Coca Cola is worth $100 billion, but only a small fraction of that amount represents trucks, factories, offices, and beverages. “Coca Cola’s brand is worth $72 billion,” says branding expert Suzanne Pease, owner of Ampersand Graphics. “Image is worth much more than fixed assets.” This is true for Coke, which has become shorthand for any cola drink, and it is true for small businesses and entrepreneurs as well.

“Anybody can make soda, it’s not that hard,” Pease says. “You can even make it at home now.” The same could be said for any number of products or services. The key to getting them into customers’ hands in nearly every case is branding, and that’s no small thing. Doing a really good job, she says, “takes many years and lots of money.”

Pease speaks on “Branding Your Business” at a meeting of NAWBO on Tuesday, May 21, at 6 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Edison. $35. Register at www.nawbocentraljersey.org.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pease moved with her parents, a welder and a stay-at-home mom-turned- secretary, to a tiny town in Louisiana when she was a teenager. (There were 49 students in her high school graduating class.) She earned a bachelor’s degree from Southwestern Louisiana and a master’s degree from Washington State University. She moved to New Jersey with her husband, Rod, now retired, when he accepted an AT&T posting in the state.

Pease advises owners of start-ups, her favorite clients, to think carefully about just what their business is and who its customers will be before they spend a penny on a logo, a slogan, a sign, or a website. But she herself didn’t follow this advice, not at first. Her business began by accident, and followed along for some time, quite successfully, as the result of a chance meeting in a coffee shop 25 years ago.

“My son’s school was having a building campaign,” she says. She decided to draw a rendering of the new building as a gift for the school and was working on the project in a coffee shop when an architect happened in and asked if she did freelance work. The heretofore stay-at-home mom said “Yes” without hesitation, and her business, Architectural Illustrations, was born on the spot.

At that time, pen and ink drawings showed up much better in newsprint than did color pictures, she explains. Pease enjoyed doing the renderings and her business flourished for eight years or so. Then two things happened: one was straightforward, a situation that no amount of advance thinking could have prevented. Housing starts fell dramatically and builders’ demand for renderings of model homes plummeted.

At the same time, Pease, who can’t say enough about the help that NAWBO has been to her business, was getting more and more work from fellow NAWBO members who wanted logos or full branding campaigns. Her work had evolved beyond architectural renderings. She had outgrown her name.

She had pigeonholed herself. Pigeonholing, she says, is actually a good thing — for the most part. It is, she says, “just another name for branding.” She was known as the go-to person for architectural renderings. She was the talented, reliable, quick turnaround person builders sought out. This is what built her business. She does not regret choosing a name that did not represent the full range of services she supplied, but she presents it as a cautionary tale to other start-ups.

Picture where you will be in 10 years. Pease changed her company’s name to Ampersand as a way of illustrating that her company was architectural drawings and logos and print campaigns and brand consulting and possibly branding and design services that didn’t even exist when she was rebranding herself some 17 years ago. She urges entrepreneurs to also slow down and begin to develop a brand that can expand and change as they do.

An example of a group that tends not to follow this advice, she says, is banks. They may start out in a town or section of a state or region and name themselves after their location. But as they move into other markets, the name may no longer represent their range. Rebranding may be the only choice, but, Pease points out, “it is very expensive.” And the highest cost is rarely in the dollars spent on new logos and signs. “You lose your equity in the brand,” she says.

If rebranding becomes necessary, she says, do it “slowly, over time, or with a tagline that links you to the brand.”

Think twice about branding around price. Start-ups need to decide whether they want to be known as the least expensive option or the best option, says Pease, who has seen that competing on price is awfully hard to do profitably. In her view it is generally better to go for value and service.

“Are you hungry or secure?” she asks. Hungry is not a terrible thing, but she has seen that it can be perceived as desperation — a big turn off. She illustrates the difference by talking about her own business.

“I send a proposal,” she says, “but I don’t call to follow up. If I happen to run into the person, I may ask if they are still considering having the work down.” But that’s it. She finds that people who call every week asking for a decision come off as more desperate than secure in their abilities and in the value that they offer.

She is suspicious of very low prices, too. Currently having some work done in her office, her antenna went up when a contractor submitted a bid that was just one-third of the amount that Home Depot quoted. “I have to wonder if they will do a good job or if they will add more charges later,” she says.

Be known for consistency. Whether a start up chooses to be known as the low price choice or the top quality choice, Pease says that consistency is essential from top to bottom in creating a brand.

Starting out with colors and fonts, the startup should make sure that every type of branding — from letterhead to website — is uniform. Don’t let a web developer tell you that a font similar to that in your print ads is good enough, she says. Insist on uniformity throughout.

Beyond the externals, make sure that customers know what to expect from your work and your products. If you emphasize service, for example, return phone calls right away, every time. Hire pleasant, competent employees and train them well. Settle any disputes immediately. Slowly but surely become known as the plumber or accountant or bakery where every experience will be just as good as the last.

Aspire to be a big brown truck. “You want to get to the point where people don’t even have to read your words,” says Pease. The ultimate goal of branding is to be so closely associated with dog grooming or financial planning or lawn maintenance in the area in which you do business that customers and potential customers just have to get a quick glimpse of your truck or your license plate or your pleasant face in a crowd to bring the positives of your business to the forefront of their consciousness.

“When you see blue and red on a soda machine, you know it’s Pepsi,” Pease gives as an example. “When you see golden arches, you know it’s McDonalds.” And when you see a big brown truck with gold lettering, there is no way that you don’t think “UPS.”

“You want to be that big brown truck,” Pease says. Doing so takes work and cash, but given time and consistency it is within the reach of every small business.

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