Branding is a popular topic in the business press and in business schools these days. Unfortunately, coverage of big brands like Tesla, Nike and Virgin make it sound as if Branding is a discipline reserved only for Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires. As if small-business branding isn’t even a thing.
Let me set the record straight on that: It’s entirely possible to build a successful brand without a million-dollar marketing budget or a cadre of high-paid consultants.
Small-business branding is very doable. In fact, many business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, year after year, and eventually a great brand emerges.
It does not happen the other way around.
You can’t just come up with a nice name and a great logo and expect the business to become a successful brand overnight. Without a good, solid business operation and a realistic brand strategy, you’ll never have a great brand.
If you look closely you can find plenty of inspiring brands in everyday places. Like the breakfast table and the local Mexican restaurant.
Because the fact is, branding is not exclusive to big business. If you deconstruct it, you’ll see that small-business branding shares four important things with fortune 500 branding:
Relevance. Credibility. Differentiation. Consistency.
Forget about Proctor & Gamble for a minute and consider the small businesses branding case studies in your town or neighborhood.
Think about the little guys who have a ridiculously loyal following. What makes them successful? What have the owners done that turned their typical small business into an iconic local brand?
In Bend, Oregon there used to be a popular little restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.” It wasn’t the best Mexican food in town, but for many years it was the most popular, despite an embarrassing location and many other shortcomings.
Taco Stand was in a tiny building in a hard-to-find spot next to a run-down laundry mat.
It was never open for dinner. They had no web presence, advertising budget or social media following. And yet, for 20 years it was a successful little business, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.
Taco Stand had all four ingredients of an iconic brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure.
The owners of Taco Stand consistently delivered on a very simple value proposition: Big flavor for a small price. All the locals knew you could get a big, great-tasting burrito for very little dinero.
They never wavered from that focus. Consistency led to a loyal following, which added to their credibility, which led to profitability. There’s good money in rice and beans.
Small-business branding and a big-business blunder.
Most people think differentiation and credibility is easy for big corporations. Companies like Kellogg’s can launch a new brand with a massive multi-media campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging.
But even the big boys make mistakes that leave a bad taste.
Take, for example, Smart Start cereal…
The idea at Kellogg’s was to launch a cereal that could compete with all the rising stars of the natural foods industry. The consumer trend was overwhelming… people wanted healthier breakfast alternatives. They wanted whole grains, fiber and good taste without all the sugar.
So Smart Start was positioned as a “healthy” and “wholesome”adult cereal. The elegantly set promo copy described it as “Lightly sweetened, toasted multi-grain flakes and crunchy oat clusters.”
It was launched in 1998 with beautiful, minimalistic package design from Duffy & Partners and a Fortune-500 style marketing effort with lots of full page, full color ads in targeted magazines like Shape and Parenting.
Great name. Great-tasting product. The greatest package design in the history of breakfast cereal. And a premise that was complete BS.
When my kids were young they liked Smart Start. And for some reason I felt okay about serving it to them, despite the fact that I knew it was a big, fat lie.
One glance at the ingredient list and you’ll see that Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be. It’s loaded with sugar… 18 grams of sugar plus high fructose corn syrup, honey, molassass, sugar, sugar and more sugar. That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.
So much for credibility. So much for authenticity.
From day one, Smart Start was built around a brand promise that the product could never deliver upon. It was doomed from the start because the actual product was not aligned with the brand promise.
Over the lifespan of that product Kellogg’s tried a number of things to stem the bleeding. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they tired the old line-extension trick… They did a “Strong Heart” variation that has 17 grams of sugar, a Strawberry Oat Bites variety and an antioxidant variety.)
Just keep launching new flavors and spin-offs of Smart Start , maybe they’ll forget about its UN-healthiness.
The packaging also devolved over the years… what started as a distinguished, minimalistic design slowly become less and less unique with every variation.
So Smart Start’s credibility was sorely lacking for anyone who pays attention to nutrition labels. The brand’s consistency is debatable with all the line extensions. And the brand’s relevance is dwindling as more people find out about its nutritional shortcomings and turn to truly healthy alternatives from brands like Kashi.
Even a big company like Kellogg’s, that has deep pockets and a 33% overall market share in the cereal isle, can’t get away with that.
In October 2019 Kellogg’s settled a $20 million class action suit for false claims of being “healthy” “nutritions” and “wholesome.” The suit involved five flavors of Raisin Bran, 16 types of Frosted Mini-Wheats, Smart Start cereals and 24 types of Nutri-Grain bars.
I bet they won’t be putting the American Heart Association logo on their packages from now on.
So what’s the lesson here for small-business branding?
Smaller companies can’t afford to mess up like Kellogg’s. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances. If you launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind, you’re going to fail.
Don’t choose a name, like “Smart Start,” that cannot be substantiated by the facts.
Naming is hard, and when it’s not done right it’s a recipe for a small-business branding disaster. The name and the identity design and the packaging and the claims need to be aligned with the brand strategy and the product itself.
Make sure your product claims are not only truthful, but also relevant to the target audience.
For instance, “Healthy” is not part of the Taco Stand value proposition. It would be a silly claim to make because people who want a big, cheap burrito don’t really care about healthfulness. It’s not relevant.
Credibility would also suffer because no one would believe that a Taco Stand burrito is really healthy.
Be consistently authentic.
If you serve a great, cheap lunch, don’t try to do fancy dinners. If you do sugary cereals, don’t try to compete in the health food world. The big food brands have learned that lesson… now they just buy-up successful natural food companies instead of trying to do their own brand.
For more on what all great brands have in common, try THIS post.
For help with your small-business branding and marketing management, schedule a test drive with BNBranding. We’ll run you through a simple brand assessment that can help jump-start your branding efforts. 541-815-0075.