Small business owners, avoid these five crippling branding mistakes


These lessons from TOMS Shoes, Apple and Virgin should guide the way as you mold your company’s reputation. (J.D. HARRISON)
June 13, 2012

When I first launched Pappas Group in 2003, I went from executing advertising strategies for some of the world’s favorite brands to doing much of the same, but running a small business, to boot. I spent long days at the office not only tackling the branding needs of my clients, but writing contracts, reviewing résumés, signing off on payroll, bills and taxes. In short, handling the millions of tasks (and unpleasant surprises) that small business owners face every day as they work to keep their companies humming.

I know that marketing and advertising efforts are seldom viewed as a priority. But in looking back on those first few months—and now with another decade of experience building brands ranging from start-ups to global brands—I cannot stress enough the value of defining your brand early on.

Your brand isn’t just a logo and a name; it’s part of your business plan. It’s the promise you make to customers about what they can expect in all interactions with your people, products, services and company, shaping sales, employee adoption, decision-making and more. And while there’s no cookie-cutter model for building a brand, there are a few cardinal mistakes that every start-up should avoid. Never...

Mimic the success of others: Consumers value individuality, and having a strong point of view will help start-ups elevate their brand. Consider Apple: While its competitors were defining themselves as tech companies, Apple positioned itself as a lifestyle. By building a brand centered around products with a focus on sleek design, simplicity and individuality, they built a following that valued their vision and brand essence.

• View your brand narrowly: Brands should be built from the inside out, permeating throughout the entire organization. For example, Patagonia was founded by legendary climber Yvon Chouinard, who placed a heavy emphasis on sustainability, environmentalism and transparency right from the start.

The brand’s authenticity is a direct reflection of the depth of its message: employees are allowed surfing and snowboarding breaks during peak conditions, and customers can track the environmental impact of an item from design to delivery.

• Neglect to engage your customers: In order to be truly engaging, start-ups must create a personality for their brand, interact with customers, and be a natural extension of their target audiences’ personal interests. TOMS Shoes was hugely successful at building an army of brand advocates early on by transforming the traditionally superficial act of shoe shopping into a charitable act that gave customers a sense of purpose. They created an experience that socially conscious Gen X consumers, and consequently their friends, wanted to be a part of.

• Lose sight of your aspirations: A start-up’s brand should be something that will live with them forever, so it’s important that entrepreneurs ask themselves, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Aspirations drive decisions organizationally and help define brand architecture.

For example, Virgin started out as a small record company in 1970 built on a unique set of principles: value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. Today, Virgin has evolved into a multi-billion dollar international investment group. All along the way, Virgin has held steadfast to their ideals, no matter what sector — whether it’s travel, mobile, lifestyle or entertainment, they create the same brand experience for their customers.

• Break your promises: If companies don’t deliver on their brand promises, their customers will hold them accountable. Recently, the social networking site Path learned this the hard way. In their mission statement, Path says that the social network “should be private by default. Forever. You should always be in control of your information and experience.”

Yet earlier this year, they were ousted for collecting contact information from their users’ iPhones without consent. So when Path’s chief executive justified the behavior as an “industry best practice,” social networks erupted with outrage. After the fact, the start-up apologized for the mistake and corrected the error, but the entire ordeal could have been prevented had the company kept their brand promise.

Anthony Pappas is the founder and president of Pappas Group, an Arlington, Va.-based advertising and branding services agency.

Related: Three more tips to help you build a successful brand

Related: How to use playlists to boost your brand power

Follow the Pappas Group and On Small Business on Twitter.

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