Establishing an online brand is essential. A brand, according to the American Marketing Association, is a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” Ranchers put a hot iron on their cattle to affix a unique symbol—their brand. From a marketing perspective, the idea of a brand is much broader. Your brand is your identity and is the underpinning of your business.

Creating Your Online Brand

Recognize That a Brand Means Money

A brand is a type of intellectual property that can have significant value. For 2017, four of the five top global brands are tied inextricably to being online: Google ($109 billion), Apple ($107 billion), ($106 billion), and Microsoft ($76 billion). You may never become a worldwide, online brand worth billions of dollars, but you can certainly create one that represents what your company stands for, an action that can help you grow your business. Because your online brand is so important, take the time to get it right and understand how to use it to your advantage.

Identify Your Brand

Your brand essentially is what it connotes in the mind of the public. For example, when consumers see the Apple symbol, it connotes innovation, imagination, and passion. So it’s up to you to create, maintain, promote, and protect a brand that the public identifies with you.

If branding is a new concept for you, start by learning the basics of branding.

Before you can begin to market your brand as a way to bring in customers and create brand loyalty, you must define exactly what your brand represents. Your brand is your company’s promise to deliver on customers’ expectations. Start by reviewing your company’s mission statement to bring your brand into focus. Coca Cola’s brand is “to refresh the world.” The promise you make to the public through your brand should be authentic (i.e., clearly reflective of your business) and one you can keep. If you don’t yet have a mission statement, think about what your company stands for. Are you being an environmental steward? A protector? An innovator? A helper?

Your brand is also reflective of your company’s personality. While a business isn’t a human being, you can think of the character traits that represent what you stand for. Some examples: dependable, authoritative, whimsical, edgy, luxurious, healthy, caring, sexy, clever, rugged. Your promise and your company’s personality can shine through online.

Adopt a brand strategy. Are you offering a premium product or do you emphasize value, economy, or discounts? What customer problems are you trying to solve? Is it dependability, 24/7 access, quality? Do you have a unique niche that distinguishes you from your competitors? Your brand strategy will differ with the type of customers you sell to, so aiming at business customers is not the same as appealing to consumers.

Owner Versus Company

When a company has a strong leader, it can be challenging to establish where the brand lies…with the owner or the company? Customers often are attracted to a small business because of the owner’s presence. But the long-term viability of a brand depends on establishing it for the company. After all, Steve Jobs was the face of Apple for years, but the Apple brand survived and thrived after his death.

Select the Elements of Your Style

Your brand is conveyed primarily by what the public sees, hears, and experiences. While branding is the accumulation of experiences with your company, first impressions matter. You want to create a great first impression as well as a favorable lasting impression. This is done through images, such as your logo, words, such as your trademark, tagline, and blogs, and experiences, such as how you communicate with your customers.

Create a Logo

If you don’t yet have a logo, create one. Craft a logo that conveys your business’s brand. The logo should be memorable and be representative of your brand. Consider:

  • Fonts. There’s a psychology to fonts. It’s up to you to determine your brand’s personality that you can convey in the font (reputable, creative, straightforward). The font you use should be easy to read.
  • Color. As there’s a psychology in the use of fonts, there’s psychology in the use of color. Keep in mind that 84.7% of consumers cite color as the primary reason they buy a particular product. Designers suggest using one to three primary colors (remember IBM’s logo is blue and Coca Cola’s is red). Of course, do what works best for you. Google uses four colors: red, blue, yellow, and green. Learn what colors mean for marketing and whether your choice is representative of your company’s personality.
  • Imagery. While some logos are purely color and fonts, such as Facebook and Lego, they can include some imagery (think about Nike’s swoosh, Apple’s apple with a bite missing, and Twitter’s bird).

To create a logo, you can do it yourself using online resources, such as FreeLogo or LogoJoy, which are free to use for creating a logo, but there’s a cost for using it. Or you can engage a graphic designer for this task.

