It's all about getting noticed. No matter how good your product or service, if no one knows about it, no one will be buying it. So it's worth putting some extra effort into those things that carry the image of your company out into the wider world and say "this is who we are" to potential customers. For many businesses, that means taking a new look at their brand. "You need to focus on those places where most people are going to first encounter your brand -- not in paid ads, but on business cards, your brochures, and your Web site," says Peter DePasquale, whose N.Y.-based ad agency, Arena Partners, works with smaller companies.
Few entrepreneurs have had more success capitalizing on their brand than the two generations of owners of the Black Dog, a tavern on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. In the 20-odd years since the founder's pet first appeared on islanders' T-shirts, the Black Dog has become synonymous with a certain beachy New England affluence. Thanks to the success of that logo, the owners of the Black Dog are transforming the once-humble tavern and bakery into an $11 million retailer.
Serendipity may have played a part in helping the Black Dog achieve some of its fame, but the founders of Sharps Barber & Shop, a nine-person company that makes grooming products for men, aren't taking any chances. Sharps brought on a graphics consultant well before it launched its product line, the better to make sure the brand connected with its young male target. So far, so good: In its first year, Sharps's sales neared $1 million, and the New York company is expecting a significant jump in 2005. Branding isn't just for consumer-products companies, though. Iceberg, a manufacturer of office furniture in Glendale, Ill., got a boost from a new name and logo, as did Quality Couriers, a delivery service based out of White Plains, N.Y.
All of these businesses used clever thinking -- and not too much cash -- to develop a stand-out look designed to appeal to their would-be customers. Then they made sure that image was deployed consistently on everything from press kits to business cards to Web sites, hammering home the image they'd chosen to project.
Each of these companies made its mark without help from expensive advertising or branding agencies. That doesn't mean they had to go it alone, and neither do you. A graphic designer can create a logo, letterhead, business card, and maybe a brochure for as little as $500 to $1,500. If you're really short on cash, you can find even better deals online. An experienced brand consultant, if you decide you need one, will probably bill about $1,000 a day. But before going that route, ask around: If you're lucky, a mentor or board member will have experience in marketing, advertising, or design. That, and a willingness to experiment, may be all you need to get going.
Long before Oliver Sweatman, Larry Paul, and Mark Gilbertson launched Sharps, they knew the right image would be key to its success. The three partners had developed their all-natural lotions and soaps with a specific customer in mind: a hip, style-conscious guy, between the ages of 21 and 35, who cares about his appearance but doesn't consider himself overly fashion-y. Now they had to find a way to get the attention of that famously hard-to-reach audience.
The founders' first task was to come up with a name for the company. They were ahead of the game -- for many entrepreneurs, the first task is to come up with someone with experience in marketing or branding. But Larry Paul had a background in cosmetics marketing. Then they brought a New York graphics consultant, Richard Pandiscio, on board in return for an equity stake in the business.
Sweatman wanted the name of the company to be something "relatively pedestrian, short yet memorable." He didn't want any made-up words or strings of initials, which he thought would be off-putting to his hyperskeptical audience. After a few brainstorming sessions, the team came up with Sharps. Besides the obvious association with shaving, it played on the phrase "look sharp." A drawing of a razor blade quickly became Sharps's logo. For packaging, the founders chose brown, a color rarely used by consumer brands. "It's masculine, warmer and more casual than black," says Sweatman. A no-nonsense motto -- "Prep for guys" -- went on every item.
Sharps still needed that intangible "cool" factor -- some way for their product to jump out at young men. They wanted the artwork on the packaging to be attention-grabbing, and to elicit some sort of reaction in the shopper. "Whether people thought [the pictures] were silly, amusing, or mysterious," says Sweatman, "they would create a personality around the brand." So a picture of a goat adorns the Kid Glove Shave Gel, and an astronaut is featured on a hair gel aptly named Mission: Control Guck in a Puck. The Happy Me All Over Wash gets a picture of a geisha. Sure, the images have no connection with shaving, but with customers asking for "the product with the goat on it," Sweatman knows the tactic is working.
Sharps reinforces its image with targeted promotions. Sweatman spends two or three days a month pitching about 30 editors at men's and style magazines. Sharps also holds "shave parties," where barber-school trained employees give haircuts in old-fashioned barber chairs. They're held in buzz-inducing venues such as the window of Barneys New York and at a New Line Cinema premiere party in Los Angeles. Sharps even inked an agreement with MTV (VIA ) to get its products included in the gift bags given to celebrities at parties. All the effort is paying off: Sharps is found in hipster hangouts such as Fred Segal as well as more mainstream outlets such as Sephora. The company has appeared in more than 40 magazines, including Maxim, InStyle, GQ, and Esquire. Many of those writeups mention that Sharps products are used by celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Justin Timberlake, and Colin Farrell.
