Branding on a budget
Nike’s swoosh logo is one of the most recognisable brand symbols in the world today. But it didn’t start out that way - not by a long shot. The Nike Swoosh was designed by graphic designer Carolyn Davidson in 1971. She was paid a grand total of $35 for the work, and Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, didn’t even like it that much at the time. But as we know today, Nike’s swoosh is now so well-known that it doesn’t even need the name Nike for you to know who the brand is.
Branding is critically important to every business, but just like Nike you don’t need a huge budget to get started. Here are the basics of what you need to know - and a guideline for creating your own 1-page brand style guide.
What is the purpose of a brand?
The first thing to understand is what branding is about. There are so many definitions out there it can be confusing, so let’s create a simple definition of brand you can use in your small business:
Your brand is the collection of words and images that defines your unique identity and how you communicate with the world.
With that definition in hand, it’s useful to understand the purpose of a brand:
The purpose of your brand is to ensure you communicate consistently with the world.
You need that consistency for two reasons:
Make you recognisable: by communicating consistently (using similar words and images), you will over time become more recognisable.
Help you stand out in a crowded marketplace: by consistently using your collection of words and images, you can distinguish yourself from all the noise.
The best brands stick in our brains because their presence is defined by the repetition of the same logo, fonts, colours, and images. Once we see them enough, they become instantly recognisable, bringing us a clear sense of reliability and security.
When you look at any well-known brand you will notice that their brand is always used consistently. The Coca-Cola logo is always white text on a red circle; the Starbucks logo is always white on green (with a few notable exceptions). The style guides for these organisations go a lot further, defining how their logos can be used in conjunction with other elements, in print versus online, and so on - the point being that consistency is the goal.
You don’t need to go to the same extent in defining how and where your brand elements can be used - but you do need to be consistent in how you use it.
Your branding tools
When you think about it, you only have two tools to communicate with the world:
Of course, you can make those words and images “move”, which gives us the four tools we can commonly use to communicate today:
Branding experts will of course point out that it’s not just the words and images (and video and audio) you use, but also how you use them that defines your unique identity. We’ll get to that in just a bit.
Your brand “personality”
Now that you know what the purpose of a brand is (to communicate consistently), and the tools you have at your disposal (words, images, video and audio), the first step is to define the personality of your brand.
Your brand personality is a collection of adjectives that describes your business. These adjectives determine how you want to be perceived by the outside world - or more particularly, by your ideal clients.
To help create these adjectives, here are some questions:
Are you formal or informal, or somewhere in between?
Are you playful or serious?
Do you prefer to be more theoretical or more practical?
Do you prefer plain language or do you need to be technical or specialised?
My Britewrx business personality is practical, light-hearted, informal, plain language, compassionate, high integrity, high value, somewhat contrarian and results-oriented.
This also happens to be very close to my personal values which makes it so much easier to stay true to my brand - in reality I don’t even have to think about it much when I communicate or create anything for my business.
Exercise: list the adjectives that describe your business personality. (Hint: if you get stuck, list the things you dislike - this will help you define what you like.)
What do you look like?
The next step in creating your brand is to define what you look like - in other words, the visuals of your brand.
Your visual identity includes:
the typography (fonts) you will use; and
the images most appropriate for your brand.
Your logo can be as simple as a wordmark (your company name), a symbol (a graphic representing your business) or a combination of both. If you’re using a wordmark you will usually want to use a special font so that it stands out. My Britewrx logo was created by my friend Michael Dargie - a wordmark in Helvetica Neue with some hand-crafted modifications.
You can create your own logo or search the web for “logo design” - there are tons of free and paid resources if you need it.
If you’re new to brand design you should choose fewer colours rather than many - it makes life a lot easier and you will struggle less with keeping things consistent.
At the very least, you will need:
a background colour and text colour;
a primary accent colour; and
a secondary accent colour.
For the background and text colour white and black are good choices to start with. Your primary and secondary accent colours should stand out from the background and your text colour.
One of the most useful tools you can find to select colours is Adobe’s free colour wheel - check out their free online tool.
Your typography (a.k.a. fonts)
You can make a lot of impact by using just two different fonts - one for your headings or titles and the other for body text.
The most important rule here is contrast - you have to choose contrasting fonts so that you can clearly distinguish headings and titles from body text.
My standard heading font is Abadi MT Condensed Extra Bold and my standard body font is Helvetica Neue Light. These contrast nicely and are readable both in print and online.
You want a couple of images that can serve as inspiration when you’re creating new marketing material or other collateral for your business. These can be images that worked for you in the past, or you feel truly represent your brand personality. The images can also be aspirational - images that will inspire you or your ideal clients to want to know more about your brand.
What do you sound like?
With your visuals defined, you can now define what you’re going to sound like - and this is all about choosing the words you will and will not use.
You don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time choosing the words you will and won’t use. If you get too artificial about this you won’t sound authentic and your writing will become stilted. But what is useful is to find a few keywords that you can use consistently in as much as of your material as you can.
For Britewrx, my keywords are overwhelm, Tornado Method, solopreneur, business owner and have a life. You will see these words or phrases pop up in all of my material, and over time I hope that these become the “things” that people will associate me with.
Outside of choosing these few keywords and phrases I don’t see a lot of value for a small business in getting too analytical about this - pick a few that work and stick to them.
Putting it all together
Those are all the elements of a brand on a budget for a small business. The next step is to put all of this on one page and keep it where you can reference it.
Here’s my brand style guide - I created it using Keynote (Apple’s version of Powerpoint):
As you can see it’s very simple - when I have time I will work with Michael again to make it more comprehensive (and exciting). As you can see I don’t even have images in my style guide, so it needs an overhaul sooner rather than later!
Using your style guide to build your brand
And that’s as much as you need to define your brand. The trick now is to use your style guide to create all of your communication to the world - use your logo, fonts, keywords and phrases to write and communicate with the outside world in a way that consistently portrays who and what you are.
Nike started with a $35 swoosh
Logos on their own have very little value. For example, in 1971, Phil Knight paid Carolyn Davidson $35 to create the Nike "Swoosh" logo. Today, global brand consultancy Interbrand ranks Nike No. 25 on its list of the top 100 most valuable brands in the world, with an estimated value of more than $13 billion.
So as simple as you start now, what could your brand be worth in 40 years?
Need more help?
Here are some additional resources to help you develop your brand (fair warning: these can lead down rabbit holes so be careful where you spend your time):
Fonts: check out Google’s amazing collection of free fonts.
Colours: Adobe Color CC
If you really want to learn more about design, the Non-designer’s Design Book is a little outdated but still great value.
A final word
I’m not a branding expert but like many other small business owners I’ve had to learn how to do it myself. Through my career I’ve had the good fortune of working with some of the world’s best creatives and their advice, work and guidance has helped me get half-way decent with design.
I’m still not an expert but what I have on my website and other material is good enough for now - for my purposes. You can get there too - I hope this guide will help you along the way.
If there’s nothing else you take away from this, take this:
Branding is all about consistency. Be consistent in what you sound like and how you look.
Good luck with your branding!