What’s the difference between having a business and having a brand?
Let me give you a hint: It’s the same difference between having a body and having a personality. The first is necessary for you to exist in this world. The second is what will make you stand out from the world and get ahead in it.
And what’s the difference between a body and a personality?
To paraphrase one my favorite analogies: Your brand is to your business what your character is to your body.
Can you imagine your body functioning in the world devoid of your character? What would you have left then? Just an eating, sleeping, moving machine that performs only the most basic of bodily functions, just like every other character-less body-machine in the world. Yikes!
And the same happens when you build a business without a brand. It may function, but don’t expect it to stand out or get ahead in the business world.
No matter how big or small your business is, from a multi-employee empire to a single-freelancer show, every business needs a brand—a mark of character. In fact, small business brands, free of the rules and restrictions that govern large corporations, have more freedom in crafting and developing a character that stands out from the crowd.
Although there isn’t one “right” brand all small business should have, strong brands with unique and distinguished characters share the following 10 brand characteristics.
The Top 10 Small Business Brand Characteristics
1. Values Define Their Small Business
If character depends on one thing, it’s values. Whether talking about people or a business, values define who we are at the deepest level, give us a roadmap for navigating the world in a way that helps us improve, and allow us to express ourselves in meaningful ways.
Values can transform your small business from just another design company, wedding photographer, coding studio, (or your specific industry niche), into a unique brand that stands for something bigger in the world. And that “something bigger” turns people who hold similar personal values into fans, and fans into loyal customers.
Take a look for example at how Cueball Group, a small business numbering just 12 employees, lays out their values. A small firm in the investment firm industry where bigger firm dominates, it takes a personal, light, and refreshing approach to its work, appealing to young investors looking for the trust of traditional companies with a modern twist. As they state very clearly, they represent their own brand of venture capitalism. They "get it" as they explain, because they're "entrepreneurs working with entrepreneurs.”
Now Take Action - Define Your Values
No business is too small to have strong values defining its place in the business world. What are your core values? Why do you do the work you do? If you haven’t already discovered and set your business values, or if you don’t know where to start, check out the following tutorial that will walk you through everything you need for writing your values.
2. Authenticity Permeates Their Small Business Brand
One of the most interesting things about character is that it’s incomparable. You can’t say that so-and-so has the best character there ever existed on this planet. There are no standard marks, no points of absolute evaluation, or areas of comparison for judging the best character. Every true character is authentic.
Similarly, the best brands around the world are not the ones that have “the best” character, but the ones that have their own character. The small business brands, in other words, that are authentic to their values, to their beliefs, and to who they are without trying to copy or mimic other businesses or business models in their industry.
Trying to be like someone else won’t help you find success with your brand. Coca-Cola can’t try to be more like Pepsi to succeed; it can only be authentically Coca-Cola. And there are no rules or limits to what makes up your authenticity. Take a look, for example, how Big Ass Fans company (yes, you read that right) makes a huge splash in the fans and lighting industries by defying everything you ever thought a fan company could be.
Take Action - How Can You Be More Authentic?
What makes your small business brand yours? How can you express more of what is unique about your brand, your business, and your core values in the way you do business?
3. They're Human and Personal
The most successful business brands are the ones that are the most human. That’s because people don’t buy from corporations. People buy from other people. People buy from humans.
As a small business, you have a clear advantage here over the giant corporations. When you’re operating on your own or with a small team of employees and co-workers, you can be more human in your business operations. You can be human with your customers, personally contacting them and solving all their questions.
When Christina McMenemy asked Gaylord Opryland Resort through a tweet where she could buy the clocks they had in their rooms that she loved so much, she was informed that the product wasn’t available to the public and was given a link to a similar alternative. That seems like a personalized enough response, right? But they even took it to the next level!
When the repeat customer tweeted back that the recommended product didn’t have one of the features she most loves, the resort surprised her by sending two clocks to her house free of charge along with a handwritten note.
“You reaffirmed that there are still companies out there focused on great service, and you’ve made a lifelong fan out of me.” - Christina McMenemy
Take Action - Develop a Personal Touch
Where in your business processes can you add more of a personalized touch to turn your brand into a human character rather than just a logo on your website? Maybe it’s responding to tweets and social media messages directly, sending personalized emails or even handwritten cards to customers on special occasions.
