In my previous post I explained why building a reputation always used to come before building a brand – and that doing it the other way round is putting the cart before the horse.

However, in today’s instant society, where appearances count for more than anything, this process has been reversed – marketing and design orthodoxy now has it that a start-up business cannot pass GO until it has spent a small fortune on getting its identity nipped and tucked, polished and buffed.

This creates a dilemma for start-ups.  Do they spend a load of money up-front creating an image for a business they hope to grow over the coming months?  Or do just begin trading, get some satisfied clients, create some cash flow, then worry about how they are perceived in the wider marketplace at some later date?

Big from the word go?  Get your image sorted first

If you know you are going to be big the moment you launch then you need to get your branding totally sorted before you start, by professionals.

The launch of KNOWHOW, the Dixons Retail after sales service, is a case in point. They already had a massive customer base and started with 500 technicians on the road, 1,400 experts in their UK Contact Centre,1,000 engineers in their repair lab and 700 installers fitting new household appliances.

Dixons therefore commissioned Loewy, the communications and branding consultancy to deliver “the positioning, service development and brand identity” before the launch – in that situation it was obviously the right thing to do.

Trading exclusively online?  Get your image sorted first.

If your relationship with your customers is entirely online then the image you project is hugely important.  You need to look “reputable” even if you’ve just started trading – you might be working out of the garden shed, and have no clients…but you cannot afford to give that impression with an identity and a website that looks horribly home made.

In this instance you need a website that’s fit for purpose, that looks good, and which people can find.  This will cost you money, but it’s unavoidable.  Having said that, don’t spend money on things that are not strictly necessary – if you spend £5000 on a logo, rather than £500, will customers really notice the difference?

But what if you are not going to start big, or don’t have client relationships that are entirely virtual?

Working face-to-face?  Forget all about branding!

Every year a huge numbers of sole traders, small partnerships and micro businesses are started in the UK – they offer everything from project management to software development, sales training to book keeping, health & safety advice to business mentoring, IT support to sustainability consultancy, telephone answering to financial planning.

Generally they are already experienced in their field and simply decide to go out on their own.  They already have some contacts and clients who will give them work – even if they don’t have a website, or even a business card.

If you are one of these guys you need to concentrate on doing a great job, on every job.  This will then lead to more work from existing clients, and to word-of-mouth referrals.  Build a base of satisfied customers, then leverage their value by writing short customer success stories which you share through your website, social media and face-to-face networking events.

What you don’t need to do at the early stages is spend huge amounts of time and money on navel gazing with consultants who’ll analyse your positioning, draw up detailed marketing plans and define your messaging.  Or on branding specialists who create a range of logo options, produce corporate identity guidelines and prepare tone of voice management protocols.

In this situation you, your work, and your satisfied customers, are all the brand you need.  OK, a business card, very basic website and a simple Linkedin profile would come in handy, but these are not really the things that build your business – people hire you because they’ve met and liked you, or because a mutual contact has recommended you, not because you have a great set of corporate identity guidelines, a clever strapline, a funky logo, a glossy brochure and a website with all the bells and whistles.

Branding is for when you get bigger

Later, when you’ve established a great reputation, and want to spread it further afield to those who don’t know you and your customers personally, you might want to spend more money on marketing and branding consultants.  Till then, save it!