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it starts with one

Once a company decides on a brand, every employee should live and exemplify it, says Axle Davids, founder of Distility Branding in Toronto, from the way the receptionist answers the phone to the way employees respond to an e-mail.Scott Ramsay/The Globe and Mail

A high quality experience isn't always what you get when you're sitting in the back of a cab. But that's what San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. promises those who order a taxi or limo through its mobile application.

"We're focused on providing quality at all price points, whether you're using our black car service or our taxi service," says Andrew Macdonald, general manager of Uber Canada Inc., the Canadian arm of Uber Technologies, which has more than 100 employees in the United States and Canada. "That's what our brand stands for."

This brand promise drives everything Uber does, says Mr. Macdonald – from the look and feel of its app to the rigorous training it provides to the drivers in its network.

"From the very beginning, there was a lot of conversation internally around what the Uber brand looks like – from the ordering process to the receipt, to how drivers dress and how clean the car is," Mr. Macdonald says.

It's a question many small companies should be asking themselves. When it comes to branding, small business leaders often rely on a default strategy that equates to no strategy at all, or is based on misconceptions about what branding really is, experts say.

"The classic misconception is that branding is just about a logo or a name," says Axle Davids, founder of Distility Branding in Toronto. "For many people, brand is also just a fuzzy concept, so they'll say things like, 'I want a brand like Apple,' but they don't really know what that means or how to make that happen."

In other small businesses, branding is seen as something they'll get around to when they hit a few million in sales. But, Mr. Davids points out, every company has a brand, whether or not it was created by design.

Your brand is the "sum total of your reputation as it builds in the customer's mind," Mr. Davids says.

So your choice isn't whether you should brand, says Brad Davis, associate professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and Canada's first research chair in brand communication. "Your choice is do you manage your brand, or do you just drift and let consumers position your brand for you."

With their shoestring budgets, lean work forces and tight schedules, small business owners often think they can't afford to put resources into branding. Many are also worried that, with their companies growing so fast, committing to a brand now could mean a costly round of rebranding in a year or so.

But branding doesn't have to be expensive and drawn out to be effective, experts say. Companies that can't afford outside help can do an adequate job internally by sitting down with their team and asking simple but critical questions, Prof. Davis says: Who are they as a company? Who do they want to be? What kind of personality do they want to convey?

Small businesses are often put off by the idea of spending weeks on a process that typically results in a thick binder of recommendations, says Mr. Davids at Distility.

His company does the opposite. It helps businesses define their brands in one day and, at the end of that day, hands them a single sheet of paper summing up their brand position, promise and personality.

Once they define their brand, small businesses should live it. It's all in the details, says Mr. Davids – from the way the receptionist answers the phone to the way employees respond to an e-mail.

Living the brand has become an important part of doing business at Sim, a Toronto law firm that specializes in intellectual property law and commercial litigation. Comprised of two practice groups with different names – Sim & McBurney and Sim, Lowman, Ashton & McKay LLP – the firm decided last year to go through Distility's one-day workshop.

In addition to adopting a new, single-name moniker, the firm has also tied its brand to the idea of "simplicity," playing off the fact that the first three letters of the word also happen to be the firm's name.

"Rebranding helped us clarify who we wanted to be, and that's a company that helps simplify complex legal principles," says Andrew Jones, a partner at Sim. "It's a concept that we can easily explain to everybody in the firm and that we can all apply in our interactions with our clients or in court."

Many people think building a brand starts with external pieces such as brochures, websites and business cards. But ground zero is inside the company, Mr. Davids says. Everyone in the business should understand what the company's brand is and how it should manifest itself every day.

As companies grow, their brands will need to evolve, Prof. Davis says. But smart firms will define brands that can grow with them, he says. Typically, they are based on a concept or attitude more than a product or service.

As an example, he cites the Virgin brand, which is on everything from airplanes to mobile phones to wines. "It all makes sense because it's based on a brand attitude that's pro-consumer and anti-business," Prof Davis says.

Defining a brand

The process starts with these key questions, says Mr. Davids:

Who is your target audience? Before you say "everybody" – which many businesses do out of fear they might limit themselves – think hard about who your most important customer is. That's your primary audience, Mr. Davids says. Then identify your secondary and tertiary audiences.

What's the competition doing? How are they addressing your target audience? This is easier to determine if you're in a mature market with one or two well-entrenched competitors.

What's your brand position? What sets you apart in your market? If you can't answer this, then you're losing on a critical concept of branding: how to differentiate yourself.

What's your brand promise? Determine what you're passionate about, fuse that with the needs of your target audience and you get your brand promise – the benefit that you promise to deliver.

What's your brand personality? In what style will you deliver your brand promise? Will you be dependable but surprisingly fun? Will you be the hero, with better-than-the-rest deals that don't compromise on quality?

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