What Is A Brand And Why It Matters For Your Small Business?

10 min read

What is a brand? If you google it, you'll find dozens of definitions and explanations. But, let's face it, you, as a small local business owner, won't google it because you're not a brand, and why should you waste time on this fancy marketing fluff. 

We hear you. This term has had a very bumpy ride, and only the lazy aren't talking about employer branding, personal branding, brand loyalty, and what have you. It creates fatigue, so we stop paying attention to what it means and dismiss it as the irritating white noise of the marketing bubble. 

Which is a shame. The poor word didn't do anything wrong, and behind it, there is an immensely important concept that can make or break your business. So, let's try to find a way to talk about what lies behind the word 'brand' in a way that is relatable to you and straightforward.

What is a Brand?

Everybody has an opinion on that. We're not an exception. We'd say that a brand is the totality of shared meanings about a business (or a product, or service) that is consistently chosen (or rejected) by a group of people in a specific cultural and temporal context. In a nutshell, it's all about identity, representation, and the creation of shared meanings. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s leave the cultural and temporal context for now and talk today about when a business becomes a brand and how these “shared meanings” come into play.

So, when does a business become a brand?

Let's take Jim, for example. He owns and runs a small, local business: a shoe shop called "Jim's Shoe Shop". He does not specialise in any particular kind of shoes, but sells a bit of everything to… he doesn't really care to whom: anyone is a potential customer, right? Jim doesn't have a website (what for?); maybe he is on Instagram, where he sporadically posts photos of new arrivals and offers. Occasionally, we find him complaining about the pandemic, Amazon, and this Internet taking his business away.

If we tried to clumsily dissect what his business consists of, that would include among other things:

  • Jim and his employees
  • Backend office and everything that involves the side of running the business
  • Products (that he doesn't produce, just resells)
  • Services (customer service, special viewings, etc.)
  • The physical side: the shop itself, interior, location, parking, displays, lighting, etc. 
  • Jim's marketing/promotional efforts (he puts an ad in the local paper, he does something on social media from time to time; he participates in fairs)
  • The visual side: the logo (even if he isn't aware that he has one), the colours that he uses in his marketing materials (the random ones he likes) and in the shop itself; the typography (typefaces he uses for his written communications, signage, etc.); the photography. In a nutshell, all things visual communication.

So, is Jim's business a brand? And if yes, what exactly out of the above-mentioned constitutes this brand? Jim doesn't have a brand identity, not even a website… He is not a big, renowned business. How can "Jim's Shoe Shop" even be a brand? 

Jim's business is a brand because there are people who come in contact with and interact with his business. They have an opinion on it; they feel and think a certain way about it; they have an experience of either buying something there or simply browsing, or they've just peeked into the window while passing it by and thought something of it (or forgot all about it). 

People associate things with "Jim's Shoe Shop"; it means something to them. They've come across it and formed an opinion, which will either be cemented or destroyed by Jim's efforts or the lack thereof. 

For example, Jane is a regular customer of Jim's. She loves the familiarity of the place and the fact that Jim knows exactly what she likes. Every time she drops by, they have a nice little chat and maybe, if the shop's not too busy (which it rarely is), they'll have a coffee and exchange gardening tips. 

To Jane, it's not just a shoe shop—she can go online and buy whatever shoes she'd like (and find a better deal) without even as much as getting off the couch. So, why bother getting ready, driving a couple of kilometres into the town, and hassling with parking to go to Jim's? It takes time, money, and inconvenience.

Because there is a connection, a strong emotional connection between Jane and Jim's business. To her, it's not about the shoes, it's about the experience, the feeling of comfort and familiarity. To her, it's not a business, it's more of a friend, who understands, who listens, who puts a smile on her face and makes her feel warm and welcome. And this is what Jim's brand is to her; that's the meaning she puts into it. Amazon and other huge online retailers and outlets can never be that to her. They have different purposes and solve different problems, but they can never substitute this human, personal experience.

"Jim's Shoe Shop" is a brand, yet unattended, and in disarray. It's a feast of wilderness and accidents because Jim does not intentionally contribute to the creation of these "shared meanings", he leaves it for the others to take care of and figure out. He is not fully conscious of the value that he creates for Jane and for the others like her: he doesn't communicate that to his potential customers (he doesn't even know who they are, but that is a topic we'll tackle another day).

Brand as a totality of shared meanings

So, how do you contribute to the creation of these shared meanings? Can you force people to perceive your business in a certain way to create the brand you want?

First, forcing anybody into anything is not an option, that's a given. The same goes for manipulation and other related black magic practices that will only work for so long until people catch up with your lies and misrepresentation and your whole business comes crashing down. 

Second, it's a bit of a misconception to say 'create a brand' in the sense of 'build something out of nothing'; to bring into existence something that has not existed before. 

A brand is created in the sense of uncovering, unconcealing what is already there. Structuring it, making sense of it, bringing in clarity, focus, and consistency in all the ways the brand (business) communicates and represents itself. 

So, for Jim to become aware that his business is a brand, is not to go the whole 9 marketing yards to “overhaul” the look of his business and get a fancy website. Neither a neatly designed logo, a top-notch website, nor an Instagram campaign will solve the main problem: the lack of clarity and direction.

