Branding can be a significant financial investment. As savvy small business owners we need to ask ourselves: is it worth it? Will we actually receive enough of a financial benefit to justify that cost?
Branding is powerful, but it’s not magical. If you already offer great quality services or products, a brand that demonstrates that level of quality can attract either more buyers, or higher paying buyers.
If you’re just starting out with very little expertise, a tiny client list, and no industry connections, slick branding combined with an intense digital marketing campaign can help you get some easily impressed clients. But unless you can deliver on your promises, your business may fold like a house of cards. This “quick buck” approach is not one I’d recommend.
I’m focusing solely on the first approach, which is about highlighting the excellence of your business that may not be apparent to prospective clients unless they dig deeper.
How can we use branding to create an amazing first impression for just the right people, so it brings in more sales and profits?
In this article I give an overview of how different elements of branding can encourage clients to see our business as a better choice. I also share a practical exercise that will help you see where you’re losing opportunities, and what to improve to increase interest of your ideal clients.
There’s no guarantee, and you shouldn’t expect quick results
Branding is one of the elements that need to work together in order to produce results:
- Marketing, networking, advertising, or PR are required to bring attention to your brand. If no one has ever heard of you, that gorgeous website won’t do you any good.
- Skilled sales can encourage people who are on the verge of a buying decision to close the deal. (And will also weed out folks who are not the right fit.)
- Exceptional client or customer service will cement your position as a trustworthy brand, and turn buyers into referrals and brand ambassadors.
- Business systems that keep your practice operating like clockwork can be used to reinforce your brand voice and visual identity, and get you repeat sales over years to come.
- Financial planning can help you set the appropriate pricing for sustainable and long-term success, while your premium brand will signal above-average prices.
If one of these elements is not yet in place, or if you at least don’t have a plan on how to implement it soon, it may be better to put off the rebranding project until you set up and test your client journey to make sure it works as intended.
I don’t recommend anyone to go into debt, or spend money they’d be desperate to earn back quickly.
I’d also be wary of speculating on future income if your current income is zero. There just isn’t enough historical data to prove that better branding would change anything for you. Start with a basic website for now, and reassess your needs once you establish that people actually want to buy what you sell.
There are problems that branding can solve, and problems that branding will never be able solve.
- If nobody needs or wants your services, branding won’t change that.
- If prospective clients are considering your services but choosing other providers instead, good branding may make your offers more desirable.
- If you never talk to people who might need your services, and don’t market or advertise anywhere, you have bigger problems to solve before you even think about branding.
- If you’re attracting “bad” clients (cheap, unreasonable, unprepared, etc.), good branding can appeal to your ideal clients.
- If people keep asking you why your services are so expensive, you need to position yourself as an expert with a unique point of view—branding can help you do that.
What makes your business different?
Clients are often comparing different providers who offer the same kinds of services—very rarely will someone hire you right out the gate without doing a bit of research on what else is available. If your price is the highest among the offers they’re comparing, they will understandably wonder why that is. What makes your offer so special? Why should they pay more, when they can pay less?
Price is not the only factor that clients take into consideration.
When I was a very young freelancer, I didn’t understand why someone would pay 5, 10, or 20 times what I charged rather than work with me. I seriously didn’t get that there’s criteria beyond demonstrated skill (portfolio) and price that a business owner would base their decisions on. I’d be shocked when someone revealed how much they paid for their brand identity or website.
I cringe when I remember how little I really understood creative business at that age. I still encounter this kind of shocked reaction when freelancers and agency owners discuss prices and budgets. So many young professionals don’t understand that the clients who only care about the price are to be avoided, not wooed.
If you’re more concerned with profitability than with market share, your path to greater income is to charge higher prices, and attract clients to whom these prices seem reasonable. These clients tend to be quite discerning, so you better show them that they’ll receive a high-tier service as well. They want to minimize hassle and maximize their satisfaction, and they’re prepared to pay more for that.
I do that too as a consumer. If I believe that I’ll get better quality, durability, and more enjoyment out of something, I will gladly pay more and feel immensely grateful that I can afford to have a choice.
I’ve been explicitly told by several clients that they chose to work with me, despite having cheaper options available, because they were convinced by my content and branding that I was the right choice. When something feels right, people will pay whatever it costs.
The point we’re trying to make through our branding and marketing is that it’s not the same thing.
If you can explain and demonstrate what makes your offers different (your unique value proposition), people who care about those differences will be more inclined to spend more money, because they understand that they’ll receive more value than if they were buying cheaper services.
