5 Ways You Could Be Sabotaging Your Brand

Too many small businesses get it wrong when it comes to branding. Get it right by avoiding these common mistakes.
Undermining your own efforts to create a brand is more common than you think. (Photo: maradon 333/Shutterstock)

Whether you want to call it brand strategy, brand storytelling or brand messaging, defining and creating an identity for your business is essential to build a competitive advantage and attract and retain customers. But many small business owners blunder when it comes to branding, or treat it as an afterthought.

As you work to build your brand, avoid these five common mistakes that can hold you and your business back.

Confusing branding with design


Creating a brand is more than just having a business card, says Maria Ross, owner of the branding consulting company Red Slice. (Photo: Maria Ross)

One of the most common blunders owners make is focusing exclusively on the visuals — logo, signage, website — according to Maria Ross, owner of the branding consulting company Red Slice.

“I often talk to people that say, ‘My company isn’t doing well,’” Ross said. “When I ask, ‘Do you have your brand strategy in place?” they say, ‘Oh yeah, I have a business card.’ I cringe. It’s so much more than that.”

Your brand is conveyed three ways, Ross explained. The first is visually. But a brand is also conveyed verbally (from how your employees speak to customers to your social media posts) and experientially (the service you give and how you keep the promises you make to customers).

According to Ross, companies whose branding strategies fail to touch on all areas are far less effective. They may be advertising to the wrong people or sponsoring local events that their customers don’t attend. In effect, they’re wasting money that could be better spent.

Ross also tells her clients that branding is both internal (how you operate, who you hire, how you treat employees) and external. In other words, your brand should be the DNA of your business.

Appealing to everyone

Another common reason small businesses fail is they try to offer something for everyone instead of finding a niche.


“Many companies are afraid to put a stake in the ground and say, proudly, this is who we are, this what we’re really great at.” – Lara McCulloch (Photo: Lara McCulloch)

“You can’t build a brand that’s better, you can only build a brand that’s different,” said Al Ries, co-owner of Ries & Ries, a branding and marketing company.

Ries, who works mostly with small businesses and startups, said these clients approach him seeking to expand their business. But most of the time he advises them to do the opposite — sell a smaller number of products that are carefully curated instead of a wide range of products that have no cohesion.

Lara McCulloch, a small business marketing and branding consultant and expert, noted that in business, you really have only two choices to stand out: offer the lowest prices or have a value differentiator. Conveying the latter to the customer is crucial.

“Many companies are afraid to put a stake in the ground and say, proudly, this is who we are, this what we’re really great at,” McCulloch said. “Being a generalist just means that when a potential customer thinks in their head, ‘What’s the best company that specialize in x,’ you are not in the consideration set.”

She tells clients to write down what your business does really well now, then dig deeper on that list, with your target customers in mind, to see what you’re already doing better than your competition or where you could stand out.

Failing to define your customer

Along with not finding a niche, Ross said some small business owners also fail to figure out exactly who they’re selling to. “‘Everyone’ is not a market,” she said.

Porsche and Honda both sell cars, noted Ross, but they don’t sell to the same buyers.

“If people do nothing else, [owners] should flesh out who is the ideal buyer at a demographic and a psychographic level,” Ross said. “What are they like, what do they care about, what are their values, what keeps them up at night, what do they need?

When you know who you’re trying to sell to, you can target your marketing and sales efforts for a bigger payoff.

Delivering mixed messages

Small businesses without a defined brand strategy are often inconsistent in how they communicate across platforms, according to Ross.

For example, a business’ social media may have a lively, fun tone, but the in-store experience is much less energetic. Or a company trying to be brand itself as minimalist and calming will have shelves cluttered with products. A business that says it values accuracy may have online reviews about incorrect orders. All of this leads to potentially confusing experiences for customers.

“Every single customer touchpoint tells a story, so you have to make sure every single customer touchpoint tells the same story and that you know what that that story is, Ross said. “That story is your brand. If you can create this holistic experience, you’ll be more memorable.”

Ries said you should ask yourself: What word does my brand stand for in the minds of my prospects? Whether it’s “durability” or “luxury,” figuring out these keywords for your business can help you hone in on your brand’s message and deliver it consistently.

Not articulating your brand internally

Everyone on staff should understand your brand and their role in building it, Ross said. Whoever does the hiring must know to hire people who will deliver the brand’s message. Customer service staff must know how to live by it. Buyers must understand the brand and purchase accordingly.

“You need to clearly define and articulate your brand’s strategy internally, so your people can communicate it externally,” Ross said.

Getting everyone on board is especially important now because consumers are gravitating toward businesses whose values align with their own. Employees at all levels of your business are the ambassadors of these values.

“With an explosion of choices, your customer doesn’t have the time to compare details,” McCulloch said. “So, many will choose to buy from businesses who share their values instead. It’s not only okay in business, but recommended, that you be comfortable sharing these. Doing so creates advocates and evangelists.”

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