The main issue is that Jim is doing something for the sake of doing something. Everyone is on Instagram, so I should probably be there, too. Do I need a website? What for? What's the point of it if I would rather not compete with Amazon and co? Do I need flyers? Do I need to paint the walls pink? What gives?

No plan, no rhyme or reason. As the result, no one really cares about what Jim does because they don't see beyond "He sells shoes. What kind of shoes? Don't know. So, just another shoe shop? Yeah, I guess." Who has the time or wish to sit around and try to piece together what makes "Jim's Shoe Shop" different; what makes it special; what value it creates for them? Jane knows, but other people like her don't. And if Jim doesn't do anything about it, he will miss out on his ideal customers. They, in return, will miss out on finding a local business that they would love to support and advocate for, and, more importantly, that will make their life at least a bit better.

Unconceal it and dig deep

If you're anything like Jim, like when you're lost in the woods, you don't wander around. You stay put; otherwise, you'll get even more lost. You pause and stop doing something for the sake of doing something. It's a waste of time and money. No shiny website will help you if you don't know who you are, what you want to communicate to the world, who is your offering for, and how you wish to be perceived by the people who matter.

To start figuring out what kind of brand you are, what is your identity, and how it should be communicated and represented, you can start by asking yourself these questions:

1. Why am I in this business in the first place? How did it start? Why?

Was it a childhood dream? A passion? A hobby that grew into something more? Even if you can't find a reason apart from money and being a boss, there must be a reason you chose this particular industry and this particular kind of business. Dig into why.

If you dig deep enough, you'll uncover your core purpose—the reason your business exists. This reason and this purpose are the unifying force that pulls together all aspects of your business and brand like gravity. 

If your core purpose as a hairdresser is to help busy, overworked women to have an escape for some much-needed me-time, you won't play alternative rock in your salon, nor paint the walls in neon graffitis.

The same goes for your website, you'll want to make it easy for that woman to schedule an appointment because you would rather not add stress to her already stressful day. You'll want her to feel a sense of calm and peace when she browses the website, and not have some fancy spinning and whirling elements and eye-popping colours making her head hurt. You'll offer her a relaxing tea, not a Red Bull. The list goes on: there's a meaning you want to offer her, saying this is your safe space, where you can relax, not be a mother, a wife, an employee,—you are just you and everything will be OK. And if you consistently communicate that across everything you do and how you do it, she'll connect with you, "This is for me, that's what I need". 

2. What long-term goals do you want your business to achieve? What kind of impact should it have on the world around?

If there were one thing in the world or society that your business could change, what would it be? Maybe you run a small medical software company and your Holy Grail goal is to eradicate unusable industry software and start a change in the way the medical software is designed: you want to put the user first and make it easy and enjoyable for them to do their daily tasks. Or maybe you are a carpenter and your ultimate goal is to help people take a step back from the fast-paced throwaway consumerism by creating for them lasting, sustainable furniture that might become a cherished piece for the generations to come. 

Whatever it is and however ambitious or seemingly insignificant your goal is, you must have one, otherwise, what's it all for? To pay the bills? You could do that with less stress and hassle by getting some corporate gig, yet you chose not to do that.

Your ultimate goal is inherently connected to the previous question. It gives you clarity of direction and perspective to make better decisions.

3. What problems does your business solve?

It's tempting to say the obvious: I'm just selling things, or I do these and these services. Yes, you do. But that's not why people come to you. They come to you because they have a problem, a need, a pain, a desire, a lack of something, and you can give them that something. 

Going to a hairdresser is not about cutting or dying hair. It's about self-esteem, self-love, or even therapy: you come, you sit in the chair for half an hour and vent or just enjoy the 30 minutes of peace and silence in your hectic life, devoured by children, work and chores. And you look fabulous and feel like you can conquer the world when you leave. That's what you sell, not haircuts or hair extensions.

Another example is a tea shop. What problem can tea solve? Sometimes it is just tea, sometimes it's about that highlight of your week, when you brew a cup of your favourite tea, bury yourself under a cosy blanket with a murder mystery, dozing on and off. Bliss, that's what it's about. And that's what you're selling, not just tea.

If you can figure out what kind of problems beyond the surface you solve, what pain you relieve, what desire you quench and communicate that to your (potential) customers, you won't be just another shoe shop owner selling shoes. You'll be their go-to person/business for that particular problem/desire. You'll be the brand they understand, love and support. 


No matter how small or unknown your business is, you are a brand because there are people who interact with you. There are people to whom you mean something, whether in a negative or a positive sense. 

While you cannot control what people make of your business, you can help them understand what it's about, what value it brings and what values it stands for, and why they should care and trust you. And how you do that is as impactful as what you do and say. 

You can't force people to perceive your brand in a certain way, yet you can offer them your meaning, be honest, genuine, and yourself about it—and they just might relate to it, accept, and share it. This is where the true magic happens: when what you put out in the world ripples through the minds and hearts of the people, and they carry it forward. And the best part? You are not bending backwards pretending to be something you're not or desperately trying to become something you're supposed to be. Wouldn't that be something?

Small Business Struggles
Branding Terms
The Big Why