4. Consistency Backs Their Actions
Ever had a friend who said one thing and then did another? And I don’t say “have a friend” because if you’ve ever been associated with a flip-flopper, chances are that relationship ended badly.
Consistency is important in building character and it’s important is building up your small business brand. Consistency allows your customers to get to know who you really are, to rely on you, and to trust you for the things you do (or don’t do) without fearing that you may change your mind from one second to the next.
Take Action - Be Consistently Great
Consistency can challenge small business owners in particular during periods of expansion or brand shifts. How do you expand to offer more products or services (or different products or services) without losing your authenticity or your brand identity?
If you’re finding it difficult to remain consistent in all your offers, or if you’re currently going through a growth period, take a look at this tutorial that includes a hands-on guide for growing your business without going insane:
5. They Build Great Customer Relationships
Strong, respectable characters build quality relationships. And they care for those relationships. People who treat us badly, disregard us, or dishonor our relationship with them never enter into our circle of loyal friends.
Only by building individual relationships with customers and caring for those relationships can your small business build a loyal client base that will grow. As a small business owner, you have the opportunity to get to know each of your clients personally and to form a strong relationships with each one that will keep them coming back to your brand time after time.
When Belgian beer Maes needed to boost sales in 2013, they didn’t go the regular advertising root. Instead, they called on their “family” relationships giving a free barrel of beer to anyone with the last name Maes to share with their friends. Not only did people all over Belgium keep asking where the next Maes party was, but they also started changing their last names to Maes!
Take Action - Build a Relationship with Your Customers
You don’t have to give away free barrels of beer to form strong relationships with your customers. (Though it could, admittedly help!) Strong relationships grow out of the small things you do, like putting your best customers’ birthdays, anniversaries, or other important dates on your calendar so you can send them a thoughtful note on their important days.
Taking time not only to respond to them on social media and email, but even reach out to them with a simple hello, or a news story you saw and that the specific customer would really love. Small actions have great impact. What small actions can you do now to show your customers that you care about them?
6. They Know Their Customers Well
Did you ever meet a strong character in life who was socially awkward and withdrawn? Nope, never. Being socially awkward and withdrawn, in fact, are characteristics of weak characters.
Strong characters know other people well and can relate to other people well. They understand those around them and their needs, they can empathize with them and help them out—and that’s where their strength of character comes from.
Similarly, brands can only grow strong when they know their customers. When they know who their customers are and understand what they want. When they understand how they can help their customers and find ways to provide that help.
Whether big or small in size, brands can only grow in strength when they get to know their customers on a deep and personal level.
One company that understands its customers deeply is The J. Peterman Company. As a catalog-based clothes retailer, you’d expect that product photos, details, and descriptions to be one of the most important features on the company’s website. But they’re not. Because the company caters to customers with a more romantic view of the world, where the story behind the dress far surpasses the close-up look of the pattern, or the technical descriptions of the straps. So they offer this instead:
Risky? Yes. I don’t know of any other retailers who’d be willing to take down all their product photos and replace them with a single sketch of each item accompanied by a story of the “feeling” the product gives.
Does it work? For them, totally. For more than quarter of a century the company has been “traveling the world to find uncommonly good stuff.” And they certainly do it in the most uncommon of ways.
Take Action - Get to Know Your Customers Better
Your small business brand doesn’t have to do anything as unusual as the J. Peterman Company’s catalog to prove that it knows its customers. Remember that another important brand characteristic is being authentic and true to your values. If you’re not sure who your ideal audience is or what they might want from you, the following tutorial will guide you to discover all you need to know about your customers:
7. They Listen to Their Customers and Care
Once you know your customers, the next step for strengthening your brand is listening to your customers. Listening and being responsive to their needs, that is.
Imagine it like this: Let’s say a brand knows its customers and decides to set up a vending machine of its products in a location that will be convenient for its customers. Customers are delighted and buy from the machine. Until, one day, a customer has a problem or needs to ask a question. No matter how long that customer spends talking to, pleading with, or kicking the convenient vending machine, she never gets any answers.
But if there was a human there? Question answered, problem solved, loyal customer won.
Having a brand that’s like a convenient vending machine (think automated responses and no direct email for customers to contact you) might work for a while. But if customers can’t reach a brand personally, they won’t continue the relationship for long.
