I think many small business owners feel the same about branding and marketing agencies as I do when I walk into a sports shop. The other day I took my old bicycle to a cycle shop to ask how much it will cost to refurbish the bike and make it look vintage cool. The experience was almost as intimidating as buying my first set of golf clubs!
Thinking about it now, the reason why shopping for anything sports related is so intimidating, is because I never have a big budget “to play with”. I don’t rock up with a suitcase crammed with cash and asking for a small favour. I rock up with virtually no money, asking for a set of golf clubs, or a vintage bike. The result is usually the same – the resident sales expert looks at me bewildered, almost disappointing in my existence, shakes his head, and starts to ramble off how adding a few thousand more would get me into the real league.
Here is a short version of how my cycle shop conversation went:
Bernard: Good morning mr. super pro cycle master salesman with shaven legs, the ambition of the Tour de France and a pulse rate of one-a-minute.
Pro Tour Salesman:Morning to you mr. overweight customer with hairy legs and no sign that your wallet is about to burst from your back pocket.
Bernard: Mister salesman, I’d love to make this very old, rusted bicycle look like those cool, retro ones you see in overseas magazines and in Cape Town.
Pro Tour Salesman:(frowning deeply with severe concern all over his face) Ooooh, that’s going to cost you money and take a long time to do…
Bottom-line? I leave the cycle shop thinking it will require a team of NASA engineers and a federal budget to get my bike refurbished.
From the work I have done with small business owners I see a similar thing happen: They avoid seeking professional advice on their corporate brand because the sheer experience of contacting a professional brand agency is too intimidating – even humiliating.
Take for example the owner of the mid sized property management company that I spoke to last week. He recently decided to re-brand his business because it outgrew its old name which closely associated the company with rentals only. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:
Bernard: Mr property guy, why are you changing your company name?
Property guy: Our business have outgrown its name. We don’t just do rentals anymore.
Bernard: Wow! That’s great. I really like your new name – how did you go about choosing it?
Property guy: Thanks. It is a combination of my name and my dad’s name who started the business in the 1970’s.
Bernard: Wow, you’ve been in business a long time! Tell me, how did you decide on this new logo?
Property guy: I told my secretary to spend the weekend to see what she can come up with. She did this logo for us.
Bernard (realising the logo looks cheap & nasty):  Why did you not get a professional to do the logo design for you?
Property guy: I phoned someone – they wanted to charge me R30,000.
The result: another small business trying to stay afloat in the vast competitive ocean with a rubber dingy of a brand.
You see, this is not an indictment on the owner of this business – he is a no nonsense, salt of the earth and hard working  entrepreneur. In fact, he should be commended just for phoning a professional brand agency – a massive jump for someone use to phoning painters and plumbers.
I believe this is actually an indictment on the brand & marketing services industry – an industry which, in many ways, have slowly prostituted itself to big clients, big brands and big budgets. An industry that often tries so hard to look “cool” that it has forgotten how to relate to the nuts and bolts business owner needing a new logo.
Over the last few months I have been struck by what I view as the increasing “corporatization” of brand agencies who feel obliged to become bigger in order to survive. Is the small design shop slowly disappearing?
My view is that no business should be too small to receive good brand and marketing advice.
It is with this in mind that I recently told the owner of a mid sized company who regularly receives high powered corporate clients from places such as Europe and the US, to buy a new couch for his reception area. The couch he had was many years old, smudgy and did the job of providing lumber support for visitors.However, it detracted badly from the desired business image of professionalism, attention to detail and quality.
On a recent return visit I noticed he actually did replace the couch with a new one from the local Mr Price Home store, costing him no more than R4,000.
In conclusion, if you run a small business, and you have a little reception area for your hard earned potential customers, make sure you provide them with a clean, comfy chair to sit on whilst taking in your company vibe. It may just make the difference between being seen as just another small business, ready to be bullied into a price discount, and a real business that must be treated as a long term partner.