Having built my career in brand marketing, I’m often asked about the art and science of effective branding by friends who are launching small businesses and nonprofits – and whether branding is about building awareness, changing perceptions, improving attitudes, promoting purchase and loyalty, and other questions. To borrow a rapid-fire reply often given by pundits and comedians, my answer is “Yes.” It’s about all of those factors that speak to the tangible and intangible features and benefits of a particular brand – whether the brand is a product, service, for-profit or nonprofit entity, or Brand You.
Whenever I attend good networking meetings for professional women in New York City, I want to brand the city as “The Big Cocoon” rather than The Big Apple, its more customary brand. Regardless of how many women’s networking groups there are throughout this city, spanning diverse broad and deep interests, the best ones are like cocoons where there are enthusiastic huddles, breakout sessions, brainstorms, a lot of talking over one another, a lot of exchange of insights, ideas, frustrations and opportunities as women are planning their next big moves, which often involve starting their own businesses.
In the current economic climate, thousands of people of all ages, and not just women, are starting their own businesses. Some stride confidently into setting up a business that they’ve been thinking about for a while. Others are taking on freelance assignments while they continue to network and interview for their next full-time position.
For both of these paths, you need a plan. In this age of pervasive instantaneous social media, you also need a memorable brand.
Here are eight essential factors to consider – from a personal as well as professional perspective if you’re planning and branding a small business.
- Deliberate and write down your dreams. Include your desires, reasons, aims and financial goals for starting your own business, and your time frame. Do they include the desire to be your own boss, control your own time, be acquired by another firm, attract investors, or work at home while you’re raising children? Do you just want to earn money as a freelancer or consultant in the short run, especially if you’re not sure what you want to do next? Those motivations will affect your personal and professional life.
- Write a brief “situation analysis”of your personal and professional deal. Outline your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The most successful business people leverage their strengths and passions so they maximize opportunities to enjoy their work as well as earn money. Of the many good qualities and skills you possess, prioritize the ones that you enjoy, as they are the ones that help you create, build and drive your business. Do the same with your internal weaknesses and external threats, as they could hinder your business.
- Envision your business. Start from the perspective of how you’ll remember it when you’re in your 80s or 90s. Home in on your values, ethics, ideals and other motivations that go beyond your basic and current needs, so you also take into account your aspirations for achievement, recognition, altruism, prestige, status, power and influence. Know which needs and aspirations motivate you at your core, because they will affect you in the long run.
- Identify resources to make your visions and goals a reality. Most startups fail because they lack adequate resources. Even if you’re freelancing temporarily, you’ll need some cash reserves, a reputable accountant, industry peers and others you can rely on for brainstorming, marketing advice, referrals and moral support. If you’re going to be writing and reviewing consulting contracts and nondisclosure agreements, you’ll also want legal counsel.
- Brand yourself – and your business. This requires strategic know-how, courage, creative flair, commitment and persistence. To get you started:
- Create a compelling proposition for your product or service. Define a problem, solution and call to action. Your local chamber of commerce has information about strategy consultants, accountants, attorneys and marketing agencies that could help you, many of whom volunteer their services to small businesses.
- Become recognized and respected as an expert, i.e., as a brand. To do this, write, give speeches, do presentations and other promotion to build awareness, credibility, trial and preference among your target customers. A website’s a must, but so are a LinkedIn profile, Facebook business page, Twitter posts, newsletter, monthly emails, even a blog or YouTube videos. Keep references, work samples and other evidence of your expertise and experience current and ready to send to those who can recommend, refer or purchase your products or services. Once you gain recognition and respect, your reputation as an skilled technician, specialist, or expert will increase, as will your assignments, preference and repeat business.
- Seek out others who have similar interests, experience and expertise to yours. Universities, professional organizations, trade associations, nonprofits, networking groups and other communities, online and offline, are a haven for people who already are experts, want to become experts, or want to align with, learn from and maximize their expertise.
In chapters 3, 4, 5, 8 and 12 of my book, Get DARE From Here!, I focus a lot of attention on branding and planning for personal and professional growth, specifically in: Design (chap. 3), Aims (chap. 4), Access & Approach (chap. 5), Rally (chap. 8) and Exchange (chap. 12). All of these are key levers for women over 40 who want to take charge of the rest of their lives. Inherent in these chapters is the critical message that planning the rest of your life is like planning a business. If you’re financially self-supporting or the main financial support for others in your household, you are a business.
Planning and branding a small business used to be for only the most driven and committed self-starters. Today, everyone needs to think of themselves as a small business – whether inside or outside a corporation. If you decide to go out on your own, it’s important to know and respect your core motivations, focus on your strengths, envision the long haul and, by all means, engage your own “Big Cocoon” of people who will support and champion you. Then, dare to get out there and promote yourself to those who will value your hard work.
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Liz DiMarco Weinmann is founder and CEO of the DARE-Force Corp. (www.thedareforce.com), an educational resources company whose mission is to inspire all women over 40 who want to pursue, develop and lead new and fulfilling ventures. She also runs Weinmann & Associates, a strategic consulting firm serving small businesses and nonprofits. Weinmann earned her MBA in finance and leadership from New York University. She is the author of the new book, “Get DARE From Here! – 12 Principles and Practices For Women Over 40 To Take Stock, Take Action and Take Charge of the Rest Of Their Lives.”