I don’t necessarily mean to offer “more items” in a package than the next person, so that the value is quantifiably greater. We need to make it clear that the experience they’ll have working with other companies is not equivalent to the experience they’ll have working with us.
If you have an edge over other competitors that enables you to serve your ideal clients’ needs better, this can easily push you to the top of their shortlist. In fact if you’re the only one who can serve their needs in exactly the right way, it’s not a matter of deciding—you’re the only logical choice.
My edge is the Human Centered Branding framework that I developed specifically for service-based businesses. I’m specialized in brand identity design for consultants. If a prospective client that runs or is starting a consultancy approaches me, I can easily demonstrate how my work is different from other brand identity designers that don’t have a strategic approach, or serve clients across wildly different industries.
If you don’t have a compelling difference, and your reputation and expertise are not clearly evident, few people may think it’s worth the extra money.
Highlight your perspective, personality, and core values.
Even if you don’t have a super original offer because your field cannot accommodate innovation, you can stand out as an expert (or a team of experts) that brings a unique point of view to your field.
Clients who buy services are not only looking for expertise, they’re looking for compatibility—how well you’ll get along during the course of the project. If you can show a bit of your personality, your story, and your reason for doing the work you do, you’ll be able to connect with clients who are searching for someone just like you.
The right people will be attracted to your work, and you won’t have to try hard to impress them. It’s just a natural process of acting like yourself in your business communications, and speaking your mind.
Sharing common core values and ethical principles can lead to strong, long-term business relationships. More and more folks are becoming aware of the need to evaluate their service providers on these factors.
People don’t want to be treated like wallets—they want to be witnessed as human beings. They don’t want to have to explain themselves all the time, they’d prefer for their business associates to understand them and what matters the most to them. If you share common ground with your clients, this becomes another layer of your brand that helps you stand out.
All else being equal, if someone has to choose between a really likable service provider for a slightly higher fee, and an aloof service provider for a slightly lower fee, the likability factor alone may tip the scales.
Aesthetic appeal and attention to detail
Lots of people already think about aesthetic differences when it comes to brand identity design. One company’s logo looks one way and features a characteristic color, while another company’s logo looks a different way and features another color... We’re surrounded by the immense diversity of brands on a daily basis.
While I try to hammer in the fact that visuals are not the only important part of branding, they are powerful.
Most people are already fairly aware that logos can carry meaning, and that certain industries usually have a heavy focus on pictorial symbols, abstract symbols, monograms, wordmarks, etc.
The first impression alone can create the expectation of pricing. Back when I used to teach graphic design, I told my students to go to the wine aisle next time they’re in a supermarket, and examine the labels on the top-shelf wines, medium shelf-wines, and lower-shelf wines. The differences are quite striking.
The same goes for cosmetics and other consumer products: we’re trained from a young age to expect a certain level of quality and prestige based on the appearance of packaging. Certain colors have a more “luxe” vibe, and others have a more youthful or relaxed vibe.
Everyone can understand the visual language to a certain degree, but visual communication designers can use it with intention to imbue brands with both obvious and subliminal messages.
Another layer of your aesthetic presentation is the attention to detail you demonstrate through your brand identity. A polished visual presentation usually signals a premium brand, whereas a patchwork approach or inconsistent aesthetic standards signal a budget brand.
When you walk into a high-end store like a car dealership or a designer shoe store, the impeccable attention to detail is awe-inspiring:
- The signage is prominent, yet tasteful.
- Shop windows and floors are spotless.
- There’s not a speck of dust on the items displayed.
- The lighting is flattering.
- The salesperson is elegantly dressed, and speaks with just the right level of warmth and formality.
- There may be decor on the salesperson’s desk, like a bouquet of fresh flowers or a house plant.
- Brochures are printed in full color on thick paper, often laminated or with metallic accents.
- If there are any chairs or benches available for customers, they’re stylish and comfortable.
- You’re given nice-looking branded folders or shopping bags.
High-end brands are designed to make every interaction memorable, because of the thoughtfully placed touch-points.
When you go into a grocery store or a cheaper clothing store, you’ll have a very different sensory experience. That is expected, because there’s literally too much “stuff” to deal with and they cut corners where they can. The grocery store chain may have a decent logo, but once you print it on a crammed catalogue on flimsy newsprint, the overall effect is not great.
The attention to detail you give to your brand should ideally reflect the attention to detail you give to your services. The bigger the investment a client is making, the more attuned they are to subtle signs of legitimacy and professionalism. Even if you’ve invested in a professional logo, if your proposals are written in 12 point Times New Roman, and your website is full of cheesy stock graphics, that won’t be enough to give your prospective clients an impression of excellence.
