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When Monika Cywinska and her partners founded The AML Shop in 2016, a top priority was to develop branding that would help the company stand out in a traditionally buttoned-down sector. Their business, which is an anti-money laundering (AML) support and compliance consultancy, would serve banks, credit unions, legal and financial technology firms.

The partners’ goal was to strike a balance between accessibility and professionalism.

“AML can be scary if you’re starting a new company, if you’re a company coming into Canada or you’re in a newly regulated industry,” says Ms. Cywinska, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Toronto-based firm. “What we wanted to do was to come across being very practical, very approachable and focused on keeping it simple.”

The AML Shop team asked key questions at the start of the branding process: How should the firm’s target audience perceive it? How should the branding look when deployed in various formats? How could it be designed to scale as the company grows?

Open this photo in gallery:

Logo of The AML Shop, as seen on its website.

The result was a stylized typeface logo anchored by an orange period and paired with a simple tagline – “AML experts at your service” – using orange, black, white and charcoal grey.

“We wanted to be able to go to a trade show and have a sign with some colour, or to change it when that might not be appropriate, like on a report,” Ms. Cywinska recalls. "We do some expert witness work for law firms, so we have to put our logo on [legal] reports.

"We couldn’t go overboard with something that was too fun or crazy. It needed to be professional and clean.”

Branding is key for any business, but it’s particularly important for small and medium-sized organizations that need to stand out from the competition, even if they rarely have the cash to hire a creative agency.

Open this photo in gallery:

Monika Cywinska, co-founder and chief operating officer of the Toronto-based firm The AML Shop.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

What makes the task even more complicated is knowing where to start. Many entrepreneurs simply create a logo and deploy it across everything from social media to business cards, and creating a coherent plan with guidelines for usage often takes a back seat. This can lead to consistency issues and confusion in the marketplace. It could also require a redesign in midstream.

Great branding is holistic, says Ryan Isojima, creator of The AML Shop’s branding and co-founder and creative director of the Toronto-based design firm Evolver and Echo Inc. In other words, it should encapsulate a company’s value propositions and reflect its aspirations.

“There is a cloudiness in the thinking about a logo and branding being two separate things,” Mr. Isojima says. “For me as a designer, they go hand in hand. It’s all one process.”

Branding, he explains, is every design element that represents your business, from fonts and colour palettes to logos and website copy. The key to doing it right is to allow business considerations to drive the creative process from the start.

“I think making a business plan, and understanding who you are or want to be as a business, will definitely play into how your branding should look,” he notes.

Of course, some entrepreneurs will eschew the expertise of designers such as Mr. Isojima in favour of downloading an inexpensive logo from a graphic design website – of which there are now many – for a few hundred dollars or less.

Joanne Lefebvre, president of the creative design firm Paprika Communications Inc. in Montreal, says there is a "huge” difference between working with an agency and simply selecting a logo online.

Any graphic design firm will have a methodology in place to understand the client’s business and then develop several rounds of concepts over weeks or months to produce a final brand identity that best positions the company in its marketplace, she says. “When you work with a firm, you’re only being presented concepts that professional designers feel would make an impact for your company.”

Kim Pickett, the principal and creative director of Kimbo Design Inc. in Vancouver, is even more blunt in her assessment of ready-made logos: “Would you go cheap and hire a lawyer or doctor on an online platform?”

If budgets are tight, freelance designers can be a more cost-effective option, Ms. Pickett says. Brand-identity design fees typically cost $25,000 or more when working with an agency but are usually around $10,000 or less when hiring a freelancer.

Whatever way a company goes, she offers this advice: Always think of your customers first.

“When [clients] look at your logo in the marketplace, they should know what you’re about and what you do just by looking at your brand and tagline. Clients sometimes make the mistake of choosing a logo they like and not thinking about their target audience and what would resonate with them.”

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