Developing your small business brand involves more than picking a logo and a color scheme. While people often confuse branding with imagery, branding is, in fact, the whole product – from your humble startup roots, to your product, to your employees and even your customers. To fully flesh out your brand, follow this basic three-step process:

1. Refine your small business’ branding story

Your brand is a company message that you can sustain over time, and it starts with your story. Startup business owners engage their employees, customers and investors by naturally telling a compelling and personal narrative:

  • How did you come to this business idea?
  • What made you decide to launch it?
  • Where do you see your future?

When your employees face customers, they need to be engaged with this story and be eager to share it. Think about how to frame the story so that employees and customers will want to share it. Also think about how your narrative sets you apart – and gives you that competitive edge!

As examples, here are three great food-based startups with memorably humble narratives of origin. Innocent Smoothies was started by three Cambridge graduates on a budget of £500 (that’s about $750 US) with a recipe and a truck full of fruit. Abel & Cole began as a fruit and veg stall on the cobbled streets of London. Ben and Jerry’s went from being a local Vermont business to a global dominance, not just as a brilliant ice cream manufacturer, but as a champion for equality.

All three companies have roots-based stories, all were developed by friends passionate about good food – especially organically-sourced – and all have company messages that encompass fighting everything from poor diet to social inequalities.

Case Study: Ben and Jerry’s

In 1978, Ben and Jerry opened their first ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in a small town in Vermont, using their life savings and the knowledge gained from a $5 correspondence course in ice cream-making. From the beginning, their brand paired this story with a promise to act in the public good – “spreading peace, love and ice cream since 1978” is the company mantra.

Even after 35 years in business and a takeover from Unilever in 2001, Ben and Jerry’s still sticks to its original small-town, public-minded ethos. In fact, rather than being diluted by acquisition, there’s a case to be made that the ice cream company has changed Unilever for the better.

Ben and Jerry’s has supported many causes over the years, with an emphasis on the environment, and on economic and social justice. The company’s most recent campaign supported the UK’s same sex marriage bill by creating a special edition Apple-y Ever After flavor to be sold in Scoop Shops across the country. This commitment to the public good is key to the company’s mission statement:

Ben & Jerry's Mission

Ben and Jerry’s has made its social causes a recognizable feature of the brand. You can similarly combine your company’s story with social causes that fit with your background and with your reasons for starting your business. You’ll help others even as you create a clear identity and mission for your company.

2. Create your name

You only have one chance to make a first impression—and for many customers, your business’ name is that impression. In a startup-flooded marketplace, getting your name right can be the key to your success, while a bad name can doom your chances with new customers.

Are you considering a play on words or familiar catch phrases? You might want to think twice about that. The name may sound snappy now, but problems can arise when you try to branch into other markets where the pun no longer makes sense, or just isn’t funny.

Also think about your URL and how it will look when it’s displayed. Here are a few examples of businesses that failed to step back and see their URLs as others would read them, with unintentionally hilarious results. You also want to turn up in people’s searches, so test your name out using the Google Adwords tool (soon to switch over to the Keyword Planner) to see what combinations of words yield good results.


Three common naming mistakes to avoid:

  1. Web 2.0 speak – It’s getting old now. There are so many 2.0 names for businesses that the term has become basically meaningless.
  2. Acronyms and initials – This kind of name causes trouble with SEO rankings; moreover, it’s very difficult to convey a company message in just 3 letters. (OK, IBM has done it, but that’s after billions of dollars of advertising!)
  3. Dull descriptions – A name that simply describes what you do isn’t forward-thinking and won’t give you freedom to move into new markets down the road.

3. Define your look

Only once you’ve got your narrative and your name ready for the world should you move into what you want your brand to look like. Your story and product should dictate who you are so the brief for your designer will basically write itself, right…? Wrong! There are nearly limitless options for style, typography, color schemes, mascots, 3D, and more. To help your designer sort this out, make sure your design brief is thorough, and includes the following info:

  • Your brand and business – Clearly lay out your goals, markets, locations, and target demographic.
  • Industry and competitors – What do you like about other designs, and what about them do you really want to avoid in your own branding?
  • Values, feelings and messages – What about you do you want the design to communicate?
  • Colors and imagery – Pull together colors, images, and ideas that can provide a general direction or theme. Add them to Pinterest boards and use a polling app, like one of these, to gauge feedback from colleagues, mentors, family and friends. If you’re scared your color scheme will do the classic “pink and green should never be seen,” then try Kuler from Adobe to help you sort out your color palette.
  • Technical specs – List any specific technical information you need to receive from your designer, like size, format, or fonts. If you want to work on these yourself try ILoveTypography or Da Font, which will let you test some styles to see how your text will look.

If after all of this you’re still not sure what you want, don’t despair. It can help to look at a few ideas and see what resonates. One way to do this is to tap into a community of designers by crowdsourcing your design. You can also check out some of the current design trends on YouTheDesigner for some inspiration. Be careful jumping on board the latest trend, though. In a year there will be many similar logos, and a year after that the look will already be dated. Design trends come and go – you want something that will last.


Lastly, there are no hard rules to small business branding. Those pink and green logos I mentioned? Well… sometimes they work out!