Mark Twain said it’s not the size of the dog in the
fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Truer
words can’t be said of the thousands of small- to
medium-size businesses (SMB) and sole proprietors
looking to develop an effective brand identity. Even
nonprofit organizations need to create visibility in
order to get a message across to large audiences …
and do it on relatively small budgets.
Large commercial enterprises have the financial
resources to hire marketers, advertisers, and designers
to develop high profile ad campaigns such as Nike’s
“Just do it” and MasterCard’s “Priceless,” or assemble
a 20-person focus group to debate the merits of
using serifs in the corporate logo. Smaller organizations,
on the other hand, have to take a do-it-yourself
approach—but this doesn’t necessarily translate to
lower quality. In some cases, they might even have an
advantage over large enterprises.
The digital world has put a lot of fight into the
small dog. With a combination of technology, creativity,
and innovative design, small operations can
develop an effective brand identity. They can make a
strong impact and level the playing field using one of
marketing’s greatest equalizers: the internet.
The great existential question
Every business, regardless of size, requires an identity.
Without one, they’re just strangers on the
street trying to hawk their wares. Not only would
they lack credibility, potential clients wouldn’t have
reason to place their trust in them—and even less
reason to hand over their money.
Some businesses go about creating a brand
identity with a catchy logo and/or slogan; others rely
on tradition or established reputations. While these
are important components in developing an identity,
the process goes beyond a simple logo. An effective
identity needs to reflect the objectives of the business
and convey how it helps meet customers’ needs. This
includes a marketing and promotional strategy.
But a lot of small businesses think they either
don’t need an identity or can’t afford one. They’re
wrong in both cases. Problems will arise, however,
if a smaller business tries to base its promotional
strategies on big business standards. Having a tighter
budget isn’t the handicap many think it is—especially
with all the digital tools and media available today.
So rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses, the
focus should shift to a small business model.
The web: Small business’s best friend
SMBs will never be able to keep up with large
corporations when it comes to traditional forms of
marketing such as print, television, radio, and billboards.
Mass media messages are expensive; distribution
is even more costly. Large corporations have
the financial resources to buy ad space in high profi
le media with nationwide or global distribution—a
two-page spread in a magazine or 30 seconds during
the Super Bowl, advertising’s Holy Grail—that
smaller operations won’t be able to afford.
Managed effectively, however, web marketing
does away with the disparity between what large
companies are able to do and what smaller companies
would like to do. Unlike traditional forms of
marketing and promotion, the quality of a digital,
web-based brand identity and marketing strategy
doesn’t have to be limited by the size and budget of
With traditional marketing, more money means
reaching more members of the target audience. But
on the web everything’s equal. The costs of accessing
the medium and distributing the message are the
same. Communicating on the web is like dropping
a leaf onto a moving stream—momentum will carry
Although it’s possible to spend more money for
higher placement in search engines or to advertise a
site on related sites, the gap won’t be as wide as that
between handing out flyers on the street and having a
giant billboard on Times Square.
The web is a great equalizer for small businesses
because bigger budgets don’t automatically mean
better design. Even some of the biggest companies
have fallen prey to this misconception. They try to
buy their way to a good design—pouring money
into a site believing that more money translates to
more quality—only to have the site look like it was
cobbled together by a 5-year-old. But a single highly
creative web designer working at home can design a
site that looks like it’s worth 10 times the cost of initial
development. When it comes to a web identity,
it’s not necessarily the size of the budget; it’s the ability
of the designer.
About pages: I am not a number!
An About page does for a company what the rest of
the site does for its products and services. But let’s
face it: Most About pages sound exactly the same
and are as exciting as a stale rice cake.
Depending on the industry, an SMB’s About
page can be an excellent way to connect with potential
clients in a way that larger companies can’t. They
can use it to give themselves and their business more
personality—showing visitors that the company consists
of real people and not just a faceless corporate
entity whose only attempt at originality is to dole
out clichés like “paradigm” and “thinking outside the
box.” An SMB’s About page can include not only the
professional pedigree of its members, but also some
quirky personal information, giving visitors a more
intimate association with the company.
While an About page can do a lot to further
a small business’s identity, it’s vital to match this
page—and the rest of the site’s content—to the tone
of the business. Those in creative fields like web and
graphics design, writing, and photography can liven
up their sites with offbeat content as long as it’s
imaginative and well written. But those in more serious
fields—where the goal is to instill confidence—
might not be able to get away with this approach.
Viral marketing: Creating a buzz
It sounds like something that broke out of a test
tube and escaped from a biohazard laboratory at the
Centers for Disease Control. But despite the negative
connotations that may arise from its name, viral
marketing can be a valuable, low-cost way of gaining
exposure for a business.