Businesses that want to extend the attention to detail to all their communication channels either invest in professionally designed brand identity design assets, or have technically savvy team members that are able to recreate a coherent look across their documents, presentations, blog, social media graphics, etc.
A few examples of printed promo materials and digital assets I designed as a part of MATDAT brand identity
Now that I’ve explained in general terms how different elements of branding affect consumer decisions, we’ll look at how they affect decisions on a small scale.
Chart the path to getting paid
Your client journey is about more than just getting paid, but for the purposes of this article we’ll zero in on the points in the journey where the prospective client is faced with a decision that can potentially lead to increasing your income. We’ll see how we could improve the chances of the right people saying “yes” to our invitation by utilizing our brand.
The exact path depends on which channels you use to spread the word about your business, and how you sell your services or products, so make a chart for your situation. I’ll use a generic consulting business as an example.
I made this appear like a linear process, but a lot of the time it’s not! People may go back, forth, and sideways before they finally buy something from you. This journey can last from a couple of minutes, to literally a decade.
Step 1: Social media post
We could start in many different places, but I’ll go with social media because it allows for your brand to really shine.
Social media is noisy, and people will just scroll past your post unless something catches their attention. Usually that something is an image or a video.
- If a post contains an image or a video, there is a greater likelihood that someone will look at the content and read the caption than if there’s only text.
- If the image or a video stands out from the others in their feed by having an eye-catching element (person, object, color, shape, phrase, animation), again the likelihood of engagement grows.
The content of the post needs to be relevant to your prospective clients, and if you can speak to their challenges and ambitions, plus sprinkle a bit of your own personality, that single piece of content may lead them to follow your profile, or click through to your website.
If you have a brand identity, especially one that includes graphic assets you can use to create appealing content, this increases the chances of a prospective buyer noticing your posts and moving one step forward along the client journey.
Step 2: Your website
Once you’ve gotten someone to click through onto your website, it’s done! Or is it? Not so fast.
If you’re using a website visitor statistics script such as Google Analytics, you may have noticed a number called the bounce rate. The accuracy of the bounce rate has been debated, but in general, the majority of people who click through a search result or a social media post will close the tab before clicking on any other link on your website.
- Perhaps they were looking for something specific that is not present on your page, or they couldn’t find it.
- Perhaps they saw the page title and the first paragraph, and it didn’t seem relevant to them.
- Maybe something on your website annoyed them so they immediately clicked away.
- Maybe they actually scanned through your page, and decided “Nope, this is not for me after all.”
- They might have bookmarked the page for later.
If the visitor clicked away because they need something different than what you’re offering, or they saw that your prices are higher than their budget, that’s fine—you can’t please everyone.
But if someone who would be a great fit didn’t even scroll past the first section of the page because your website didn’t seem that relevant or appealing, you have a problem.
Part of it might be unclear and uninspired text (web copy). Part of it might be that your website looks like it was made in 2003. Maybe there’s not enough information on the page to keep them interested, or there’s plenty of densely packed text that looks like assault on the eyes, with no headings, images, or blank space to make it more palatable.
Competition for attention on the web is brutal. Having a website is not enough. It has to be better than the other websites your visitor is comparing it to. Maybe not better in every conceivable way, but at least in some ways that matter the most to your clients.
It’s pretty clear that improving the content and the design of your website has a measurable impact on your bottom line.
Step 3: Interaction
The next step we’d like our prospective clients to take is to actively engage with our content, because they’re highly interested in what we do. If they’re comparing several professionals or vendors, this means we’ve gotten on their shortlist. Hooray!
Here are some examples of low-stakes, but meaningful actions on the client journey:
- Subscribing to a newsletter.
- Downloading a guide or a workbook (and actually taking the time to read it).
- Downloading a demo version of a product.
- Registering for a free event.
- Commenting on a post.
- Messaging you or your team through the web chat.
- Asking a question via email.
They haven’t explicitly said they want to buy something, but they’re well aware of the option.
The curious psychological phenomenon is that people prefer making consistent decisions. If you make it easy for people to engage with you, when it comes to making a buying decision, they’re more likely to choose you, instead of a competitor that they had less contact with.
If the only option of engaging you’ve allowed is to click “buy now”, to send an inquiry, or to book a discovery session, you’ve squelched opportunities for low stakes engagement that can get people warmed up to you without showing their hand. People don’t like being sold to before they’re ready. They may not feel comfortable getting on the phone with you before they’ve had a chance to examine all their options. Everyone has had the experience with a pushy salesperson, and staying under the radar is a good way to avoid that.
