Where I live, there are 4 traffic lights between my house and the main road. So, before I can really get on my way in any journey, I usually have to stop, no matter where I’m going. Some days, I even have to stop and wait at all 4 lights. All this stopping and waiting gets tiresome—but it pays off by getting me safely to my destination.

Branding your small business can be a lot like these traffic lights. There are certain things you must decide before you can really get started on the fun part—drawing your logo and designing your marketing materials. Frustrating, but making these decisions is a necessary part of making sure that you will create your brand correctly.

Making decisions about the 4 following Brand Foundation Factors does make you stop and wait a bit but ensures that you proceed through the branding process safely and create a brand that will help your business to reach its goals safely and comfortably.

Red Light 1: Who You Are

You need to know what your business’s personality is, and how it is different from your personality. Which is always a tough question for a very small business of one or two people to answer. Ask yourself which pieces of your personality get shown to your clients and which you reserve for friends and family.

Also, you have to know why you’re in that particular business. Is it because of your expertise or a feeling that you get from working with your customers? What are you trying to create for your customers? For yourself?

If you’re clear of your personality and your motivation in your business, then you will be able to be clear when communicating that to your audience.

Red Light 2: What You Do

You can’t create your small business brand until you know what types of services or products you’ll be offering. What do you do for your clients?

You also need to know what formats you’re offering those in. Are you doing consulting services, offering group trainings, or selling online products or a product that needs to go on the shelf? You may be selling several of those options, and if that’s the case, is there one format that you’ll concentrate on over the rest? Marketing online products is often a very different project than marketing consulting services, so knowing what you’re selling can help inform your brand.

Red Light 3: What Makes You Different

In order to figure this one out, you have to first look at who your competition is. And “I don’t have any” isn’t a valid answer—that’s a very idealistic way to look at things!

You may think that what you do is utterly unique, but your clients don’t see it that way. They’re always going to be doing research on a few different ways to solve whatever problem they’re having—so while you might think that you’re unparalleled, that’s rarely the case in your clients’ eyes (unless they’ve come to you on a very strong referral).

So, you have to find your competitors—or at least those companies that your clients have you quote against—and then figure out what their Brand Definitions are and how your business is different.

Red Light 4: Who You Can Best Help

To create your brand, you have to know who will be looking at it. Once you know who your audience is, you can take the first 3 red lights and write and design expressly to communicate those factors to that specific audience.

This is another area where entrepreneurs are a bit idealistic and like to say “But, everyone’s my target audience!” While that’s a nice thought, if you try to create a brand and marketing materials that will appeal to everyone, you’ll wind up with bland materials that won’t really work for anyone.

Think about the clients that you’ve had the best results with—and the best relationship with. You want to work with clients who you can really help and who are easy to work with as well.

Now, this process may be hard for people who are just starting their businesses to go through, but that doesn’t mean that you can run through these red lights in order to create your brand. Instead, consider just creating some temporary materials until you have at least 6 months to a year in business to look back on to see what habits you’ve established and how your business really turns out.

Even though waiting to figure out these red lights may be frustrating, it will pay off by building a brand that will get your business to its goals safely and comfortably. Once you’ve turned all of these red lights to green by answering these questions, you’re ready to move on to the “fun” part of designing your brand—drawing your logo and marketing materials.