ultimately, the depth of a brand takes time to establish so it’s unlikely the vision you had when you started will be the same after year one as year five, six or seven. After years of running a business, you’ll know what you stand for, what sells and what customers like and that will undoubtably be wildly different from where you set out. Why would you keep projecting that same image when your brand is so intrinsic to everything you do?
So how important is brand image to commercial success? Every business, regardless of whether it sells widgets or consultancy, needs to be aware of its brand identity. Not only is it an external communication tool, it’s the lynch pin of your entire outfit and embodies everything you say and do, both internally and externally. If you have a strong brand, by default you’ll have a strong business, a fully engaged workforce and a loyal customer base. These elements combined are key to increasing customer recognition, loyalty and ultimately sales – which all lead to commercial success. This approach takes time but if you evaluate your brand in the context of your entire operation and don’t just view it as simply a logo, you’ll be able to elevate your business to the next level.