• Brian Fleming

Working with a strategic branding agency

Updated: Oct 16, 2018



In choosing an agency, you’ll want to look for one that specializes in working with small businesses. But what exactly does it mean to specialize in branding and marketing for small businesses? How is branding and marketing for small businesses different than doing the same thing for large corporations?


While effective branding and marketing for a small business follows the same basic principles as for a big corporation, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. There are huge differences in commitment, cost, strategy and communication between huge, international mega-marketers and your small business.


Commitment


By commitment I mean the agency’s commitment to you and your business. Agencies that specialize in small businesses are very likely to be very passionate about what they do and about working with you hands-on. They enjoy what they do and love having you as a client. They want to help you, not just make a buck, and will go that extra mile to truly understand your business. In this way, they can build the optimal brand strategy for your business and market it accordingly.


At least that’s the ideal. Not every agency specializing in strategic branding for small businesses meets these criteria. There are plenty of small agencies whose mission is to make it big rather than to help other small businesses and who view your business simply as a stepping stone or extra income stream on their way to landing the big whale of a client. Avoid these types of agencies like the plague.


Like a fair-weather friend, these are the ones that don’t take the time to understand your business, clarify your goals or offer critical insight, but instead present you with cookie-cutter solutions that you could’ve snagged from the web yourself.


Or else they’re the ones who’re all over you trying to get your business, but once they’ve landed it, start ghosting you when you actually come to them with in-depth problems to solve. That is, until they’re afraid they’ll lose your business and they suddenly get back to you with some irrelevant solution that makes you wonder if they somehow got you mixed up with another client.


I’ve personally dealt with both types of agencies and many more that leave you feeling like you’ve wasted your time, money and effort.


The other thing to keep in mind is that not every small business branding or marketing agency is strategically minded. In fact, many branding agencies will create a visual ID and nice-looking website for you without any strategy to back it up. And a lot of marketing agencies will offer you a set of channels they can target, but again without any strategy behind it. The strategy behind your branding and marketing is its most important part.


Cost


The most obvious difference between marketing a big business vs. a small one is the cost. Big businesses have millions of dollars to spend on building and marketing their brand.


On the other hand, for a small business, spending money on branding and marketing means taking money from some other essential element of your business, which is exactly why most small businesses don’t invest in branding and marketing. But not investing in branding and marketing is like shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon.


One of the first things to look for is the agency’s fees. Only you can decide if the fees are within your budget and represent value to you. But do remember that when the price is low, you generally get what you pay for in terms of quality of output. (Oddly, though, the same doesn’t hold true at the other end of the price scale. Just because the fees are high, doesn’t mean you’ll get quality work or service.)

A good strategic agency specializing in small businesses will have priced its services specifically to suit small business budgets, yet not so low as to sacrifice the quality of its services. What this means is that the price may not be as low as you wish, but it will be as low as that agency can go without turning out inferior work.


Personally, I’ve always liked service providers who offer clear and transparent fees, rather waiting to suss out how much money you have before giving you a price. The argument for the second approach is that it’s impossible to give an estimate without knowing the details of a project. And this is true to a certain extent.


But all too often this approach is used to sell a service to potential customers even if it’s out of their budget (see my comment above about agencies that are only out to make a buck.


This approach also disguises the fact that the price is variable, based on the agency’s current cash-flow, the scope of the project you’re coming to them with and how interesting the project or your business is to them. These factors can sometimes even lead to an agency offering a “we don’t need you” price, i.e. a price so high that they’ll only take you on if you accept the needlessly high price. Not surprisingly, this kind of pricing model can often lead to less than satisfactory work.


On the other hand, an agency that’s open and straight-forward about its prices knows its value and the value of its services. You know you’re getting a fair shake, and if you can’t quite afford their fees, rather than negotiating the price, an agency lime that will often (though not always) try to find a way to make your budget work for you. In this way, you can judge whether an agency is right for you based on what they can offer for your budget.


Strategy


The key to branding and marketing a small business cost-effectively is executing your brand in a way that makes the most of your budget. A good strategic agency aimed at small businesses will do this by:


Branding and marketing your business with a single, targeted purpose. Big businesses spend millions of dollars to get as many people in the world to know and recognize their brand. As a small business, on the other hand, you need to establish a distinct brand just like the big boys do, while at the same time inspiring your consumers to action right now. This means all your marketing needs to serve a specific purpose and follow a set plan.


Setting realistic expectations and branding and marketing your business in line with those expectations. Big businesses have entire departments in place to create their branding and marketing strategies. As a small business, on the other hand, you’re likely overwhelmed just by the thought of marketing your business, let alone creating a plan to do it. But a plan is essential. Which is it’s important to use a cost- and time-saving system to create realistic expectations and tailor-made strategies for achieving them.


Taking advantage of highly targeted, cost-effective channels and approaches. While large companies often have years of good branding on their side and are able to saturate media channels with enough ad volume to turn their company into a household name, as a small business you need to set yourself apart from your competition by targeting the vast selection of sales leads available to smaller players.


Using your small size to your advantage. For big companies, changing the momentum and direction of a campaign to approach a broad audience from a different angle costs a tremendous amount of money. Smaller businesses, on the other hand, have the advantage of being lighter and more agile when it comes to changing market dynamics. You need to take advantage of the nimble nature of small businesses to quickly test out multiple, cost-effective strategies to find the one that will give you the best chance of a good return on your marketing investment.


Branding and marketing your business to a precisely specified target audience. Big businesses tend to build broad, sweeping messages that cast a wide net across their audience, with little interest targeting smaller, more precise demographics. But as a small business, you’ll want to target specific qualities in customers and think of ways to appeal to them to get a more favorable and frequent response from them.

In other words, you want to turn your small business into a big fish – even the biggest fish – in a small pond, rather than the other way around.


Communication


Big companies are, well… big. They have a marketing vice-president sitting on top of advertising managers, sales directors, marketing directors, research managers, customer service managers, and so on and so forth. There are endless mazes of bureaucracy, committees and meetings to navigate for any decision to be made. Rather than speaking directly with their customers and understanding them, the way small businesses do, they rely on focus groups and statistical data.


This also holds true for large agencies that need to serve their big clients.


Large agencies, whether their full-service or specialized, are designed to handle both the marketing demands and business processes of large clients, where decisions are put through one meeting after another and can take months to be made. These types of agencies need to charge more because their overhead is so high. They’ve got expensive offices to pay for. Salaries. Laptops. Work stations. And so on.


Then there’s also the fact that their clients expect them to charge within a certain price range, or else they won’t be taken seriously.


So, it won’t come as a surprise that a big agency isn’t very interested in small clients. Small businesses just don’t have the cash, scope or prestige these agencies are after. As a small business, you’ll quickly find yourself lost in the large agency shuffle as your project gets relegated to the entry level talent with no oversight.


On the other hand, as a small business owner, you or one of your partners is likely in charge of your company’s branding and marketing. This, obviously, can be a strain on your time, and you wouldn’t be the first to feel overwhelmed. But it also means that you’re already in-tune with your consumer base, meaning you’re positioned to know first-hand what your audience wants, fears, loves, hates and aspires to. Indeed, as a small business, you need to retain your close-knit relationships with your customers to survive. You’’ want to work with a small agency that works the same way.


A good small business agency will communicate with you directly – owner to owner – to understand your target audience and create and market a sharply-focused brand that speaks emotionally to your customers in a way that big companies and large agencies can’t do. In this way, decisions get made quickly. Turn around is fast. And communication is one-on-one and personal.

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