The branding of a small business can play a significant role in its success. It takes elements of marketing, public relations and advertising, and adds in strategy and customer engagement. But it’s also easy to stumble in these efforts. Here’s a look at some mistakes for small business owners to avoid in branding.

Not defining the audience

Any entrepreneur should have a defined audience before launching a small business. It’s a fundamental part of developing a business strategy. It also plays into branding. Knowing the kind of customers you want to target will help to build a branding campaign. As Dan Schwabel writes in a story for American Express’ Open Forum: “You can’t be everything to everyone or you’ll be nothing to no one.”

“Too many entrepreneurs think that they need a mainstream product for the highest potential sales,” he says. “By defining and segmenting your audience, you can appear higher in search engine results and the ‘right people’ will find you and want your product. Think about the age, gender, geography and lifestyle of the people you’re targeting and don’t be afraid to define your market in public.”

Underestimating branding’s power

An effective brand may make the difference in a customer choosing a product over a more generic, even cheaper one. So it’s important for small business owners to place a significant amount of emphasis on branding. Sujan Patel writes about this in a story for, and he uses the successful Zappos brand as an example of a company that is synonymous with online business.

“… When people think of online shoe purchases, they think of Zappos,” Patel says. “You want to have that kind of immediate, definitive relationship with your buyers as well. Defining your brand is also valuable from an SEO perspective. It’s something of an open secret that Google likes to prioritize branded listings in its organic search results, since visitors are more likely to click on them. More clicks tends to equal happier customers, which means that focusing on brand building could lead to unexpected website traffic and awareness benefits.”

Not engaging the customer

Branding should always keep the customer in mind. Small business owners need to create business relationships that will keep customers coming back. In a story for The Washington Post, Anthony Pappas uses TOMS Shoes — known for donating a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair that is sold — as an example.

“TOMS Shoes was hugely successful at building an army of brand advocates early on by transforming the traditionally superficial act of shoe shopping into a charitable act that gave customers a sense of purpose,” he writes. “They created an experience that socially conscious Gen X consumers, and consequently their friends, wanted to be a part of.”

Not developing guidelines

An abundance of design elements can go into branding. As Patel explains, this includes a logo, colors, taglines, fonts and imagery, along with the overall voice and tone. Not all small businesses will need or start out with all of these, but having a detailed, documented plan for any of these elements will help to stay consistent.

“The worst thing you could do is to avoid creating these important documents altogether,” Patel writes. “Without them, your branding efforts will lack the consistency and direction needed for success.”

Being a copycat

Sure, inspiration can be sparked by another company’s branding approach or materials. But don’t just follow the leader. Stand on your own and make your voice heard. As Pappas explains, “Consumers value individuality.”

“… Having a strong point of view will help start-ups elevate their brand,” he writes. “Consider Apple. While its competitors were defining themselves as tech companies, Apple positioned itself as a lifestyle. By building a brand centered around products with a focus on sleek design, simplicity and individuality, they built a following that valued their vision and brand essence.”

Misguided focus

Advertising and public relations are sometimes lumped together as a part of branding efforts. Simply advertising a business’s products may not be enough to get people in the door. That’s where PR becomes an essential element of branding. Schwabel explains that “it’s well worth the investment to get PR support and partner with brands.”

“Public relations is extremely important because what other people say about your brand is more impactful than what you say about yourself,” he writes. “Self-proclamations don’t build brands; the media does. It’s far better to have a profile in Fortune magazine than it is to pay for a full-page advertisement in the magazine. Earned media is much more respected by customers. Small businesses typically don’t have well-known brands, so they require third-party endorsements and partnerships in order to become established. If people haven’t heard of your company, then it’s helpful if you create strategic partnerships with companies that your market is familiar with. By associating your company with a well-known brand, your company becomes more credible and your brand grows.”

Not being vigilant

Once a small business is past the creative process of branding, the work also has to be maintained and protected. That can include keeping an eye out for businesses that may try to swipe ideas and concepts, and basically copy the branding plan.

“… You’ve got to be proactive about monitoring where and how others are using your branded elements on your behalf,” Patel writes in his Entrepreneur piece. “If not, you could have competitors creating a logo that looks similar, a review website using your logo and not linking back or a partner publishing an ad featuring your logo but with the wrong colors. Some of these issues may be minor, but in other situations, it may be necessary to pursue legal action if you feel your branded elements are being infringed upon.”

Missed opportunities with employees

The rise of social media has led to some users becoming flat-out addicted. They check Facebook constantly, looking for comments or “likes,” or go to Twitter for headlines and/or snark. So it’s no shock that a small business owner looking for maximum efficiency might create a no-social-media policy. As Schwabel explains, 40 percent of small businesses have such a policy (according to Webroot), and this is a mistake.

“Small business owners should let their employees use social networking sites as long as they are doing it for the benefit of the company,” he says. “Consumers want to hear your story and connect with your employees to get a better sense of your company. If you enable your employees to become evangelists for your company, then you will be able to scale your marketing and foster stronger relationships with your customers. Your employees should be able to build and develop their own personal brands because then they become more valuable to your company.”