Transparency. The rise of the internet has transformed personal and small business branding. Before the 1990s, companies (and individuals) had much more control over their brands and their messages.
If you think the world has not become more transparent, consider political events. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, many Americans didn’t know he was paralyzed from polio. That’s because the press honored his request not to be photographed in his wheelchair. By contrast, today we know where former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was when he was fired by a Tweet.
Today, you’re online—whether you choose to be or not. Business has changed. Your clean—and dirty—laundry are on the clothesline of the internet for all your global neighbors to see.
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Online Brand vs Online Branding Definitions

Brand Definition

What is a brand? “Brand” is how people perceive you or your company. For companies, all the collective impressions your company makes comprise your company’s brand.
A “personal brand” is an individual’s reputation—online and offline. In many small companies, the personal brand of the owner is closely aligned with the company brand. For solopreneurs, the two may be identical.
Online brand” includes the impression you make as a personal brand—or that your company makes as a company brand—on websites, social media, ranking services, emails, and other digital channels. Small businesses, individuals, and large corporations all should have an online brand that is consistent with its offline brand.

Branding Definition

If brand is about perception, what is branding?  Branding is the collective actions a company or an individual takes to manage its brand. Company branding allows a business to have a voice and to compete in the marketplace. Similarly, personal branding allows an individual to compete in the job market or a chosen profession.
Modern day transparency requires that your branding be consistent with your brand. If you try to claim you’re something that you’re not, you will be exposed. This is especially true online.

Brand Identity Definition

What is a brand identity? A brand identity is a combination of the elements that form the brand image. It’s not just a logo. It’s not only your visual or tangible elements—although these are an important part of your brand identity. The end of this article covers more on creating a brand identity.

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Small Business Branding Case Studies

To illustrate and differentiate between brand (the image) and branding (the process of building a brand), these mini case studies discuss problems that six companies have with their online brand.

Company A’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

In the first case study, a small insurance administrator in Wisconsin has 57 reviews on Google. This is unusual. Most small companies are hard-pressed to get more than a handful of reviews. Google reviews are local ranking signals for SEO. Sounds great, right? The problem is that this company’s average ranking is a meager 1.8 stars.

Branding Solution

In this case, the brand is unlikely to recover. It needs to fix the underlying problems that make customers despise the company. Once the leaky fire hose is repaired, it’s doubtful that the company will be able to mop up this large, online brand mess. Even if it achieves, 57 more five-star ratings, it would only claim an average of 3.4 stars.
The company will likely need to lay its old brand to rest.
A new brand name and brand identity could reinvigorate the company’s newly improved customer service. (If you read the reviews, this is one of their main problems.) This rebranding is not an inexpensive proposition. Costs of name development and logo creation alone typically start at $10,000 and $3,500, respectively. (As a side note, my fees are lower.) After the new identity is created, it also will need new  websites, business cards, signage and all the “stuff” or collateral of marketing.

Company B’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

In the United Kingdom, another company unwittingly finds itself in the middle of the right-to-life and right-to-choose debate on Twitter. At the same time, it becomes embroiled in an animal testing controversy. As a result, a constant barrage of tweets suggests the company kills both babies and puppies. (Neither is true.) Can you think of anything more damaging for its brand? Kittens, perhaps?

Branding Solution

In this case, the company needs to find its voice and begin communicating on social media and beyond. It should focus on the philanthropic work it is doing for the communities it serves. It needs to begin to drown out the active, but misinformed, voices.

Company C’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

A third company has an outdated mobile website. It is not a responsive design site (as Google recommends) and has not been maintained with fresh content.

Online Solution

Today, 57% of searches are conducted on mobile phones or tablets. What’s more, Google has begun migrating to mobile indexing—rather than indexing the desktop version of sites.
Unless the small business quickly upgrades its mobile capabilities, it may soon have virtually no website. The solution is to invest in a responsive design site with robust content.

Company D’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

A fourth small business is named after its owner. The owner has been involved in litigation. Moreover, a former client provided a scathing review. These two events appear prominently on page 1 in the search return.

Online Branding Solution

In this case, the owner needs to obtain more positive, yet authentic, reviews. Google recommends a straightforward approach of reading and replying to reviews. I would add that this must be done with a level head, consultation, and a thoughtful approach.
The owner also might consider reading blogs on online reputation. He could participate on professional social media sites. He could also optimize his website and  LinkedIn profile. This would “push” the “bad” news to page 2 in the search returns.
One caveat? Google is testing infinite scrolling on mobile search returns. That “page 2” return soon may be viewed more often.

Solopreneur E’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

Solopreneur E is a life coach and psychic who doesn’t want to be found online. She states she works with abused women and being found online could compromise her own and her client’s safety.
Yelp places her on the internet with her credentials and the wrong street address and incorrect phone number. She asks them to remove her. Yelp requests the life coach’s real address and phone number. She refuses, and sends in  NBC Channel 5 News investigates. “No help from Yelp,” the network reports—although Yelp does remove the incorrect information.