Next up: a fragrance line, as Sweatman and his partners bet that hip young men want to smell good, too. And they would know.
Rich Gilbert and Howard Green, two veterans of the office-products industry, already had their Glendale (Ill.) company up and running when they started thinking about branding. In 2000, they had purchased Newell Rubbermaid Inc.'s (NWL ) office-furniture division, but the acquisition didn't include Rubbermaid's brand name. Gilbert, chief executive and chairman, and Green, the chief operating officer, saw opportunity.
First, they needed a name and logo that would help the company's molded plastic furniture and office accessories stand out in their chief sales venue: cluttered office-products catalogs. The pair began brainstorming, first combining their initials, then inventing words by adding "ex" and other suffixes along the lines of FedEx or Memorex. Nothing seemed to fit.
Then Gilbert and Green realized they should try to choose a name that at least hinted at their combined 40 years' experience in the industry. When they hit on Iceberg, it seemed to do just that -- to suggest something more impressive than first appearances might imply. The concept is probably too subtle for customers to grasp right away, but the partners thought the word was direct and memorable enough to work. When some friends and relatives said Iceberg brought to mind the Titanic disaster, Gilbert says the pair "agonized over it for weeks." But their instincts told them Iceberg was a winner.
Then they needed to figure out what their particular iceberg should look like. "We didn't want it to look exactly like a real iceberg, which could be a blob," says Gilbert. They went to Design Design, a small Chicago shop, for help. After several iterations, Gilbert and Green chose a stylized blue and white iceberg that stands out against a black background, and that looks like it's moving forward. The Graphic Shop, also in Chicago, made sure the logo showed up on all of Iceberg's printed materials, from business cards to sales brochures, and of course, in the office products catalogs. They also prepared a handbook explaining how the logo should appear in other places, such as employees' PowerPoint presentations. Total cost: $25,000. Not cheap, but "it wasn't a lot of money compared to what some people spend," Gilbert says.
Devising a name and logo also prompted Gilbert and Green to reexamine how the company was promoting itself. Catalog photos, for instance, showed the furniture in book-strewn conference rooms. But customers bought the furniture for hard-hat settings, such as a foreman's office in a factory. "No lawyer is ever going to purchase plastic furniture," Gilbert says. So Iceberg reshot the photos against cinder-block backgrounds more familiar to their likely customers.
Now, clients greet Iceberg's salespeople with "Here's the Iceman!" Even though the company has introduced new products such as shelving and hand trucks, the iceberg logo is still perfectly appropriate. Sales at the 85-employee company jumped by about half to nearly $25 million in 2004. Last fall, Staples (SPLS ) began selling Iceberg's resin folding tables. As its owners hoped, the logo and image that helped Iceberg become a success with its business customers are proving versatile enough to help launch it again, this time with consumers.
When Tehsin Abbasi and Niels Oeges formed Quality Couriers in 1995, they didn't need a big marketing push right away. They were lucky enough to launch their company with a sizable contract from Oeges' former employer, Qwest Diagnostics. No surprise, then, that they didn't spend a lot of time agonizing over their first logo, an image of an envelope. But as their business grew and the industry they served began to change, Abbasi and Oeges reconsidered.
About five years after they started the company, and as revenues were heading toward $1 million, the regional economy started to change. The medical services companies that made up the bulk of Quality's clients started to consolidate. "There were only three or four players left," says Abbasi.
Abbasi and Oeges knew they needed to move into new markets. They also realized their envelope logo wasn't going to help them do it. The logo didn't even fit the existing business particularly well. Quality didn't deliver very many envelopes -- it made most of its money delivering blood samples or lab specimens, and they were shipped in test tubes or sterile containers. There was no reason to think small manufacturers, a niche Quality wanted to target, would be using envelopes either.
Abbasi, with help from Dobbs Ferry (N.Y.)-based branding and design shop Ditto!, decided the new image should highlight Quality's ability to make deliveries, usually within a few hours, to large areas of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. They designed a simplified compass. Accompanying it are the words: "Rapid reliable service." Not slick, but dead-on.
Just as they had with their first logo, Abbasi and Oeges made large magnets with the image of the compass and the company motto, so Quality's 25 independent drivers could slap them on their own cars while making deliveries. The magnets made it look like Quality had its own fleet, and also advertised the business.
The next step was to retool the company's promotional materials, adding the new logo and testimonials from customers in different industries. Drivers began dropping off the materials with deliveries to encourage recipients to consider using Quality as their courier, too. To support salespeople, Quality made postcards with messages that might help close a deal. Those sent to manufacturers, for example, point out that the cost of downtime exceeds that of having Quality deliver a new machine part. The result: new customers and a more stable business. For Quality, as for many smaller companies, a little effort put into branding can go a long way.
By Gerry Khermouch