Manage the Customer Experience

How you interact with the public is part of your brand. Does your website enable customers to easily find you? Should customers communicate with you through email, text messaging, or a chat feature through your site? How do you handle complaints? How often do you reach out to your customer base? Again, the cumulative effect of these and many more activities should be crafted to reinforce your brand.

Display Your Brand

Your online brand may be displayed through various online channels, including your own website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram. You can use one channel, such as your website or Facebook (the largest social media network on the Internet with more than 2 billion active users), but more likely you’ll use multiple ones to promote your brand.

Branding online isn’t a one-shot action. You need to continually reinforce your brand in the mind of the public. This means promoting your brand through:

  • Your website – Obviously, your website is the ambassador of your brand. On your website, you can post blogs to help establish your company’s expertise in a particular area and engage the public in what your company is doing. Be sure to include links back to your site whenever possible, such as on business cards, invoices, and all promotional materials.
  • Social media channels – Whether you use these channels to sell or merely to engage with customers, your brand should be reinforced with your messaging. This means refraining from posts that may disparage your brand.
  • Employees as emissaries – Your staff members are your number one marketers. They convey your brand by their actions. For example, if your website enables customers to chat with an agent online, employees’ interactions can help or hurt your brand. Educating your staff about your brand is helpful in making them representatives of it.
  • Offline Branding – To enhance your online brand, offline branding can be supportive. For example, branding through giveaways is nothing new; the use of promotional wall calendars began in the 1850s. Using your logo on promotional materials, such as tote bags, mugs and tumblers, pens, and other token items, reinforces your online brand. All these items should link back to your website or other online presence.

You must be consistent with your brand. This means keeping the message the same, whether you display it in a logo, convey it in your advertising, or use it in dealing directly with your customers.  You can’t tell one story in your posts on social media and a different one through your logo. Consistency creates brand recognition and establishes trust.

Protect Your Online Brand

Threats to your online brand can come from many sources. Competitors can steal your ideas, disgruntled customers can post disparaging comments about your company, and even you and employees can do damage to your brand. For example, if you promise that you’ll always be there for a customer but fail to come through when the customer reaches out to you, you’ve overpromised and can’t deliver and word of this can leak onto social media. Or you’ve experienced a problem, such as a data breach, that’s been highly publicized (think Equifax). These actions hurt your online brand. If you do experience a negative incident, you want to use public relations to admit or deny any wrongdoing and to create messaging that can protect your online brand.

One key step in brand protection is a trademark. A trademark is a brand name that receives the protection of the federal government against the unauthorized use by another party (it does not protect against use in other countries unless you obtain trademark protection there). According to the government  “[a] trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.” Look closely at McDonald’s golden arches and you’ll see a small ®, which indicates that it’s a registered trademark. Other marks include ™ and sm. There’s a video from the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office you can view to learn the basics of trademarks and service marks. While you can obtain a trademark yourself, it’s advisable that you use an intellectual property attorney so that you get it right.

A trademark lasts as long as you protect it. If you’ve trademarked a name or product that’s synonymous with your online brand and someone else uses it, you need to take swift action. If you don’t stop others from using your trademark, it can become generic, effectively robbing you of the intellectual property you created. When you see your trademark being used by someone else, you must notify them to stop. For example, send a “cease and desist” letter advising the party that he/she/it is infringing on your trademark. If the party used it innocently (didn’t know it was your property), this heads up may settle the matter. (My trademark Big Ideas for Small Business®, the name of my online newsletter, was used by IBM, but with just two phone calls the person in charge graciously and expeditiously removed IBM’s reference to it.) If the party used it intentionally, you may need to take legal action and should consult an attorney immediately.

Establishing an Online Brand

As a small business, branding can be a do-it-yourself activity. Or you can choose to work with a marketing company that will create an online brand for you, based on the information you provide about your company. Either way, it involves considerable thought on your part, so your brand is really you.