When it comes to growing a small business, “Branding” is much like that elusive Great American Novel – people love to talk about writing a book one day, some even learn a little about wthe mechanics of good writing, but no one knows how many untold stories remain lofty goals compared to those that actually make it into print.

Ask a 3-year old boy to recite the alphabet and he may miss a letter here and there — but ask him to pick out Spongebob Squarepants or Dora the Explorer and he’ll get it right every time. Ask a 26-year old man to name four people he voted for in the last election and he probably can’t tell you; ask him to name a social website he uses these days and he’ll probably say Facebook, Twitter or Myspace without a second thought. Ask a 52-year old Business Owner to give you the name of an off-the-shelf Accounting program and s/he will probably say Quickbooks or Peachtree. Whether a consumer is 4 or 84-years old, everyone living in modern civilization is conditioned to live in a branded world. One of the biggest mistakes small businesses make is believing that somehow branding doesn’t apply to them or their products and services. This plays a huge part in why many of them fail.

Throughout my Graphic Design career I’ve worked with many types of businesses ranging in size from a startup Ostrich farm to car dealership chains to Fortune 1000 companies. Along the way I’ve seen how giants can be taken down by mosquitoes, misfits can become moguls, and smart design — along with strategic marketing — can turn water to wine, even on a shoestring budget.

A brand, by definition, is an identifiable entity that makes specific promises of value.

  • Identifiable — can be easily picked out from similar things. Typically this is done with something visual like a symbol (a logo).
  • Entity — something with a separate, distinct existence.
  • Specific Promises — the claims that a product or service makes, such as FedEx with their on-time delivery, Altoids “œcuriously strong” breath mints, etc. These claims are promises to the consumer.

At the start of every client logo design project I stare at a blank sheet — whether it is a piece of paper or a blank drawing board on my screen — then visualize myself in the Arena Scenario: I imagine that I’m one of my client’s typical customers standing in the middle of an arena packed with thousands of people. They’re all from companies that provide the same products and services that my client does. All of them are reaching out to me and calling my name. Who do I go to — and why?

As strange as it may seem, I consider it a sort of 21st century Zen Koan, a question or riddle intended to open mental perceptions to new truths behind the everyday images of reality. It may take years to arrive at a single possible answer because koans don’t have right or wrong answers. With the Arena Scenario, each creative project always determines how I visualize it. For example, if I’m creating a logo design, color scheme, and motif for a client’s company image, I picture myself as standing in the middle of that arena completely deaf and illiterate, solely relying on what images and symbols I see. If I am writing copy for a corporate profile or a website, I am blindfolded and mute, relying on the power of the words I hear. I use this method because it helps me abstract my thinking enough to connect with many of those things that help the client connect with their customer base.

Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Israeli pottery artisans used it. Feudal Japanese swordsmiths used it. Blacksmiths throughout Europe and Colonial America used it. Cattle breeders throughout the Wild West right on up to Henry Ford and the early car manufacturers used it. Why? Because branding creates an emotional bond between products and services to those who sell them. It also creates a feeling of involvement with a sense of higher intangible qualities that surround the brand name and logo. To put it into beter perspective, think of it as that same feeling we usually get when we see familiar (but unknown) faces in our favorite spot and finally get an opportunity to introduce ourselves to each other. Suddenly what was just an overlooked part of the scenery has become a real person, someone worth getting to know better. In this context, the rest is up to us to keep making great impressions each time we meet. That, my friends, is the point most small businesses overlook — familiar, trustworthy relationships — the simple secret behind why branding has worked for thousands of years.

(more to come on this later)

— Max Nomad