Talking of vending machines, however, here’s another beer brand company, this time from Canada, that knows how to build character and create a strong brand. Molson Canadian took the idea of listening to their customers (rather than being a heartless automaton) and perfectly linked it to a “humanized” vending machine that can listen, understand, and respond to customers:
Take Action - Gather Customer Feedback
Going back to our point about your brand being human and personal, the next step is to actually be responsive to clients’ needs, complaints, and requests. Because you can only build strong and caring relationships by being attentive to those needs.
What are some ways you can better at listening to your customers? A couple of ideas are to ask for honest feedback from clients at the end of projects, to send out a survey asking customers what they’d like to see from you, or to even schedule a 15-minutes appointment (in person or online) where instead of discussing a project, you just listen to whatever’s on your customer’s mind regarding things that relate to the work you do.
If you're not sure how to speak to your customers in a way that resonates with them and gets them to respond to you, check out the following tutorial on finding your brand voice:
8. They Own Their Mistakes and Learn From Them
All brands make mistakes. All of them. Just like all people make mistakes. It’s part of human nature.
But successful brands of all sizes (just like successful people of small or large fame) own their mistakes. They learn from their mistakes and make something positive out of a bad situation that helps them move forward.
You can’t simply shove a mistake under the rug and forget about it, hoping to receive no repercussions. After all, they say that happy clients will tell a friend, but dissatisfied clients will tell 10 people about their bad experience. (Or post it on social media and automatically tell 10,000 people!) And negative word of mouth is the fastest way to destroy your brand and your business.
Take Action - Learn from Your Mistakes
Instead of hiding behind mistakes, see them as an opportunity to show your true character, your true values, and to delight the affected customer. Don’t pretend like there was no mistake. Acknowledge it, apologize, and then go above and beyond (even at your cost) to make it up to that client. When you turn a mistake into a positive experience, you’ll win a loyal fan forever.
9. They Adapt to Change Quickly
What doesn’t evolve, dies. It’s the law of nature. All living organisms are constantly in a state of change and adaptability. And adaptability is paramount to successful brands as well.
The best of brands evolve and develop, not only according to their goals but also according to the times, the general business landscape, and the changes in their industry. One of the most striking examples of a brand that refused to adapt to the new realities of the world and ended up losing its entire business because of it comes from Blockbuster.
Once the biggest, well, blockbuster name in movie rentals, the brand was too slow to evolve and adapt its methods to the digital age. All thats left now of its former glory is the hilarious twitter account of the The Last Blockbuster that tweets out messages of self-sarcasm on point about missing the digital train.
Take Action - Prepare to Adapt
Doing what you know and what works feels good and comfortable. Especially if you’ve been in business for a while and have already set up your systems and processes. It can even be the smartest thing you can do if it gives you a good return on your efforts. But don’t ever allow yourself to become so “comfortable” in your ways that you refuse to acknowledge the changing landscape of your industry.
What are some of the things that have changed in your industry lately? Make a list of them. Have you adapted to them as best as possible? Are there any changes you could make to keep abreast with the latest developments in your field?
10. They Have Passion and it Shows
Finally, all of these brand characteristics would come to nothing without passion. No matter what values you may craft, how well you know your audience, or how adaptable you’re willing to be, at the end of the day, if you’re not passionate about what you do, you won’t get very far or have the stamina to do it for very long.
The small company Askinosie chocolate (numbering just 17 people in their ranks) speaks to the importance of passion in what they do very nicely:
“At Askinosie Chocolate, we have a popular saying, ‘It’s not about the chocolate, it’s about the chocolate.’ For us, this confounding phrase means that we have a zen-like approach to our business: we hold the craft and quality of our chocolate in almost equal balance with doing as much good as we can in the world.”
And their passion both about chocolate and about the good they do in the world comes through loud and clearly with just one look at their website.
Take Action - Dig Into Your Passion to Thrive
What’s your greater passion? Why are you building this business? Everyone has their own answer to this question and finding yours will provide you with the necessary heart-fuel to keep on chasing after your dream and build something great in this world.
What are Your Brand's Valuable Characteristics?
Which of these 10 characteristics does your brand exhibit most prominently? Which ones leave you room for improvement? And how would you go about improving them in your business?
Leave us a comment and let the community help you build a better, stronger, bolder small business brand!
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