Viral marketing is a type of word-of-mouth
strategy that encourages people to pass along marketing
content to others by taking advantage of preexisting
social and digital infrastructures. The theory
behind this approach is that, like a biological virus,
marketing content can be rapidly spread from user
to user, creating exponential growth. One person will
find an interesting piece of content and send it to 10
colleagues and friends; if each of those 10 people do
the same, and the process continues, the results can
Small businesses benefit from this because it
gives them the potential to reach a global audience—
garnering big returns on a relatively small investment.
But the viral marketing content must be interesting
enough for a user to pass along, and it must be interesting
enough that the recipients will want to receive
it and respond identically in turn.
Viral marketing content comes in many forms,
but the best types are those that offer high entertainment
or functional value. It can be as simple as an
e-mail article or as elaborate as fully functional software.
Most, if not all, of this viral marketing content
is best accompanied by a “Send to a friend” link that
allows users to easily pass it on to others.
Because of the prevalence of spam, text-only
e-mail content has ceased to be an effective viral marketing
agent. But there are other, more creative ways
to get a message across.
Viral videos are short web-based films that attract
visitors’ attention through humorous or offbeat
content. They can be either live action (accessible as
MPEG, Windows Media, RealPlayer, or QuickTime
files) or computer generated (such as Flash).
A popular viral video technique is to spoof
well-known commercials, television shows, or movies
by centering the message on the business’s industry
and target audience. They don’t need big-budget
Hollywood-style production values either. The goal
here is to grab users’ attention through the use of
imagination and creativity.
Offering business-sponsored games—usually based
on Shockwave—is a great way to draw users to a
company’s site. Although these games can be fun for
users, they’re a poor medium to carry a marketing
message beyond simple identification.
Viral marketing games are branded with the
business’s logo either before the game begins or during
gameplay in the background. But most users will
be too busy concentrating on the game to notice any
advertisements. A clever way around this is to work
the type of business into the gameplay itself.
In marketing there’s nothing like a good freebie—
especially when it’s useful. Software developers
employ this method often, offering users free
downloadable “lite” versions of their software.
Downloaders can use the software indefinitely and
forward it to others. They can also purchase a pro
edition with additional, more advanced features.
Zone Labs, an internet
security software maker, and Lavasoft, a provider of anti-spyware solutions, are two
companies that have taken this approach. They both
offer basic versions of their software (Zone Labs with
its ZoneAlarm firewall and Lavasoft with its Ad-
Aware SE Personal spyware remover) that can be used
freely for noncommercial purposes.
Other freebies include physical merchandise
(pens, mouse pads, calendars) and digital giveaways
(e-cards, screensavers, computer wallpaper) branded
with the business’s identity and website.
Stealth marketing: Be vewy, vewy quiet …
One of the more controversial techniques available
to bolster an online identity is with the use of stealth
tactics, a subset of guerilla marketing where the target
audience isn’t aware it’s being marketed to.
Guerilla marketers exploit the relative anonymity
afforded to them on the internet by using
unconventional methods to promote their identity. A
common strategy is to create positive buzz on various
industry-related internet forums and communities
under pseudonyms, so it appears as if those posting
are impartial outsiders.
Here’s how it works: A small business starts or
contributes to an internet discussion group in the
guise of various nonpartisan “personalities” who
seem to have no connection to the business being
discussed. They would extol the service and professionalism
of the business, claiming to be satisfied customers.
In reality, the majority of the contributors to
the discussion thread are actually part of the business.
There are a lot of risks in using this type of marketing,
and more than a few ethical issues. If used,
it must be played out very carefully. Internet users
are great at sniffng out fakers in online forums and
communities. It helps if the people running the “discussion”
are good creative writers or social engineers,
and have the ability to write outside their own voices.
This type of “e-shilling” is considered by many
to be a form of deception and misrepresentation. If
discovered, the damage to a business’s image will far
outweigh any positive buzz created.
Say it like you mean it
With all the digital tools and media available to
small business owners—and the ease with which
they can be used—it might be tempting to go for
the quick-and-dirty solution. But a digital brand
identity can’t be created overnight. It requires all the
planning and thought associated with traditional
forms of branding, promotion, and marketing.
A business’s brand identity should never be
rolled out half-baked. Presenting an amateurish or
incomplete identity is almost as bad as not having
one at all. And constantly recreating an image will
defeat the purpose of brand recognition. Potential
clients need to know whom they’re dealing with. If
it looks as though the company doesn’t know itself,
clients will move on to the next candidate. For all
the fight that the digital world provides to the small
dogs, they still have to have the skills. Otherwise,
they’ll just be chasing their own tails.
Be sure to check out page two for case studies »