Online Branding Solution

Perhaps with the privacy storm swirling around Facebook, the transparency tide will begin to shift. However, I believe the internet is here to stay. . . and so is transparency. How do we unring the bell or untell secrets?
I’m not sure it’s possible.
From a branding standpoint, I would advise her to ignore the advertising and review site (Yelp). Alternatively, she could seek the advice of an attorney. However, this would likely be a drawn out, expensive proposition.
Additionally, the psychic now has the added exposure of a broader television audience, perhaps placing her and her clients at more risk than the internet alone. As a psychic, should she have seen this coming?

Company F’s Online Brand

Online Brand Problem

Company F does not currently have an online brand problem. But I predict it will.
It is a moderately successful technology company that provides branded tchotchkes. Although it has a website, prospects and customers cannot make purchases online. Additionally, prospects and customers must leave messages on weekends or evenings. They can access a human only during business hours, Monday through Friday. Its competitors offer an Amazon-like experience.

Online Solution

Companies must consider the buyer’s journey and the users’ overall online experience. Moreover, the irony of a self-professed “technology” company without the technology to allow ecommerce is not lost on me.
Again, I would wager this whole “internet thing” is not going away. Company F will slowly bleed customers to the competition until it can no longer maintain a profit. By then, it may be too late to make the necessary investments in ecommerce.

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How to Create an Online Brand Identity

An article about brands and branding would be incomplete without covering brand identity.

Brand Identity Questions

To create the best logo and website design for a small business that doesn’t have an established brand identity, I ask:

  • Who are your target customers?
  • What are one or two personas?
  • What customer problem or challenge do you solve?
  • Why do you exist? What value do you deliver? What do you excel at?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • How will you differentiate your product or service? What makes you unique?
  • What are your company’s values?
  • If your brand was a person, what sort of personality would he/she have? How would he/she communicate?
  • What three adjectives describe your company?
  • How will you reach, acquire, and keep customers?

Moving From Questions to Creating a Brand Identity

The answers to these questions help to determine how to write the messaging, content and tagline of the company. It also informs the creative brief.
I share the client-approved creative brief with the graphic designer. In fact, I would never create a logo for a client without involving the expertise of a graphic design partner. Many consultants and small companies prefer to create their own logos. Frankly, it shows.
Don’t be misled by software programs and applications that tell you that you can do it yourself. You CAN do it. But SHOULD you? Graphic designers have college degrees because they are trained professionals. For the best logo design for your small business, make sure the company you hire taps into the expertise of professional graphic designers.
A logo is an important part of your brand identity. An amateur logo screams, “I don’t care enough!” Worse, it conveys “I won’t care enough about the work I do for you.”
Additionally, the goal is to create a timeless (not trendy) logo. You don’t want to pay for a logo and soon discover that it’s passé. Classic is better.

Visual Elements of a Brand Identity

The color, typography and shape of your logo are visual reminders of your brand. Research indicates that pictures and images (including logos) are more effective than words alone. People remember about 80% of what they see, 20% of what they read, and 10% of what they hear.
Campbell’s® Soup. Nike®. Gatorade®. Diet Coke®. Google®. Most likely an image came to mind when you read those words. Did you see a product? A logo? A color?

Brand Identity and Color

Color comprises about 62-90% of people’s assessment of a brand. Moreover, different attributes are associated with different colors.
For example, blue is considered steady, reliable, trustworthy professional, and it’s widely accepted. Banking or healthcare companies use a lot of blue. Do you want to blend? Do you want to differentiate yourself? How far are you willing to go? While developing a logo, one exercise I engage in is to place several competitors’ logos side by side.
Many companies want to stand out—but not too much. A graphic designer will help you choose wisely.

Brand Icons

One more point to make about the logo itself, I recommend that your online brand identity have an icon—an image that you use without the text of your company name. This is the square image next to a post on social media channels and the favicon in the tab of your web browser.
For example, my icon is the “dynabloom.” It represents the dynamic integration of digital, traditional, and personal marketing that helps businesses grow.

Brand Identity Imagery

The style of corporate imagery also impacts your brand identity. Is it clean and fresh? Is it illustrative? Playful? Serious? Does it feature people or objects?
What’s more, people who are online are 94% more likely to view content with an image, according to Forbes. I would add the caveat that email is often an exception to that rule. Many “spammy” emails have images. Additionally, open rates can be higher for emails with fewer images.

Brand Guidelines

Brand guidelines help to define how you and your employees use your logo AND covers misuses—both offline and online. How will you use the logo on your website, in social media, email marketing, email signatures and other online uses?
It also describes how you will talk about your brand, your messaging, the imagery to use, and much more.

Summary Questions

  • Are people aware of your brand?
  • What impressions are you making online and offline?
  • Do you need help creating a professional brand identity?
  • Or cleaning up an online brand problem?
  • Do you have all the branding resources you need?
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