Creating a brand is one of the most important things that you'll do in the establishment of your small business. But defining what "brand" means can be a tricky task. There are so many different approaches to branding a business and so many elements of a brand. The most accurate definition I know is:

A brand is the collection of perceptions that your customer has about your business.

Here's another definition from Wikipedia that goes a little more in-depth into all of the facets of a brand:

In marketing, a brand is the symbolic embodiment of all the
information connected with a product or service. A brand typically
includes a name, logo, and other visual elements such as images or
symbols. It also encompasses the set of expectations associated with a product or service which typically arise in the minds of people. Such people include employees of the brand owner, people involved with distribution, sale or supply of the product or service, and ultimate consumers.

This definition usually makes a small business owner feel rather powerless
over their brands. Since, in its' simplest definition, a brand is
created in your customers' mind – from their perspective and
experiences, it may seem that there isn't a lot that you can do to
shape or control the outcome. For example, if a customer has a bad
experience, or happens to be in a bad mood when they work with you,
there's a good chance that their impression of your company will be
less than favorable. However, there are a lot of actions that you can
take to influence and to help shape your customers' thoughts about your
business, and to work towards making those more positive.

Let's start by looking at how large enterprises approach "branding." Enterprises typically devote a rather substantial budget to "brand-building." Generally, the process of brand-building begins with hiring big thinking branding consultants to define a business's brand. Then, focus groups are conducted with current and potential customers to make sure that the branding is on the right track. After the branding has been refined, corporate messaging will be developed to reinforce the brand, and a brand identity will be designed to visually communicate about the brand. Many enterprises will also put together an advertising and/or public relations campaign to spread the word about their brand and to gain some brand recognition. There are many more activities that large businesses can do to build brand awareness and to create equity in their brands.

But this approach makes branding a particularly difficult task for a small business. Small businesses typically do not have the budget for research, high-priced consultants, and nationwide ad campaigns. And rarely do they have the time or internal resources to devote to the creation and management of a brand. On top of all of this, many of those tasks just aren't appropriate to help small businesses create the results that they need with their brands.

I typically condense small business branding to a much more compact—and economical—package:

  • Brand Definition: This is the process of defining your business: Who you are, what you do, who you can best help, and what makes you different from your competition. You must have all of these factors well-defined to create an effective brand. If your thoughts in all of these areas aren't clear, concise, and well-put, then you can't hope to effectively direct your customers' thoughts about your business. Worse yet, you might wind up looking like you have "multiple personality syndrome," which can thoroughly confuse your customers.
  • Brand Identity: also known as the graphic "face" of your business. Small businesses certainly benefit from creating a logo and a consistent set of marketing materials. Forty percent of people better remember what they see as opposed to what they hear or read. So having an iconic logo and a strong visual vocabulary used throughout your materials greatly increases your business's memorability — and makes it more likely that your customers will think about you. The colors, fonts, and symbols that you use throughout your Brand Identity can also communicate your Brand Definition to your customers in a visual way that's more powerful than using words alone.
  • Brand Messaging: This is the way that you talk about your business. What is the main message that you want to tell people about your business? What do you want them to remember about you, and how would you like them to pass the word along to others they meet? You can influence many of the thoughts that your customers have about you, and how they talk about you, by having consistent messaging in your marketing materials.
  • Brand Service: This is how you perform your tasks, relate to your customers, and deliver your products or services. Customer service is a part of a company's brand that's often overlooked, because it's not seen as a part of an advertising or marketing campaign. But with the definition of a brand being so customer-focused, keep in mind that the way that you serve your customers is one of your biggest points of contact with them and the experience can really shape their opinions. Make sure that your service and business practices are in-line with your brand, whether you're relating to existing clients or new prospects.
  • If you address all four of these branding points in your small business, and keep your customers in mind throughout your brand-building efforts, your brand will be an effective way for you to form a connection with your clients and prospects, and will make your business stronger.