If the only options available are to buy or to leave, they may just leave. If there’s also an option to engage or to bring a keepsake, at least they won’t forget you.
Step 4: Getting in touch
Once the prospect is confident that you might be able to help them and they’re ready to talk to you, there has to be an easy way for them to get in touch.
Depending on what kind of communication you prefer, you might want to put a few of these options in place:
- Website contact form or public email address
- Live chat
- Social media direct message
- Public phone number
- Appointment booking calendar
- Detailed inquiry form
Some of these options are easier for the prospective clients, while others are more labor-intensive for them, but may make your job easier. I explained the advantages and flaws of each approach in my article The Ramp and the Ladder – 2 methods of client experience design.
Depending on what kind of action they’ve taken, you need to respond in a way that’s congruent with your brand, and gives a great impression. For chat messages and emails, that may mean responding very quickly. Appointment calendars and inquiry forms can be configured to send automatic responses with instructions for next steps, or resources you need them to review.
Typically a consulting business will have some sort of introductory meeting, or a “discovery session” where the prospect shares the project background, and you evaluate what you could do for them, and what it would require in terms of scope. This is a chance to show your personality, and to reiterate what makes your services unique.
If you have any resources that make sense to share at this stage, like free guides, detailed brochures, business policies, etc. you can include them in the follow-up email after the meeting, or prior to the meeting.
Step 5: Sales offer
Some consultants make the offer right at the end of the intro meeting, and some send a formal proposal at a later time. If you have ready-made packages, it makes sense to explain what they are and suggest the most appropriate one for the prospective client immediately. If you tailor the scope of work for each client, then you’ll need to take time to run your numbers and make a proposal. Each of these methods can allow your brand to shine.
- Reiterate your unique advantages over other competitors.
- Create a graphic/slide design featuring your packages to show as you’re explaining the features.
- Create a nice looking proposal document template.
You may still lose the prospect at this stage, or you may decide after finding out more information that you’d rather not work with them. The purpose of the sales conversation is not to close the sale at any cost, but to establish whether both parties are highly likely to get what they want and need from the exchange of value.
Taking on the wrong gig can backfire, leaving you with lower profits, a disgruntled client, or an ethically questionable project that your name will be attached to.
Your turn: chart your path
Sketch a chart similar to the one I’ve shown, and next to each step write ideas for improvements. I hope that this article has given you plenty of ideas to get started. You can also get a lot more ideas by looking at the communications channels of your peers, direct competitors, vendors you’ve bought from, etc.
It might look something like this:
Once you have your chart and your ideas, figure out how you’re going to achieve it. Don’t stress about the timeline—it can take a long time to establish your brand and polish all the details. Just figure out what the easiest place to start is, and slowly start working along your list. Next to each idea, ask yourself:
- Can I do this entirely on my own?
- Can I outsource this task to a team member or a virtual assistant?
- Do I need to hire a specialist (copywriter, designer, developer, photographer, videographer)?
Put everything you can do yourself or delegate to your team on your task list and don’t put it off: one change in one step can bring a new client you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Put special projects that require expert help on a “someday” list, and start looking how you could budget for that:
- If great photos and videos could increase your social media reach by 20–30%, and you already get leads from social media, would the higher income pay off the production cost in 3–6 months?
- If a more premium brand would help you raise your prices by 20–30% while keeping the same sales success rate*, how long would it take for the investment to pay off?
- If a more premium brand would help you increase your sales success rate* by 30% at your current prices, how long would it take for the investment to pay off?
* Number of signed contracts for every 10 proposals, discovery calls, or sales meetings you have with prospects.
These numbers are speculative and shouldn’t be taken as a guarantee, because each business’s circumstances are different. Maybe you could raise your prices today without changing anything, and nobody would bat an eye!
Rebranding can result in higher income, but only if you have a good business foundation.
Don’t spend more money on branding than you can reasonably afford, and don’t bet on future success if you don’t have a record of past successes. People who already have a good thing going stand to get the highest benefit from branding.
Everyone else? Go back to business basics, build your references, collect testimonials and case studies, and save up for future business investments—whether it ends up being branding, advertising, or something else.
Create your own brand with ease
The Human Centered Brand teaches you how to create a magnetic brand in a way that’s natural for you, and easy to implement. If branding has been on your to-do list, this is the perfect resource to get started. Learn more about the book and download the free chapter.