Stop Branding, Start Working – Why Your Branding is Killing Your Small Business

If you’re running a small business, it’s likely that you’re spending several hours a day thinking about a nebulous concept – branding. You’ve probably been told thousands of times that branding is the reason that big businesses are successful. You’ve often heard things like “McDonald’s brand is worth $3 billion,” or “that thing that that company did was so on-brand.”

And you want to be worth $3 billion too. So you decide to take the time and make a brand of your own. You read all the articles that tell you to keep a consistent brand tone, and to position yourself with a strong, clear brand message like “we sell medium-priced tacos to San Diego working professionals,” and you stick to it no matter what happens.

Any time you put out a press release or ad, you take the extra time to perfectly coif your message until it’s on-brand.

You make sure that your brand image is stamped on every flat surface in your office and surrounding metropolitan area.

You’re spending crazy amounts of time building your brand, and you’re hoping it’s going to pay off, and I’m here to tell you that it won’t, and here’s why:

The success of your brand and the success of your business might not be the same thing.

Branding can be great. An eye-catching logo and consistent color scheme can make your business (and its offerings) more memorable, and clear in the eyes of your customers. A consistent way of phrasing sentences in your ads (i.e. Walmart’s family friendly messages or Virgin’s seemingly cavalier attitude) can create the impression of a “brand personality” that some consumers find fun. But national branding is an entirely different gauntlet than small business branding. As a small business, very few people are experiencing your brand at all. Those who do see your brand are probably only doing so once or twice, and are only seeing a few brand messages.

In fact, it’s my belief that your branding might even be hurting your small business, and here’s why:

1. Brands are inflexible – you can’t afford to be.

The point of having a strong brand is to create a specific, solid message in the minds of your consumers – and once you have the message set, you’re supposed to stick to it. Yet, starting a new business requires a great deal of flexibility.

Example: You’ve decided to start a high-end B2B marketing company. You spend the first month of business developing your brand image and personality, but when you try to find clients, you realize that  most of the large companies in your area are more interested in low-cost than luxury.

What do you do?

A flexible entrepreneur might realize that they’re only a month in – and quickly switch his/her brand message to sound more “low-cost.” As a result, the next few months would likely be spent picking up clients.

An entrepreneur with a solidified brand might be inspired to push through – stick to the message and have faith in the idea that the brand image will make a market for itself.

2. Why worry about brand consistency when customers are only seeing one or two of your messages?

Small business owners constantly miss out on great marketing and sales opportunities because they feel as though they’re “off-brand.”

Example: A children’s clothing store doesn’t want to advertise in the paper because their brand is fun and playful, and they feel the newspaper isn’t.

Newspaper ads may be effective, but the business owner would never know it, because they’re too busy focusing on the voodoo of branding. The fact of the matter is that what seems “on-brand” may not be “on-business.”

In reality, start-up businesses would be far better off letting their brand float a bit, and trying out a variety of different marketing messages to see which worked best.

I hear business owners making decisions like this every day.

So, here’s my advice:

Set your brand image AFTER you know your business.

Small businesses generally solidify their brands and market positioning first, before they’ve spent enough time in the industry to know what type of business will be feasible to run. Instead, don’t waste too much time on branding up front. Get yourself a simple logo, take a month to figure out what’s going to work and what won’t.

Think I’m giving branding a hard time? Let me know about it. I want to hear your thoughts.


Casey Ark

Casey Ark is the CEO of Plato Web Design, a custom web design and marketing agency. His writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Newsday, The Tampa Bay Times, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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